by The Brown Suga Poet, Stacey Tolbert
If you surf the Internet and type in the phrase, “Children of Vietnam veterans,” you’ll find a number of websites about Agent Orange, memorial funds and education scholarships. Finding information about the psychological effects of the Vietnam War is like playing an advanced game of Where’s Waldo?
Check out a few library books, find a few quotes from thesis papers, circle your friends, put a check by your neighbors and place a large X on your colleagues. The children of Vietnam veterans are living, breathing, survival kits, and their names aren’t etched on walls, highlighted in yearbooks, portrayed on TV shows or chronicled in important red-trimmed collector magazines.
But, hey, this is a start—my start.
Mom and Dad had a classic case of high school sweetheart-itis and got married right after graduation in 1968. Dad couldn’t wait to be drafted and, in all his manliness, joined the Army—after all, the ’50s taught boys how to be brave and strong like John Wayne. He left for Vietnam in 1969 and arrived home in 1971. A year later, I was conceived, the recipient of his eyes, his hair and his war.
Growing up, I was mad at my father. I always questioned, how could a man with a Purple Heart be so heartless to his only daughter? After numerous broken promises and “the mailman lost your birthday card” years, I knew there had to be a reason why he wasn’t functioning. He wasn’t hanging out on street corners with signs telling the world he would work for food, but he cradled Jack Daniels, shared his combat injuries with E & J and lectured to camouflage bed sheets that went bump in the night.
An analytical child who loved to write, I decided to keep a journal. One of my first entries as a mature 11-year-old was, “I feel like peanut butter without the jelly. Spaghetti with no sauce. Chocolate with no milk. Half of an Oreo. Maybe it’s because I’m only 50 percent myself.” To some, this entry may sound a bit strange, but the background behind it was that my knowledgeable fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Anderson, told my whole class that we were made up of 50 percent of our fathers and 50 percent of our mothers, and since my father was nowhere around, I concluded that I was only 50 percent human.
After more biology courses and a dozen more Mrs. Andersons, of course I learned the real DNA dissertation, but I do think there was some truth in the 11-year-old professor that I was. Fifty percent isn’t whole. The older I got, the more my father came in and out of my life. Our conversations went like this: “Hey, baby, how are you?”
“Fine, Daddy, how are you?”
Then I would listen for five minutes as he tried to talk and cry at the same time. When I reached my 20s, I developed the keen gift of becoming bilingual. I could interpret the cry-talk. Great gift I had, but he still wasn’t saying much, and by that time I didn’t want to hear the not-much he was saying.
I became bitter. I decided that men were jerks in general with very few exceptions (granddads, uncles and some boys who were friends). No matter what I did, I still felt like that 50 percent 11-year-old. In my mid-20s, I decided there had to be a reason for this feeling. My daddy wasn’t talking about his life, and the time I spent with him was like something out of a bad B-movie. I became obsessed with war movies—specifically any movies that dealt with the Vietnam War. It made me feel closer to understanding the cry-talk. My mother spoke of how Vietnam “changed him and turned him into some other violent, alcoholic man—not the man she hugged goodbye.” I still kept a journal; I began to write down all my feelings and the bits and pieces of information I learned about the war.
Countless others have traveled down the same lonely road—the 50-percent road. The Leave it to Beaver/Bill Cosby/Sesame Street fathers we craved were MIA. While Madonna was being touched like a virgin for the first time, Prince was bathing in Purple Rain, two-toned pants were fresh, flowered jeans were the rage and Bloods vs. Crips dominated the evening news, pre-teen POWs were coming of age and Doctor Spock had no cure for the unseen war abrasions they were suffering.
Though 1973 marked the official end of the Vietnam War, according to Department of Defense casualty records research, eight of every 10 Vietnam vets have children and 90 percent of those children are plagued with being overachievers, low self-esteem-ers, non-committal, trustworthy but distrustful, survivors of parental substance abuse and violent outbreaks, over-indulgers, void fillers, thrill seekers, emotional introverts, social extroverts, possibly suicidal, controllers, wounded warriors.
