A Trip to Earth

Mike Muller is on the Advisory Board for Thuy Smith International Outreach. He is a Vietnam veteran, has a Ph.D. in psychology, and has counseled veterans for many years.  He writes novels under the pen name of Michael FitzGordon.

A Trip to Earth

I was asked to write about my return to Vietnam.  I have been there twice, once for a war in 1970 and once for a vacation in 2004.  For many years I had no desire whatsoever to return to Vietnam.  And for many years it would not have been possible to return even if I had wanted to do so.  In war there are good memories and bad, but mostly bad.  Why would I want to return to the desolation and horror of war?  When people suggested such a thing to me my usual response was that if I had some discretionary income I would spend it on a vacation to a tropical island lapped by crystal clear water and a blue horizon.  But over the years my veteran clients returned from their second visits to Vietnam with glowing reports of a feeling of reconciliation and peace.  Most of my clients had not been military advisors like myself, so the overwhelming number of Vietnamese that they knew were the enemy.  They were very surprised by the friendliness and lack of bitterness in the Vietnamese.  There were of course exceptions.  As an advisor I had both friends and enemies who were Vietnamese.  Wondering what might have happened to my friends after the war made thoughts of a return even more painful.  But still, everyone had happy reports of their return.

I suppose too, there was that desire to overcome the sense of dissociation and unreality.  Was that real?  Did all those horrible things really happen?  Did I even see them accurately?  So yes, the thought of returning also reflected a desire to consolidate and refresh a sense of reality in one’s life, and particularly in regard to what may have been one of the most important and impactful times of one’s life.

When a friend asked me to accompany her to Vietnam I reluctantly agreed.  I had some fear that my former enemies might punish me.  They had been shooting at me and trying to kill me during the war.  But I began to relearn some of the Vietnamese language in preparation for the trip, and it was fun.  I believe that it is best to learn some of the language of a country you are visiting.  It maximizes the experience.  It’s fun to try to get into the psyche of the place visited.  When visiting another country, one is not just visiting a place, but a culture and a people.

It was a joy and a heartache to return.  It was a joy because the people are friendly, intelligent, and so very busy.  It was a heartache because of the sorrow of war.  How could we all have been so stupid as to fight and kill each other?

I had a difficult time finding the place where my military compound had been thirty-four years earlier.  When I was there in 1970 Binh Chanh was a rural district.  Enemy agents and guerillas tried to infiltrate through our district to get into Saigon.  By 2004 Saigon had expanded and engulfed this rural district.  It was no longer rural.  It was a suburb, a city district of Ho Chi Minh City.  There were a few rice paddies, but they could not be seen from the road, because the roadsides were tightly packed with shops, cafes, mechanics, and houses.  To the American eye most of them were shacks.  Our taxi driver had a difficult time finding the place.  A new, modern chemical plant had been built over the former Binh Chanh District headquarters.  At first I couldn’t recognize anything.  I wasn’t sure we were in the right place.  I was standing on a concrete drive beside a concrete wall.  I stepped up on a curb so I could peer over the top of the wall.  I saw a depression in the ground that was the same size and shape as the pond that used to be in the middle of our compound, and where the women washed clothes.  Then I realized that where I was standing was the scene of one of the most horrible and sad things I have ever experienced.  In 1970 I had stood beside a very good and likable man.  We were looking down at the body of his daughter lying in the gravel next to our team shack.  The flesh had been completely burned away from her skeleton, and juices were running out.  In 2004 I thought the concrete I was standing on might crack open and let all the sorrow of the earth come spilling out.

Disclaimer: If you are needing more extensive assistance or counseling, we can supply you with a list of available agencies to assist you. No blogs are ever meant to substitute a person seeking help through professional counseling.

Mike Muller:  MACV CORDS operations advisor, Binh Chanh District, 1970.  Briefing officer for DEPCORDS Ambassador Funkhouser to CG & staff, III Corps Vietnam, 1971.  In addition to briefing the staff he briefed visiting officials such as the Secretary of the Army.  He was in Vietnam for one tour.

Vietnam Veterans Day

Mike Muller is on the Advisory Board for Thuy Smith International Outreach. He is a Vietnam veteran, has a Ph.D. in psychology, and has counseled veterans for many years.  He writes novels under the pen name of Michael FitzGordon. 

 

This blog was written by Michael (Vietnam Veteran), with final thoughts at the end by Thuy (Amerasian Daughter of an American Vietnam Veteran).

