By Rebecca Ellis, Reporter
Tim Lytle, 67, remembers exactly where he was in 1966. He was on an aircraft carrier on a bombing mission in North Vietnam. That led him to Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam, where he was on a patrol boat squadron, looking out for Viet Cong transporting “arms and rice” up the river. He was put on a 26-foot long boat with a fiber glass hull. He worked long shifts: 24 hours on, and 24 off. One day on duty, three boats were sunk and some of the crew members died. “I happened to survive,” he recounts, thanks to hollow reeds which he used to breathe through while hiding from the Viet Cong under the water for three days. “I would come to shore at night, stay in the water up to my neck,” he said. The river was full of snakes and leeches. By the time he was rescued, he remembers that he was “pretty sick.” At the hospital, he asked about the other members of the patrol boat squadron. Two survived, three were killed.
After 18 months in combat, Lytle was twice-wounded and received two purple hearts, as well as one bronze star for valor. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam.
It was not until 1980 that Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was recognized as an anxiety disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. And the malady has been long associated with war veterans. As long as there was war, there was PTSD. It was called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” in WWI, “combat neurosis” during WW II. But in the Vietnam era, although PTSD was not yet defined as a disorder, war-related trauma took on another dimension. A lack of clear reasoning behind the war and the resulting anti-war sentiment exacerbated the returning soldier’s trauma and difficulty in readjusting to civilian life.
For Americans who served in the last two wars, William McNulty, retired US Marine and cofounder of Team Rubicon, a military veteran disaster relief NGO, describes a similar circumstance that sets the stage for symptoms of PTSD. Like Vietnam: “Too many of the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are mired in a despair that is rooted in the amorphous nature of these conflicts. A fog has clouded everything about these wars; from their start to their inconclusive endings,” McNulty wrote.
On May 4, 1968, Lytle was discharged from Saigon to SFO. He was flown to San Francisco. When he called home, he found out his mother had suffered a stroke but could not leave ten days earlier. The unfortunate news hit Lytle like a ton of bricks. “I’m a mama’s boy,” he admitted. Lytle tried to apply for an early release but was denied. He was also still battling injuries. When Lytle arrived to the Travis Air Force base, his father told him that his mother’s condition had worsened. Lytle was subsequently flown from San Francisco to his hometown, Pittsburgh. He rushed to make the connecting flight. Lytle didn’t have the change to make another phone call on the way. On May 6, two days after his discharge, Lytle landed in Pittsburgh at 9:00 p.m. When he dad got there, he asked his father if they could go to the hospital, 40 miles from the airport, to visit his mom. But they wouldn’t have made it before hospital visiting hours were over.
The next morning after he arrived, he was able to see his mother in the hospital. He checked in at the front desk. “The nurse had a strange look on her face,” Lytle said. “I told her I just got back from two years in Vietnam. I’ve been travelling for two days to get here.” In the hospital reception area, on his second day back in the US, the news hit hard: “Your mother was hanging on all night long. But she finally let go.” He was told she went into a coma the night he arrived at the Pittsburgh airport, at 9:05 p.m. “After seeing and being in so much suffering all I wanted was to have her put her arms around me and give me the true WELCOME HOME SON. I always wanted and needed but could have get from the one I would love and miss terribly the rest of my life,” Lytle said.
War-related trauma was not something people talked about back then. As throughout most of history, soldiers like Lytle returned home and were just expected to readjust quickly to everyday family life. “Back then there were no services,” he said. “My combat fatigue, or PTSD would have to be put away for a time. I had to help repair my family. They would have to come before me.”
Mundane life was a welcome relief from his previous two years on edge. “Now I had to worry about who’s going to cut the grass,” he said. But all this did not stop him from suffering nightmares, anxiety and edginess upon his return. “It was not an easy transition. Sometimes loud noises would set me off.” Just a few days after returning home, Lytle told his father “Be careful how you wake me up. Don’t shake me.” Overall, Lytle sums up how he dealt with his war trauma. “It’s all up to the person. That was it. You had to grow up fast,” he said.
PTSD can manifest itself up to several months after the most recent trauma, and can last years or even a lifetime. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, every day, 22 veterans take their own lives. As CNN reported last year, that translates to a suicide every 65 minutes. And recent VA statistics confirm APA findings that PTSD lasts. The 2012 report states that a majority of veteran suicides, as well as callers to the VA hotline, are men aged 50 and over, i.e., those who served in the Vietnam era.
Despite efforts by the Obama Administration to hire more staff for the Veterans Crisis Line by 50% and to expand other mental health services to vets, despair brought on by war trauma is hard to remedy. McNulty distinguishes this type of despair from other types of depression, which is often the cause of veteran suicides. “There are many depressed people who are not suicidal — it is despair,” McNulty wrote recently in The Huffington Post.
And worst of all, there are no easy remedies for this kind of despair. Even today, for Tim Lytle, expressing feelings of “love and tenderness” can be hard. And simple relaxation exercises like yoga and meditation aren’t enough to abate his horrific memories of the war. Reflecting back on a casualty he witnessed in Vietnam, he said, “It goes deeper than that. I had pieces of a friend all over me.”
Tim Lytle is an active member of the US Military Order of the Purple Heart, Beirut Memorial Chapter 642, Jacksonville, NC. Rebecca Ellis is a reporter for the Civilian Global News, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.