A warrior myself, I set out to learn even more. I decided to design a survey to find out from children of Vietnam vets what their lives had been like. I sent the survey out via e-mail to various online groups, friends and family. Those recipients in turn sent the survey out to their friends and families and a much-needed domino effect resulted.
The goal of the survey was to delve deeper into the psychology of being the child of a Vietnam vet. I asked survey recipients whether they had high or low self-esteem. Did they have trust issues? Were they or their parents abusive and did they use drugs and alcohol? The survey also asked whether they had a relationship with their fathers and if their parents were married or divorced and also how they felt about war in general. Survey responses came from the four corners of the United States and a few participants’ answers struck me so deeply that they turned into in-depth conversations about war, life and friendships. The results from the survey taught me a lot about the war’s aftermath, which, by the way, has no solution, just a myriad of whys and 30-plus years of proof that two generations have a common denominator.
A friendly dog greeted me at the door. I thought it odd that a dog would be at someone’s workplace. A tall man with slightly erased and re-written story lines on his face welcomed me in. During the first five minutes Jerry Stadtmiller spoke, I only watched his crooked mouth move. I desperately attempted to make eye contact until I realized the sniffy dog was there because Stadtmiller lost 95 percent of his eyesight in Vietnam. The words, “Yeah, a month after I was there, I got shot in the head, lost half my face, most of my tongue—and what you see as my nose was once my hip bone,” echoed in my mind.
Jerry’s story went like this: A young man attended a Jesuit college, decided he wanted to be in the military, spent six weeks at officer-candidate training school, joined the Marine Corps as a rifleman in October and left for Vietnam in May. During his 30-day stay in “the jungle,” he endured a series of horrible experiences, including wiping brains off of AK-47s, listening to his closest friends get killed, then going to “chow” and overhearing someone else asking to eat dead soldiers’ food. In a matter of four weeks, the poodle-skirt morals with which he was indoctrinated and the reality of war was like one bad oxymoronic dream.
“One of the hardest things for me was thinking to myself that we—us and them—don’t know each other,” Stadtmiller said. “They have no choice but to be here. Some of us had a choice to be there or not. We don’t hate each other, but in less than 10 seconds we are going to try to kill each other. We are going to each be cold-blooded murderers. I didn’t want to kill but I didn’t want to be killed either.”
Stadtmiller is now the PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) program director for the Vietnam Veterans of San Diego. He counsels other Vietnam veterans who without him or the program could not otherwise afford therapy. He uses his own personal experience to help them face unbearable, previously unspeakable memories by practicing a coping-skills technique that allows them to talk to the “little boys” they used to be. His favorite reaction to his healing work: “This shit is real, and I am that little boy.”
No elaborate cinematic set design could have prepared me for the journey of memories he took me on.
“Ugly, brutal, terrorizing, chaos, insane, helpless, betrayed”—these are the words that come to Stadtmiller’s mind when asked to sum up his feelings about war. It’s a widely known fact that Vietnam veterans had and have substance-abuse problems (60 percent at some time in their lives) but as Jerry broke the war down to me in historical and emotional phonetics, it was clear that to be numb 24/7 served a purpose, and a slew of vets came home still continuing to numb themselves to keep the memories frozen. After much discussion about using drugs and alcohol to sublimate, he posed a series of thought-provoking questions to me:
“Think back to yourself at 19 years old. Could you kill innocent people? Watch them die? Clean up the mess? Cover your friend’s decapitated body? Eat? Barely sleep and be expected to do it all again the next day without being numb?”
Later in the conversation, he finally spoke of his children. His eagerness to talk, though, slowed to a crawl. His two children have been impaired by self-esteem, depression and over-achiever issues. Of all the victims of Lyndon B. Johnson’s war, Stadtmiller agrees that children of Vietnam vets are the ones whose suffering is most unseen, rarely talked about or acknowledged. When I asked him if he was close to his children, with a slow, steady nod, blind eyes closed, he said, “Yes, but we’ve gotten even closer within the last three or four years, I can talk to them better now and they understand more.”