Vietnam Veterans Day

It sure woulda been nice if they had one of these back in 1970.

Maybe people wouldn’t have called me a baby killer after I just got through risking my life for them.

Maybe not so many people would have said such stupid things that upset me, like only the stupid people didn’t find a way to get out of it.

Maybe that Catholic priest at the university Catholic student center would have thought twice about saying from the pulpit during services that Vietnam veterans were immoral.

Maybe I wouldn’t have had to try so hard to hide the fact that I was a Vietnam veteran.

Maybe I wouldn’t have felt like I better leave my military service off my resume if I wanted to get a job.

Maybe the VFW would have wanted me for a member.

Maybe me and millions of other Vietnam veterans would have wanted to join such organizations in the first place because we weren’t afraid we would be treated badly.

Maybe the WWII veterans who told so many war stories wouldn’t have cut me off and changed the subject when I started to tell my own war stories.

If you had asked me if I wanted a Vietnam Veterans Day, I would have said, “Hell no!  You take your stupid war and its memories and shove it where the sun don’t shine.”

We have a Pearl Harbor Day, don’t we?  Why not have another day that will live in infamy?

If you’re tired of all the celebratory days, you could ease out one of the others, something like “Chocolate Chip Cookie Day,” to make room for a Vietnam Veterans Day.  Do I myself really want a Vietnam Veterans Day?  Do I really want the pain?  I’m not so sure.

Maybe I’ll accept a Vietnam Veterans Day if you promise not to glorify war and act like it’s Bill and Ted’s Big Adventure.

Thuy’s added thoughts

Our Vietnam Veteran’s Day events are about healing, education, common ground, and bridging the gap. It is about bringing together all those who were connected to the Vietnam war era. To learn more go to our website at tsio.org

Disclaimer: If you are needing more extensive assistance or counseling, we can supply you with a list of available agencies to assist you. No blogs are ever meant to substitute a person seeking help through professional counseling.

Mike Muller:  MACV CORDS operations advisor, Binh Chanh District, 1970.  Briefing officer for DEPCORDS Ambassador Funkhouser to CG & staff, III Corps Vietnam, 1971.  In addition to briefing the staff I briefed visiting officials such as the Secretary of the Army.  I was in Vietnam for one tour.

Thoughts on Recovery

Mike Muller is on the Advisory Board for Thuy Smith International Outreach. He is a Vietnam veteran, has a Ph.D. in psychology, and has counseled veterans for many years.  He writes novels under the pen name of Michael FitzGordon. 

Thuy asked me to write about recovery. Bear in mind that I am a psychologist who has spent his career doing psychological assessments and psychotherapy. My approach to psychotherapy was highly eclectic, including existential, psychoanalytic, cognitive, and behavioral approaches. It seems to me that “Recovery” represents a popular movement more than a professional one, and I do not mean that in a negative sense at all. It is what every professional with any common sense would pray for.

In the popular sense I don’t have much experience with recovery. I was more focused on helping my clients to understand and cope with their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I did know that chemical dependence limited what could be done to deal with the PTSD, because the person was using a chemical to squelch feelings, thoughts, and memories. So dealing with the chemical dependence came first. But once one was clean and began the withdrawal and recovery process, psychotherapeutic support needed to be greatly increased, because all those squelched feelings, thoughts, and memories were going to come welling up and would be frightening for the person.

I feel I have much personal experience with recovery from nicotine addiction. In that regard I feel like an expert. I quit smoking cigarettes at least a hundred times, and failed one less time than the times I attempted to quit. That was in 1989. People try to use drugs, gum, tapering, and all sorts of efforts to reduce the pain and suffering of quitting. In practice it seems to me that all these methods only prolong the pain and the exposure to temptation. Quit cold turkey (on a Friday so you have the weekend to be in withdrawal), drink lots of orange juice to have the vitamin C flush the nicotine out of your system rapidly, and accept the fact that you are going to be in withdrawal, drunk on oxygen, dizzy, have difficulty concentrating, and be emotionally labile. Jump into the pain and get it over with. For a week or two be careful about speaking or behaving badly. For the next six weeks or six months find other ways to reduce your anxiety and relax. Find other ways to live. To LIVE! Exercise. Get outside. Trust in God.

