The Rain- Vietnam Veteran Sniper Reflects on His Experiences Through Poetry

The Rain- Vietnam Veteran Sniper Reflects on His Experiences Through Poetry
John poem book cover

John Steinmeyer served in Vietnam as an Infantry Sergeant with the 9th division in the Mekong Delta, then was transferred to the 25th Division and served the last half of his tour in a sniper team.

Thuy Smith’s father (Vietnam Veteran) and Vietnamese mother along with Thuy were friends of John and his family. This will be the first post of a collection of poems that John wrote of his many experiences during his time in Vietnam. Thuy Smith (TSOI) was given permission to share his poems on all of TSOI’s media platforms, etc.

First Poem:

Other Side

The mixed bag of newbies

now scuttle from the plane.

Welcome to the other side.

The side that is insane.

A side that tears emotion

and pulls it down the drain.

Welcome.

Welcome to the rice bowl

of pits and paddy holes.

Welcome where the numbers

are counted as the goals.

welcome where the living

are walking on their souls.

Welcome.

welcome to the Jungle

where night time brings the fear.

welcome to the rifle

and one hundred pounds of gear.

Welcome to the fighting

that now says you are here.

Welcome to the other side of the world.

(C) John Steinmeyer


More reflections from John’s collection of poems

  1. Sniffer
  2. The Fish
  3. More to Come

Back of book

Morality, Pacifism, Killing, and Torture

DSC00069Mike 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. 

Morality, Pacifism, Killing, and Torture

In 1968 I was about to graduate from college, and I knew there was a high probability that I would be drafted into the war in Vietnam.  I had been in Catholic schools for sixteen years, so I had sixteen years of religion and theology classes.  I considered my options.  I could go into the military, leave the country and renounce my citizenship, refuse to be drafted and therefore be imprisoned for two years, go into medical school, go into the seminary for the Catholic priesthood, or claim I was a pacifist.  I did not want to be a physician, and I knew I did not have the “gift” of celibacy.  As a Catholic I could hardly claim I was a pacifist.  Personally I had to admit that if I stood by and failed to defend someone weak and helpless from an attacker, I would be disgusted with myself.  No, in all honesty I had to admit that if I needed to defend myself or others, I would do so.  Therefore I was not a pacifist.

I did not think my country had the right to draft me into a war that had little to do with our national security.  On the other hand, would it be wrong to let them draft me?  It seemed to me that the Catholics in Vietnam were fighting for their religious freedom, so I didn’t think it would be wrong for me to help them.  That was my thinking at the time.  Later I changed my opinion about that.  In the historical theories of the “just war” there must be some hope of winning it.  Our logic and motivations and implementation in the war in Vietnam was so FUBAR that it was immoral.

Clearly there is such a thing as a “just war.”  Defending ourselves with lethal force is sometimes necessary and even good.  Just as I would be disgusting if I failed to defend the helpless against attackers, so it could be disgusting to be so weak and stupid as to fail to use lethal force when it was needed.  WWII is a clear example of a just war, and it is clear that we would have been weak, stupid, and disgusting if we failed to fight against Hitler.  Einstein was at first a pacifist, but finally had to admit that it was necessary for people to fight against Hitler.  Many pacifists make that same switch.  Pacifism is fine as an intellectual theory, but when you see someone killing your friends you see a different truth.  It seems that everyone would agree that killing is bad, but if you look at it from the perspective of defending against those who would harm you or others, then killing can be “good,” or the right thing to do.  But of course we always want to review that situation and ensure that killing was truly the last resort.

This is the case with police officers.  They occasionally need to kill people to defend themselves or others.  Everyone would agree that, generally speaking, killing is “bad,” but almost everyone would also want a police officer to kill anyone who was trying to harm you or your family if there was no other option.  Some police officers are extremely brave when they refrain from pulling the trigger long past the time when they would have been justified to do so.  They are risking their lives in the hope of saving the other person’s life.  But we don’t take killing lightly.  And we don’t want any kill-happy officers on the force.  So each and every time there is a killing, there is an administrative review to ensure that the officer as a last resort made a reasonable and prudent decision to use lethal force.  Even imprisonment is “bad.”  It is not good to deprive people of their freedoms.  But sometimes it is necessary and good.

In recent years there has been much self-righteous posturing in the media about the morality of torture.  People keep saying, “Torture is bad.”  I keep looking for an intelligent and informed discussion of the morality of torture that is comparable to historical discussions of the morality of war and killing.  I am disappointed and dismayed.  Recently a retired member of the CIA who was in charge of the interrogation of terrorists was interviewed by a prominent journalist on national TV.  These are both people who are at the pinnacle of their professions, but not once did they refer in any intelligent way to the morality of torture.

When I was a young man I had to ask myself personally if I could be a pacifist, and in doing this I imagined a personal situation which would be a critical test of that proposition.  Could I stand by and watch if I saw my wife, sister, child, or anyone being attacked?  Clearly the answer to that was no.  Similarly, I now imagine a personal situation which would be a critical test of the morality of torture.  If my child were being held by kidnappers and I had captured one of them, and he refused to give me information about who was holding my child and where, would I torture him?  In a New York minute, yes, and I think almost everyone would do the same.  People say that there are much more sophisticated psychological techniques that are more effective than torture, and as a psychologist I know this to be true.  However, those techniques are time consuming, and my child would most likely be dead before they were effective.  So I would torture the person to get the information necessary to save my child’s life.  Furthermore, I think it would disgusting of me if I were too weak and stupid to be willing to do this when it was necessary.  How could I stand by and allow my child to be imprisoned, tortured, or killed?

We authorize and train our soldiers to kill people.  We begin this in high school and sometimes even in elementary school when, in ROTC, we train our young children how to use a rifle.  How outraged we are when other countries train their children to kill!  We are hypocrites.  In theory killing should be done only when it is necessary as a last resort in order to defend ourselves or others.  We authorize our police officers to kill people when it is necessary as a last resort.  But we know human nature, and we don’t want any kill-happy soldiers or kill-happy police officers.  If an action in war is called into question, we review it.  If a police officer must kill, we always review it.  So if the military or the CIA has a terrorist in captivity, and they have reason to believe that the terrorist has knowledge that could prevent the deaths of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people, torture may from time to time be necessary and “good.”  It should not be routine, and we have to beware of torture-happy people such as those at Abu Ghraib.  Psychological research shows clearly that this is likely to happen if we fail to guard against it and review it constantly.  Those in command of Abu Ghraib failed to guard against this.  Sometimes even the administrators of our domestic prisons fail to guard against guards who become sadistic.  All known psychological techniques for effective interrogation should be exhausted, if time allows, before torture is used as a last resort.  In most cases torture should not be necessary, and would therefore be wrong.

I know this is a bitter and terrifying pill for some people to swallow, but this is the nature of the world we live in.  Thus far the human race has been unable to stop the warring, the killing, the imprisoning, and the torturing.  We need to do everything we can to achieve peace in this world, but so far, the necessity of defending ourselves remains.  Our enemies can be foreign terrorists, or burglars and rapists who live nearby.  They may even be members of our own families.  This is what we face as human beings.  I think we can take comfort in the knowledge that most of the time we do in fact live in peace and love.  Most of the time people obey the laws and treat each other with respect and love.  We must do everything we can to live in peace and love, and do everything insofar as possible, to follow the examples of Gandhi and MLK in pursuing nonviolent resistance.

Read Part One-

Morality: The Gap Between Civilians and Combat Veterans

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.

Writers and PTSD

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. 

I was thinking about all the writers who may have had PTSD:  Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Erich Maria ReMarque, C. S. Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, James Jones, J. D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway.  PTSD can be very socially isolating.  One of my great- great grandfathers, who lost an eye in the Civil War, lived out the end of his life in a cabin in the woods.  Why do so many people with PTSD tend to become reclusive?  Is it because they have lost their trust in people, and so tend to be nervous and jumpy around them?  If you expect good things from people, then you will derive feelings of security, love, and companionship with them.  Or perhaps those with PTSD just get tired of the people around them not being able to understand or empathize with their point of view.  So those with PTSD often tend to become isolated.

