I recently received two articles from friend and BRAVO! supporter Norma Jaeger about the power of story to help heal mental health issues. As I read the articles I was particularly struck by two notions.
One: The notion that we need to reclaim our stories—and by that I mean that the memories we have, whether they are related to combat or not, are somewhere in our minds—and by reclaiming them, rethinking them, telling them for the first time or relating them again, we allow ourselves to investigate how those stories are relevant to who we have become.
Two: Mention the unmentionable; dig down and remember those instances that are so horrible and so frightening that we want to hide them from ourselves. Quite often our failure to think about, relive, and analyze the unmentionable moments of our lives can lead to mental and/or physical issues that may be harmful.
The interesting thing is that when we try to hide the unmentionables from ourselves, they really don’t hide down there, dormant, obedient, submissive. They try their damnedest to worm their way out of the vault in which we attempt to lock them. They want out, they need to get out. Out, so we can examine them and discover what they really mean vis à vis the person we are now as well as the person we wish to become.
For Khe Sanh veterans it is the season of remembering. The particular time of year rolls around every January and sticks in our minds through the end of spring. For the various men who served during the siege there are ample examples of unmentionables that for years have been crammed and stuffed into the dark and inaccessible places of our memories.
Three days from now, on February 25, most Khe Sanh vets will recall—and in some cases mentally relive—a platoon-sized patrol outside the east end of the combat base. That event has come to be called “The Ghost Patrol.” The Marines of 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1/26 and later 1st Platoon of the same outfit ran into a slaughter house of an ambush sprung by the North Vietnamese. The battle decimated the Marines and left them mired in the chaos of combat. They received little help from the combat base. They saved each other the best they could. Some were forced to save themselves, and in a number of cases, could not comprehend how they even managed to survive.
Now, forty-nine years later, that patrol…that ambush…has gained a sort of fame, so to speak, where the lessons learned by the warriors on both sides are now being taught to the incoming generation of new combatants.
According to Reverend Ray Stubbe’s publication titled PEBBLES IN MY BOOTS, VOLUME 4, the North Vietnamese Army uses the events of February 25th in their training on how to set up ambushes. And as Betty and I found out last spring while at Quantico to receive an award for BRAVO! from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, The Ghost Patrol is also the subject of a field problem during a class on Scouting and Patrolling in The Basic School which all officers in the Marine Corps attend before they are assigned to their initial deployments.
For those of us who endured or witnessed that sorry, sorry event, the magnitude of what happened in The Ghost Patrol is imprinted on our souls. But other people not involved in the death and mayhem, most of them not even alive in 1968, also saw—or see—value in remembering, in a kind of way, the events of that day.
And aside from instructional purposes, is there any other value in recalling what happened on February 25, 1968?
In BRAVO! three Marines, Cal Bright, Steve Wiese and Peter Weiss and one Navy Corpsman, John Cicala, talk about the events of that day. The pain and horror, the knife-edged realization that the memories remain as virulent now as they ever were, are etched all over their remembrance of The Ghost Patrol. Maybe the recollections are a little softened by time, but they are still capable of delivering an overdose of pain.
They reclaimed their stories. In the moments when I interviewed them, they told—they witnessed again—the horrors of that day. I can only imagine the courage it took for them to discuss events that even though decades old, could disrupt the calm demeanor these men normally carry. The moments they described—mentioning the unmentionable, the painful unmentionable, to one degree or another—bore on their faces like a map of the blasted land around Khe Sanh in 1968.
I am not a psychologist and don’t pretend to know much about how moral injury, PTSD and TBI affect us, but I believe that those four men, by revealing to us their memories about The Ghost Patrol, found some relief from the nagging images and the unpleasant reactions they suffer as a result of that infamous battle.
And I think there is something in their examples for each of us to think about. Most combat veterans have experiences like The Ghost Patrol in one form or another, and a lot of the memories of those moments stay chilled in the recesses of their minds. And not just combat vets, but every one of us has things dwelling in our memories that we would rather not think about; things that fester there like splinters jammed deep beneath the skin. Like all things that fester, they can become toxic and dangerous, and as such we need to acknowledge them through talking to a friend, a counselor, writing them down, painting or drawing them in a picture, or reliving them in a documentary film so we can begin to put them in their proper place inside the framework of our lives.
Again, we should reclaim those memories instead of letting them simmer in the back of the mind. Let them become a vital and much less toxic part of who we have become. Retelling our tales, whether to a friend, in a poem, or to a mental health professional, allows us the opportunity to change the foreign into the recognizable. It makes that which remains unspoken into the verbalized and may very well allow us access to a new sense of awareness about our story and its relationship to our wellbeing. And that can’t do anything but help.
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