Of all the times I failed to quit smoking, I was always wishing I had a cigarette. I was finally successful when I would catch myself wishing I had a cigarette, and then immediately feel disgust that I would do that. I had finally learned to hate and be disgusted with cigarettes. Once in a while I will dream that I am smoking, but it is an anxious nightmare. I wake up relieved that it was only a dream. In my waking life the idea of having a cigarette is about as appealing as eating mud or hitting myself on the head with a hammer, hard. In all humility one can never say never, but I simply cannot imagine myself ever wanting to smoke a cigarette again.

It seems to me that recovery refers to learning how to live without something that you wish you had. So much of what distinguishes humans from other animals is in delay of gratification, i.e., you forego short-term pleasure for long-term goals or ideals, or higher pleasures and joy.  Animals just do what they please in the moment, although even animals will quit going after something if it burns their nose or otherwise hurts them. In our human lives this struggle between short-term and long-term seems to be always with us. I can have the short term pleasure of chocolate ice cream, or the long-term pleasure of being healthy. In this sense we are almost all, almost always, in recovery, struggling to exercise self-discipline.

The trick, it seems to me, is to love what is good and hate what is bad. Then it is less like self-discipline and more like natural living. Whatever one’s addiction or bad habit, one must learn to hate and despise it, and then it will be easier and only natural to love what is good. Think about your vice and learn to hate it and what it has done to you and your loved ones. Of course I know that this is easier said than done. By the grace of God, I wish you and I the best in being able to wrap our heads around this.

Mike Muller:  MACV CORDS operations advisor, Binh Chanh District, 1970.  Briefing officer for DEPCORDS Ambassador Funkhouser to CG & staff, III Corps Vietnam, 1971.  In addition to briefing the staff I briefed visiting officials such as the Secretary of the Army.  I was in Vietnam for one tour.

Disclaimer: If you are needing more extensive assistance or counseling, we can supply you with a list of available agencies to assist you. No blogs are ever meant to substitute a person seeking help through professional counseling.

Vonnegut: PTSD and Creativity

Mike Muller is on the Advisory Board for Thuy Smith International Outreach. He is a Vietnam veteran, has a Ph.D. in psychology, and has counseled veterans for many years.  He writes novels under the pen name of Michael FitzGordon. 

When I was a kid there was a lot of conflict in my house, and I developed my own retreats, hideouts, and escapes.  I loved to climb to the top of my favorite maple tree, higher than the house, and above the conflict below.  I was so high that most people would never even think to look for me up there.  I could feel the trunk bending under my weight as the breezes blew.  Everything seemed more peaceful up there.  I could also climb out a branch and onto the roof of the house.  On the other side of the house there was a hackberry tree that made a shady dome over the roof.  Here again, I was perfectly hidden and at peace.

Another escape was reading.  We lived many different places, but I was almost always able to walk or bike to the local library.  I read adventure stories, science fiction, fairy tales, physics, geology, biology, herpetology, chess books, dog books, and anything that grabbed my interest.  I had my favorite authors.  I guess my escapism made me into a geek.  Some people don’t really notice that I’m a geek.  But at the same time I can be a surprisingly formidable opponent if I am forced to defend myself or someone else.

My father was a hustler, bookie, and night club proprietor.  He ran numbers, and considered himself to be exceptionally sharp.  He could beat people at chess.  When he learned I was interested in chess at age ten he wanted me to play with him.  I was afraid of him and did not want to play chess with him, much less be in the same room with him.  But if he told you to do something, you said, “yes sir,” and did it.  We always did what he said.  There was no other choice, except to be cursed and knocked down.  So for a week or so my father and I would play chess in the evenings until he realized that my beating him was not a fluke.  I don’t think he ever liked me much after that.  When I was an adult I once tried to get back into playing chess, but my heart always started beating too fast for it to be fun.

We lived out in the country for a while, and there was no library nearby, so I joined the Science Fiction Book Club to receive books by mail.  I would also buy books on astronomy, because man! you could really see the stars out there.  I preferred “hard” science fiction, i.e., not fantasy, but fiction based on possible projections of the future given current scientific knowledge.  Star Wars is hard science fiction; Superman is fantasy.  As I matured, my interest in science fiction waned because most of the science fiction lacked emotional and psychological complexity.  Many of the adventures were nothing more than immature fantasies.  The main attraction of the stories was the sense of wonder at the marvels of science and the natural universe.  At this time in my life Kurt Vonnegut appeared as I was transitioning from simple science fiction into a world with more psychological complexity and ambiguity.  I read everything of his that I could get.  He had a wacky kind of Dave Barry or Carl Hiaasen humor in which the mindlessness of normal human behavior was seen as being quite ridiculous.

