In December 1966, I returned from Vietnam. For fifteen years, I didn’t think about the war or talk about it to anyone, at least not on a conscious level.
Instead, I drank—a lot. Beer, wine, mixed drinks. It didn’t matter. I grew up with an alcoholic father and older brother. My fraternal grandfather was an alcoholic and so was my father’s older brother James. Alcohol almost ended the marriage between my mother and father. After an ultimatum from my mother, dad quit drinking to save the marriage. By then I was twelve. He was a great guy sober.
Due to that childhood environment, I swore I would never drink.
The war changed that. Before shipping out to Vietnam, I started drinking twenty-five cent pitchers of beer on base in Okinawa to fit in since so many Marines drank. There was nothing else to do when off duty. Once, we were so broke, several of the Marines in my unit pooled pennies, and I went into the village across the street from Camp Hanson’s main gate and bought a cheap bottle of Japanese slow gin. After the first glass, you lost the feeling in your nose, fingers and toes. When you woke up twelve hours later, you were still drunk. The hangover came later. I discovered that codeine or some other drug was part of the mix in that slow-gin bottle. The cheapest drunk was rubbing alcohol mixed with Coke or Pepsi. We filled a helmet and passed it around until the mix was gone. The next morning, some guy would be sitting inside my head pounding on an anvil with a sledgehammer.
During the fifteen years between 1966 and 1981, I often relived the war in surrealistic flashbacks where Vietcong would be in the house, and I went on patrol with a Ka-Bar or a twelve -gauge shotgun. One night in 1977 at 2:00 AM, my first wife left the bedroom to get a glass of water. She returned while I was fighting ghosts.
To me, she was the enemy, and I pushed her against the wall in the hall outside the bedroom and held the tip of that seven-inch blade against her throat. She calmly talked to me until I was somewhat aware of my real surroundings, and we went back to bed. She never mentioned that scene during the remaining years of our marriage, but I have never forgotten.
In 1981, I stopped drinking and soon was talking and writing about the war. I woke this morning thinking about that moment in the hallway in 1977. The war is always close.
Discover A Night at the “Well of Purity”
His latest novel is Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.
And the woman he loves and wants to save was trained to hate and kill Americans.
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