It seems to me that writing can fit well with this syndrome.  Writing is most often a solitary profession.  Writers need to be able to tolerate and even enjoy long periods of solitude.  Writing is also a way of trying to sort out and understand the meaning of what happened to you, and the meaning of what is going on in the world.  Therefore, I do not think it would be at all surprising if we discovered that quite a few writers were people with PTSD who were trying to sort out the meaning of what happened to them and the meaning of human nature in this world.

I was recently viewing an old film of an interview with James Jones, and he was talking about writers as observers of society who were thus doomed to be outsiders.  This resonated with my own feeling of being an outsider.  Yet he clearly had PTSD, and had the cynicism and anger and protectiveness that so often accompany PTSD, and I wonder if his feeling like an outsider was as much or more from his PTSD than his work in life as a writer.  Perhaps it was the tsunami of war and PTSD that propelled him toward being a writer.

But each writer is different.  When I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina  I do not have a sense that he had PTSD.  He apparently served in a war zone, but he was from the upper classes, and I wonder if he served as an officer who was insulated from the action.  He writes beautifully, but there is no sense of inner devastation that comes with PTSD.  He unquestionably shows a profound sensitivity to social nuances and the psychology of the upper classes.  He describes with clarity and finesse the psychology of Anna leading up to her throwing herself under a train.  Why then is there not that same clarity and finesse in describing the psychology of men in combat?

I think J. D. Salinger clearly had PTSD, although he never wrote directly about his war experiences, which were horrific.  I think the cynicism and alienation of his young character, Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye, is actually the cynicism and alienation of a man with PTSD.  Salinger became quite reclusive, and drove around his property in a Jeep wearing a military jacket.

I’m very curious about C. S. Lewis.  When I was younger I liked science fiction.  But I tried several times to read Lewis’s science fiction trilogy: Perelandra, Out of the Silent Planet, and That Hideous Strength.  It was so stuffy, dry, and British that I always lost interest.  A few years ago I listened to a series of lectures about his life and work.  This led me to read Mere Christianity, in which he gives a lively, far from stuffy, non-denominational defense of Christianity.  In his earlier life he had forsaken Christianity and become an atheist who was very adept at debating and defending his atheistic point of view among the academics at Oxford University.   He was raised as a Christian, but his mother died when he was nine years old.  His father sent him and his brother off to a boarding school that had a hazing system in which the older boys tormented the younger ones.  Furthermore, the headmaster was apparently an overbearing man who was subsequently hospitalized for mental problems.  The young Lewis was miserable.  He had lost his mother and been sent away from his home and his father to live in a cold and hostile environment.  These kinds of experiences in childhood tend to make one more vulnerable to later traumatic experiences.  I wonder if these traumatic experiences led to him forsaking his belief in God.  He also served in WWI, and was wounded.  He referred briefly to the horrors of the trench warfare, but never wrote about it in detail.  He and his good friend had a pact that if one of them was killed, the other would care for the dead man’s family.  His friend was killed, and Lewis suffered another loss to death.  He kept his pact and took care of his friend’s mother for the rest of her life, bringing her to live in his home, and even calling her his mother.  Some have wondered whether he actually had a romantic relationship with this woman, while others have observed that she was difficult, and that there was probably no romantic relationship.  Yet there was no other romantic relationship during that period of his life!  After she died he fell in love with Joy Gresham, but she died of cancer a few years later.

Given this pattern of experiences in Lewis’s life I would not be surprised at all if had PTSD.  But as far as I know he never wrote directly about his war experiences.  He did write about his devastating grief.  He couldn’t seem to catch a break.  He experienced one death after another.  His mother, his friend in the war, his friend’s mother, and finally his beloved wife.  He had met and married his wife late in life, and was “surprised by joy,” but after only a few years she too died.  He developed a torturous relationship with God, and wrote about his attempts to try to understand why God had taken away
so many of his loved ones.