I don’t think I ever read Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, which was based on his experiences as a POW in Dresden during WWII.  It was published in 1969 when I was in the army and on my way to a different war.  In 1972, when I was back from Vietnam and enrolled in graduate school in English, the movie was released.  It seemed like a wacky blend of war novel and science fiction.  I enjoyed the movie tremendously, but I did not really understand it very well.  I just thought it was wacky.  A few years later, after I had switched from English to psychology in graduate school, I was reading a Vonnegut novel, and I noticed a passage that had a clinically schizophrenic  aspect to it.  I had that same sense of regret I had experienced before.  It seemed that once again I was losing one of my favorite authors as I matured emotionally and intellectually.

A few years later I learned that Vonnegut’s son had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and I thought to myself that I had been perceptive to notice a schizophrenic trend in his father years before.  Now his son, a physician, believes that perhaps bipolar disorder would have been a more accurate diagnosis.  When I was a staff psychologist at the student health center of a major university I worked with a psychiatrist who had a theory about working with the many bright and creative students who came to the mental health service.  Many young people will have their first psychotic break when they are of college age.  Perhaps this is due to the development of the brain, but perhaps it is also due to the stress of being away from home and at college.  The psychiatrist said that he tried to moderate the use of antipsychotic medication, to find that balance to “tighten up” the creative student’s concentration without going so far as to make them lose their looseness of cognitive associations, and their creativity.  If they lost their creativity, of course, it would be a major loss and crisis in their life.

I drifted away from Vonnegut.  But recently I watched Slaughterhouse Five again, perhaps in part because I remembered how sexy Valerie Perrine was in the movie.  Much had changed in me since the last time I read or viewed anything by Vonnegut.  I had spent several decades counseling veterans with PTSD.  I had conducted groups for WWII POWs for about ten years.  I also had come to the reluctant acknowledgement that I too had PTSD based on my childhood, my time in the war, and my many years of working with war veterans and the horrors of war.  I guess I was a very different person the second time I watched Slaughterhouse Five.  I was stunned! It brought tears to my eyes.  The movie had little to do with science fiction!  It was a stunning creative achievement in which the author made it possible for the reader or viewer to see the horrors of war without being overwhelmed.  The protagonist’s coming “unstuck in time” was a depiction of flashbacks.  The book was published in 1969; PTSD and psychological flashbacks were not well known until 1980.  The protagonist was frequently transported to the planet Tralfamidor.  This was his escape from the horror, just as I, as a boy, had my own escapes, and still do.

I subsequently watched the movie, Mother Night, based on Vonnegut’s novel.  A double agent in Nazi Germany must actually participate in the evil if he wishes to maintain his cover.  In doing good he is corrupted by the evil.  It is a brilliant depiction of the difficulty of not being corrupted by evil in this world.  A novelist can be like a double agent.  Graham Greene said that the plot was like a bone that you gave to the watchdog so you could sneak into the reader’s mind.  Joseph Conrad said that he was trying to make the reader see.  Creative artists can try to create works that are popular, will sell, and will appeal to the superficial.  They may think they are giving a bone to the watchdog so that they can sneak in with deeper meanings and vision.  But they may also be corrupted like the double agent, selling their souls to the devil.

Mike Muller:  MACV CORDS operations advisor, Binh Chanh District, 1970.  Briefing officer for DEPCORDS Ambassador Funkhouser to CG & staff, III Corps Vietnam, 1971.  In addition to briefing the staff I briefed visiting officials such as the Secretary of the Army.  I was in Vietnam for one tour.

Disclaimer: If you are needing more extensive assistance or counseling, we can supply you with a list of available agencies to assist you. No blogs are ever meant to substitute a person seeking help through professional counseling.

The Puzzle of PTSD. June 27th is PTSD Awareness Day.

Mike Muller is on the Advisory Board for Thuy Smith International Outreach. He is a Vietnam Veteran and has been a Psychologist counseling veterans for many years.  He writes novels under the pen name of Michael FitzGordon.