At that moment, a piece of me became enraged with my father, who had no relationship with me, at least not like Jerry had with his children.
Whether numbed from alchohol or drugs or frozen in time from shock, the psychological coolness from war had a chilling effect on the wives and children with whom the vets were reunited.
In my survey of children of vets, I asked the same question Jerry asked me—could they have done, at age 19, what their fathers were forced to do? The answer was, expectedly, “no.” The heavy bag o’ pains their fathers carried from war began piling up in red, white and blue urban households.
“Although I had a wife and two children I loved dearly,” said Mike Trotter, a Vietnam vet who had a drinking problem for 15 years, “I never really did come home, and my kids had to deal with a man who had no idea what [post traumatic stress disorder] was until 1985, almost 20 years after I physically came back to the states.”
I pondered Trotter’s response and wondered if my father would have had the same answer. In all the research I was doing, I never once had a conversation with my father about the war. He couldn’t bear to talk about it, not even in cry-talk. The only thing he ever said to me about Vietnam was, “Yes, I served. I served proudly. I got a lot of purple hearts, and couple of injuries—read the yearbook.”
Yvette Brown, a 27-year-old service-learning facilitator at Anacostia Senior High School in Washington, D.C., responded to my survey and we continued to correspond through e-mail. Brown told me what her father’s thawing-out process was like:
“As a small child I didn’t have the pleasure of running into my parents’ room and waking my father by pouncing on the bed, or share an afternoon nap in his arms. Even as an adult I am unable to wake him unless I do so from the foot of the bed,” Brown said. “If I wake him in any other way, there’s a 50/50 chance I could lose my life. My mother learned this lesson the hard way when she startled him from a dream and ended up with his hands wrapped around her neck. Her accounts of his actions during nightmares of ’Nam have drilled the ‘how to wake daddy’ lesson into my brain. It’s just one of the many ‘hazards’ of living with and loving a Vietnam vet. As a child of a Vietnam vet you learn to deal with the silence, unanswered questions and sounds of a grown man groaning like a frightened child.”
While children of Vietnam vets swallowed parts of themselves and digested the unpleasant fact that their fathers couldn’t commit to parenthood, stable jobs, wives or life in general, I found through my survey that many children of these men find it difficult to make commitments themselves as well, mainly because to commit means to place value or trust in something and in themselves. Low self-esteem eats away at the children of vets and manifests itself in the form of the people-who-have-everything-and-do-everything-well syndrome or people-who-are-always-struggling-to-do-well-and-never-feel-it’s-good-enough syndrome. According to more than 50 interviews and surveys I did between 2001 and 2003, roughly nine of every 10 children of Vietnam vets have low self-esteem.
Teresa Hyman, a 32-year-old editorial assistant for Hallmark cards in Kansas City, fits squarely in the over-achiever category. When asked about self-esteem issues in relation to her experiences with her father, she shared some painful memories that you won’t hear at any memorial service or in any war-movie narration:
“The stresses of the day-to-day perils of the war, the stresses of the return to American life, all worked against them upon their return. How were they supposed to impart successful coping skills to their children when, as a result of their war experiences, a lot of them did not have coping skills themselves?
“I cannot speak for all children of Vietnam veterans,” Hyman continued, “but I know that I was always trying to live up to my father’s expectations, and for some reason, I could never meet them. I am definitely an overachiever. When I made A’s and B’s in school, my father would look at the B’s and say, ‘What happened here?’ When I made all A’s, he’d say, ‘You should have done that the last time.’ I couldn’t win. When I asked him why, he told me, ‘Because I never want you to be in a situation where you just can’t win for losing—where no one appreciates your efforts, where the good you think you are doing really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.”
Many veterans did indeed feel like they couldn’t win for losing and imparted that theory upon the very children who deemed them mythic heroes with green-and-tan capes. Unfortunately, when they arrived back from peril, they were embedded with tangible internal weapons of mass destruction—diseases, fewer limbs and a buffet of addictions.
