Vietnam Vet PTSD Story
BY DAVID WHITING
We like our wars clean and shiny, with perfect good guys and awful bad guys, with the wounded brushing aside pain and waving during parades.
There are times when that makes sense. But there also are times to go deep, to grapple with PTSD and understand why divorce and suicide rates for veterans are so high – even for vets whose war ended nearly four decades ago.
Art De Groot, a bear of a man who spent 13 months in Vietnam during the worst of the war, shakes his head and tells me that writing a brutally frank memoir was about truth-telling, not healing.
But after two hours of talking, De Groot quietly admits that keeping his stories inside “was like carrying a cross for 40 years,” and that publishing his book “was like releasing a burden.”
I ask De Groot how close he came to becoming a PTSD casualty. He looks down at his dining room table. Too close.
Still, like many troubled vets, De Groot found salvation.
• • •
The other week, I was invited to address the Military Officers Association of America. During dinner, I sat next to a hero in a wheelchair. His legs were blown off by a mine in Vietnam.
Like the vast majority of veterans, my new friend has a successful career, family. Some vets tell me they left the war in the jungle. Others explain that they keep the war on a virtual shelf and take it down to honor the fallen or to share with brothers in arms. But for thousands of veterans, the horrors of war creep back, especially at night. Mortars explode; the humidity of the jungle is thick; the bloodshed smells.
A new book by veteran Chuck Dean, “Nam Vet: Making Peace with Your Past,” states that three times as many Vietnam vets have committed suicide as those who died during the war. Dean also reports 90 percent of Vietnam vets have gone through divorce.
I ask De Groot how he managed to keep his marriage intact. He says his wife, Joy, is a nurse, a very understanding nurse – “a saint really” – who worked for several years at a Veterans Administration hospital.
Still, De Groot keeps some troubles private, saying, “I made some bad decisions.” He admits to sweats, nightmares, hallucinations. Along with Joy’s support, De Groot acknowledges he received PTSD treatment in the early 1990s and saw a therapist for four years.
He recalls writing a poem about the war and sharing during group. At first, he admits, “I couldn’t read it out loud. It took me 15 minutes. After, I was crying like a baby.”
Today, De Groot, a retired realtor with three children and four grandchildren, says his problems are mostly gone. Part of the struggle, he says, was that few wanted to hear about the war when Vietnam vets returned home – including other vets.
When De Groot applied for his first job after being discharged, he says he was told not to discuss Vietnam with co-workers.
When it came to writing his book years later, however, he didn’t hold back. He writes of witnessing drug abuse by soldiers on duty, rape and worse.
• • •
De Groot, a Cowan Heights resident, grew up in a small town in Minnesota.
By 1964, he’d graduated from a Chicago technology school with an associate’s degree in electronics and was married to Joy. The couple lived on Chicago’s north side but the following year his draft notice arrived. To avoid the infantry, De Groot enlisted and signed up for the Army’s signal school.
Joy moved to Seal Beach to live with her sister and raise the couple’s baby daughter. De Groot arrived in Vietnam in September 1967. Six-foot-one and 250 pounds, De Groot says Vietnamese children called him “beaucoup kilo” for lots of weight.
The nickname stuck and eventually became the name of De Groot’s newly published book, “Bu Ku Kilo: One Viet Nam Vet’s Reflections.”
A year ago, De Groot picked up a legal pad and pencil and started writing. His goal was to publish before his 70th birthday last fall. He made it, barely.
It’s just 82 pages including war-time photographs, but reading De Groot’s book is emotionally difficult. In an effort to stay true to the times, the author decided to write in the rough vernacular of men at war.
At first, Joy refused to type the manuscript. Eventually, she agreed. The couple’s pastor advised the rough language was OK, so long as it was pertinent to the story.
Although his detail nearly overwhelms at times – and is too much for this column – De Groot explains his goal is to bring home the reality of the Vietnam War.
To that effort, De Groot succeeds. A collection of anecdotes, the work is deeply disturbing. But being disturbed is sometimes necessary.
The work helps explain what kind of things happen that cause post traumatic stress syndrome, and why PTSD continues to affect the lives of many Vietnam vets.
• • •
The year De Groot arrived in Vietnam, 11,363 Americans were killed. The next year, 16,899.
He writes about being deeply shaken seeing nearly 300 bodies stacked up for days, waiting to be shipped back to the United States.
“Vietnam was such a mess, so much crap, so much turmoil, so much garbage, so much deception,” De Groot tells me. Of writing his book, he explains, “I’ve never read a book that was an authentic rendition of what happened there.”
De Groot writes about receiving death threats after reporting the pot-smoking guards, of young single men sharing prostitutes, how he followed orders to shoot a supposedly rabid dog, seeing flies buzzing around collections of enemy ears.
He also writes about Viet Cong slitting American throats during the Tet Offensive. And he writes about the time he spotted a boy holding a grenade and how he nearly blew the child’s head off before the boy dropped the grenade and ran away.
In my way of thinking, nearly all who serve are heroes. There are no heroes in De Groot’s book. But valor isn’t why he shares his story.
No matter how ugly the roots of PTSD are, they need to be exposed and understood.