The Puzzle of PTSD

Jonathan Shay, a VA psychiatrist, wrote Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, two books showing that PTSD existed long before we had a name for it.  In the past the condition has been referred to as nostalgia, shell shock, and combat neurosis.  I find “nostalgia” interesting, because it suggests a longing for the innocence of one’s past before experiencing traumatic horrors.  The paintings of Nguyen Thanh Chuong, a former North Vietnamese soldier, suggest a longing for the pastoral peace of his childhood.  Nor is “shell shock” such a bad designation.  The theory was that multiple concussions created many tiny bleeds in the brain, resulting in a diffuse brain damage.  Anyone who has been in heavy shelling knows this is all too likely.  When I was counseling WWII veterans I would sometimes read their medical records from the past, long before there was any such diagnosis as PTSD.  It was interesting to see the clinicians from the past describing what was instantly recognizable to me as PTSD, and then giving it some other name, such as combat neurosis or even schizophrenia.

Recently I was reading The Book of Psalms in the Old Testament.  Psalms is believed to have been written by King David.  I found the psalms very meaningful, and I felt that David was a kindred spirit with whom I would have liked to have a conversation.  Later a friend of mind suggested that David had PTSD.  Of course!  As a kid he fought the giant, Goliath.  He did his best to serve King Saul, but Saul was jealous of David and tried for a long time to hunt him down and kill him.  And David of course wrote the favorite verse of so many combat veterans, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (Psalm 23).  It does seem to me that David might have had PTSD.  Yet he was a very competent warrior and king.

Recently I was viewing and enjoying Michael Wood’s very interesting four-hour documentary for PBS, “In Search of Shakespeare.”  It is a biography of Shakespeare and a description of the society in which he lived.  England in Shakespeare’s time was a very oppressive society in which there were many paid informants, and in which being a Catholic could result in execution.  Shakespeare’s family had been Catholic before the government outlawed Catholicism.  There is evidence that Shakespeare’s family remained secret Catholics.  You might notice that none of Shakespeare’s plays were about contemporary events!  That could get one beheaded.  His plays were set in the distant past, in distant countries, or in fantasy worlds.  Any allegories or references to present events were very subtle, indirect, discreet, and cautious!  When Shakespeare was a teenager, one of his uncles was suspected of being a clandestine Catholic, and was executed in the usual style, which was to be taken to the meat market for public viewing of his execution.  He was disemboweled, and his intestines were set on fire so that he could see them burning before he died.  Then he was beheaded.  Perhaps his head was placed on London Bridge for additional public viewing.  Whether the young Shakespeare saw this, we do not know.  But he certainly knew of it.  When I read Shakespeare’s early plays, it seems to me that there is a clear horror for the folly of the human conflicts that raged all around him in society.  I believe it is likely that Shakespeare could have been diagnosed with PTSD.

General William Tecumseh Sherman is notorious for his decisive action and scorched-earth policy in his march to the sea.  Before the Civil War he fought in The Second Seminole War.  Before the Civil War he also warned the secessionists about the course of this war they were seeking.  His statement about the course of the war was, in retrospect, uncannily accurate, and very nearly psychic.  He knew what he was talking about.  In the early part of the Civil War, however, Sherman was relieved of command as unfit for duty and crazy.  Apparently he was considered to be hypervigilant, and to be having a nervous breakdown.  He did eventually return to duty, and was caught by surprise in one engagement because, although he had wanted to be hypervigilant and take precautions and prepare defenses, he feared that he would once again be considered crazy and hypervigilant.  His unit was in fact attacked and forced into retreat.  His competent leadership later contributed greatly to the victory of the Union.  I believe that Sherman could have been diagnosed with PTSD.  But like Shakespeare, of whom he was fond, Sherman was also exceptionally intelligent and competent.

In future blogs I want to continue to address this puzzle about the ways in which PTSD is disabling, and the ways in which it is not.  Perhaps I will develop a theory.  I also want to discuss some well-known authors who probably had PTSD, and the different ways they coped.  Each person who has PTSD is unique.

Other Related Posts by Mike:

Mike Muller:  MACV CORDS operations advisor, Binh Chanh District, 1970.  Briefing officer for DEPCORDS Ambassador Funkhouser to CG & staff, III Corps Vietnam, 1971.  In addition to briefing the staff I briefed visiting officials such as the Secretary of the Army.  I was in Vietnam for one tour.

Disclaimer: If you are needing more extensive assistance or counseling, we can supply you with a list of available agencies to assist you. No blogs are ever meant to substitute a person seeking help through professional counseling.