One of the patterns of PTSD is that of delayed onset.  A person in combat keeps a stiff upper lip, and dissociates from his fear and anger in order to function effectively and survive in combat.  After the war he continues to dissociate and function effectively.  “It didn’t bother me.  Those guys who get PTSD or become ‘nervous in the service’ are weak.”  Then, years later, the person is overwhelmed by the symptoms of PTSD and is forced to admit that in retrospect he can see that he’s had the symptoms all along, but has suppressed or hidden them, either consciously or unconsciously.  He thought it was normal, for example, to be so hypervigilant.  Then in later life he
had a brush with death or some other traumatic event that brought it all out.  I think we see this with C. S. Lewis.  In his late life he was devastated by the loss of his wife.  Was it just an excessive grief?  I don’t think so.  I think he was devastated in a way that was consistent with PTSD.  He was questioning God and wanting to know why this could be such a world as this.  Here is this man with latent PTSD writing so many books and providing so many answers for so many of the important questions in life, and suddenly in his late life he feels devastated, like a fool with none of the answers.  I’d be willing to bet that he had PTSD.

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.

A Woman Inventor the Veteran Administration Ignored

Bessie Blount was an African American woman who led a life that was dedicated to helping those in need. She was a physical therapist and an inventor of apparatus that was designed to help the amputees that suffered permanent injuries in World War II. Bessie Blount has been called a "savior of the handicapped" for her invention that allowed World War II disabled veterans to feed themselves, and for her unique method of teaching them to write again.
Honoring Bessie Blount. She died on December 30, 2009 in Newfield, New Jersey. Via blackhistory.net

Here is a woman everyone should know about especially American Veterans. Her name is Bessie Blout and she was a highly accomplished woman. She was born in Virginia and moved to New Jersey to pursue becoming  a physical therapist. Later she finished her training in Chicago.

After graduating she taught Physical Therapy at a hospital in New York, but also became an inventor of devices that were instrumental in helping soldiers who were injured (World War Two) to  become independent and feed themselves.

The device was used for a soldier in a wheelchair or a bed. Each time the soldier would bite down on the tube, it would transport food one bite at a time. She later invented a smaller portable device (Portable receptacle  support) that could be worn around the neck (see image below).

Drawing and Description of Bessie Blount's Invention: Drawing of Invention - Bessie Blount Honoring Black American Inventor
Bessie Blount’s patent was filed in 1951 under her married name of Bessie Griffin. Photo Credit: USPTO

The United States Veteran’s Administration did not support either of her devices. She then sold them to France and gave them the patent rights in 1952. They used them for their war veterans. She wanted to show, “that a Black woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind.”

She created another helpful device that the VA also rejected and never used in their hospitals. It was the invention of a disposable cardboard emesis basin.  Her item was also never patented in America so she sold it to Belgium where the basins are still being used throughout their country.  American hospitals continue to use the old standard basins of 1913.

In 1969, Bessie began a career in forensic science with law enforcement, and became a chief document examiner.

In 1977, she became the first Black woman to train and work at Scotland Yard, after J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director, turned down her application.

Bessie was named as one of many notable Virginia women in history in 2005

Learn about some other Inspirational women

Vietnam Veteran struggling to reconcile his experience as a warrior and a pastor

al cutterThe Letter of Paul to the Beloved Warrior

When it so roundly condemns war and its attendant destruction, how can the christian faith, or any faith, speak to the warrior? This “previously unknown” letter from the Apostle Paul provides a possible answer. Conceived in the imagination of a Vietnam Veteran who is also a christian struggling to reconcile his two different and difficult life experiences, one as a warrior and the other as a pastor, this short book offers an opening for discussion of a healing journey.You can purchase this at Amazon.com and it is available for kindle.

Alan Cutter served in the US Navy from 1960 to 1975, five years on active duty- as an enlisted man in the Naval Security Group, then as an officer- first as an advisor in Vietnam then as a teacher at the Naval Academy Prep School.  

Alan Cutter with beretAlan presented some of his perspectives at one of our events in 2012. See footage and other writings:

War as a Prayer

From Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to Post Traumatic Spiritual Disorder

The Journey from Hell to Hope