“Thank you” banners for bravery were scarce, however, and soldiers who fought as hard as they could were accused of being losers, addicts and baby killers. A Vietnam veteran said to me: “We did that. We were that. We felt guilty. For years, I never told anyone I was I was a veteran. I felt like a mistake. I lied and told people I was in a motorcycle accident. Anything was better than being labeled a martyr.”
Vietnam veterans who suffered the most pain upon their return to the U.S. were those who were already traumatized in some way before going to war. Thirty percent of before-and-after traumatized vets are the ones the public drives by on the streets—the ones who are holding up cardboard signs, rusty coffee cans, wearing tattered fatigues and looking like the joy’s been sucked out of them. They are not all frauds, snakes or shady panhandlers. (Of course, if he’s 19, with a new pair of Converse on his feet and has no idea what NVR means, he may not be a Vietnam vet.)
Somewhere—a few blocks away or millions of miles away—their children are growing up fatherless and being inundated by happy television accounts of heroic military men and and women reuniting with loved ones, cloaked in glad-to-see-you roses and yellow ribbons.
Nearing the end of my detective work, I was introduced to yet another variable in the equation. Twenty-eight-year-old Ly Nguyen’s father spun the wheel of life and got the double whammy: Vietnam vet who happened to also be born in Vietnam.
What did that mean? During the war, he and many others were part of the South Vietnamese Air Force, which became a part of the United States Air Force. His job was to kill his own people. Needless to say, when he and his family arrived in the states, they were not welcomed and he was not considered a war hero—or anything except, perhaps, a racial slur.
Nguyen’s account of being a child of a Vietnam veteran is a strikingly similar recipe with a heavy dose of extra ingredients.
“My existence here in the United States is unique because I was conceived in Vietnam but born in Seattle,” she said. “I didn’t really realize that there was a connection to [my father’s] behavior and the war until my 20s. He had a lot of anger and violent tendencies. He wasn’t abusive all the time, but there were incidents of the violence. He was able to function, but he drank a lot, and when he drank things happened.
“My parents divorced and my dad totally left my life for 10 years,” she continued. “I never wanted to depend on any man. I think there are a lot of common issues between American children and Vietnamese children of Vietnam vets, but one difference was that South Vietnamese refugees that fought alongside Americans came to America by force and had to assimilate. There have been lots of films and platforms and stories have been told for American vets, but not anyone who was part of the South Vietnamese government.
“He never talked of war when I was a child,” said Nguyen, “but when I was in eighth grade, I had to ask him his role in the Vietnam War and all he said to me was, ‘I had to drop bombs on my own people.’ End of story. I reconnected with him at 27 and now we can talk about the past.”
When Nguyen told me that she “reconnected” with her father at 27, I envisioned a child and father running toward each other—happy violin music playing and the most perfect day you could ever imagine. When I thought of my reconnection with my father, it reminded me of a series of scattered puzzle pieces finally making a visible picture.
After growing pains and finally understanding that I was 100 percent me, reality called and left a message. At 29, I moved to San Diego, which brought me closer to my father, who had moved to L.A. when I was a teen. I visited him more often. The cry-talks turned into audible conversations that made sense. He now only sipped E & J, and he and Jack Daniels weren’t as close. He taught me the secret family Creole recipe. We talked about the four T’s: TV, Time magazine, telepathy and tunes.
Occasionally he tippy-toed around deeper conversations, but never war.
Never why he wasn’t there when James hit me in the arm in seventh grade.
Never why he had to guess my favorite color.
Never why he hated certain smells.
In May of 2003 he died. In a way, I had to say goodbye to the father I wanted him to be long ago and the new phase we entered caused me to begin a new journal.
These are the facts: I always loved him. He was a Vietnam veteran. I am a child of a Vietnam veteran. Children of Vietnam veterans are still warring, and lack of knowledge about the inner-war only makes for more unsettled hearts and questioning minds.
Break out the ammo and shoot for peace and understanding, or at least 50 percent of it.