I was recently very fortunate. My mother, while searching for some pictures of her Brother, for his upcoming class reunion, came across a large cache of pictures of my Dad in Vietnam. You see my Father was always a camera guy. He enjoyed taking pictures and he enjoyed being in photographs. This carried through his time "in-country."
Throughout his life there are photographs of him hamming it up for the camera. One of the earliest I have, is him hanging over the family’s mailbox in Wintersville, Ohio. It's complete with a tire leaning against the mailbox and goggles covering his eyes. The picture is dated August 1959. In childish script, on the back it reads; “Me after riding with Mom (just Kidding)! It is hard to believe that just ten years after this picture was taken this boy was home from a tour in Vietnam.
Dad was definitely a Ham. If there was a chance to pose for a cool shot, he was there, and if it could be with some sort of weapon even better. My father had affinity for firearms. In this new group of photos, there are self portraits as well. Some of the self portraits have inscriptions about the shutter speed, aperture, the self timer, use of a mirror, or table top. Or how he got a great deal on the camera because it was cheaper then it would have been in the states. To me, it speaks to the hurry up and wait mentality of what I’ve read it was like to be an infantry soldier in Vietnam. However, even in times of action, Dad would still give a big grin to the camera, as evidenced by, a sort of out of focus shot of him peeking around the back of a truck towards the photographer the inscription on the back reads; (Riding Shotgun on Roberson’s Deuce and a half, minus mustache).
When I recently revisited this photograph, I noticed what appears to be big goggles on top his head. It kind of reminded me of the childhood mailbox picture.
There were two photos among this group my Mom recently gave me that summed up the toll that the war took on my father. These two photos speak volumes about his experience in Vietnam because of their contrast. The first, is this sort of relaxed, toothy grin, sparkly eyed, cigar smoking image. He almost looks like Clark Cable, starring in a military block buster.
The second is much different, gone is the toothy smile, and sparkly eyes, instead we see a pensive Bill Morris, hair tussled, and a vacant, sad stare.
When I first examined this picture, I stared at his eyes for a long time. A guttural feeling of sadness came over me. I recognized that look. It was the same look I would see cloud his face decades later, when after a few beers, he would revisit what Vietnam and Agent Orange, had done to him, to me, to our whole family. Looking at that photograph brought back my feelings of wanting to show my Dad, “Look it’s ok, I’m Okay, It wasn’t your fault, I’ll show you, you won’t have to worry about me.”
Could this photo have been taken after his convoy came under fire and one of his closest buddies was run over and killed right next to him? Dad made it into the fox hole just in time; his buddy didn’t and was run over by one of his own. Or was this taken after one of their young, Vietnamese, house girls came onto the base with dynamite strapped on her bicycle and blew herself up? Or could this photograph have been taken after some other terrible thing he’d never talk about? We’ll never know.
Something set the stage for the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). After he came home, he was a changed man. He worked, the rest of his limited days on earth, trapped between those two pictures. Always wanting to be the big, gregarious, fun loving, ham it up person, but fighting the demons that would never allow him to feel completely relaxed, safe and in control. He could put up quite a front and had many fooled, but my brother and I grew up in a family structure, where the biggest personality in the house, had PTSD.
There was an unspoken code in our house, we knew not to startle Dad, especially if he was sleeping. We knew he was hyper vigilant always watching out over us, to protect our house. We let his mood swings go because we were used to him withdrawing. We knew at times he was overwhelmed and left everything to my Mother to handle. That in turn caused deeper issues; there were times my mother had no energy to keep the world spinning for her family. We knew Dad had a survival kit in the shed outback as a "just in case." We never really knew what would constitute him using it. Was it for him to run away? Or was it for him to save us? These things were normal to us because that’s all we ever knew. PTSD in the Father of a family creates a very complicated family dynamic that places the spouse and children in varying roles that become confused coping skills. I was always the peacemaker and rescuer for my father. I could justify to anyone why he acted like he did.
There were times before his early death, due to his exposure to Agent Orange (age 50), the grip of PTSD had lessened some. He traveled (Something he NEVER did after Vietnam) to Tennessee to visit me as a newlywed. The next picture is of him and me hamming it up for the camera wearing silly hats.
This was one of the last times we saw each other, if not the last time. He had recovered from a stroke (age 48) and wanted to see our new house, so far from where he could protect me. If I had only known this was the end, I would have hugged him longer, just to feel like his little girl, and let him protect me from this world for just a bit more.
Heather A. Bowser, LPCC
Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance. www.covvha.net
Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance