Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tom Sullivan: Saving Lives, Then as Now


Tom Sullivan was 17 when he enlisted in the army. It was 1968, and the tone of the country at the time was not so anti-war as it would be later. He was initially for the war, saying simply, “your country was at war, you went.” He turned 18 during basic training at Fort Dix, in New Jersey, then trained as a medic at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. When he was then due to go over to Vietnam, his parents asked that he not go—as his brother was already there—so he spent a few months working at a small hospital in Alabama before joining his unit in the 101st Airborne.

During his first tour, he was assigned to an operations unit. Their job was to repel into the jungle ahead of an offensive and cut landing zones so other helicopters could later land. As such, they were often the first ones in during any operation. His first time out in the field with his unit was in the A Shau Valley, in Vietnam’s Thura Thien Province. There was trouble getting the troops around Hill 973 (aka, Hamburger Hill) resupplied, so his unit went in to cut landing zones. It was “a hot place, a lot of contact, a lot of NVA (North Vietnamese Army) troops.” If the ground troops needed help, they stayed and worked as ground troops themselves, “humping through the jungle.” He turned 19 in the A Shau Valley. He then worked for a few months with an engineering company as a senior aide man—he was then a sergeant—before going home for a month.

On his second tour, he flew dust-off, working as a medic on a medical evacuation helicopter. Their job was to go into the field, pick up wounded soldiers, and bring them out. He left the military when he arrived home after the second tour.

He now works as a clinical instructor in Boston, and does outreach for the VA, interviewing returning service-members to ascertain if they may be at risk for developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and helping to set them up for treatment. He has two sons that are currently serving in the War in Iraq and the War in Afghanistan.

“What were the things that you had the hardest time with, or the most difficulty adjusting to?”

Tom: “I was a medic, so I always had a focus, which was taking care of the guys we were with, you know, jungle, combat environment. It’s not just, you know, bullets and shit flyin’, it’s keeping them from getting jungle rot, and all that stuff. Mostly adjusting… it was the heat, and you know we didn’t exactly eat high off the hog when we were out. So, not eating a lot, not sleeping… sleeping up against a tree, stuff like that, or digging a hole and sleeping in that. That was the biggest adjustment. Getting used to it, and the heat--it was the jungle, triple canopy jungle, mostly. We were very rarely out in the lowlands near the ocean, although a few times we were, and again it was very hot. I was always wet. Let me put it to you this way: I was either wet from sweating, or wet from the monsoons, when they came, and it basically rained for months. It was the climate.”

“Were there any events that you can think of that really stood out more, where you think that reality has completely changed?”

Tom: “Coming out, they were shooting at us, when we were first repelling in. There was a lot of shooting going on, but a lot of it was around us, not really at us. Our job was to get help in to those under contact. It would really be after, not during; you were so focused, and it’s hard to describe, but every sense of your body is heightened when you get in the shit. It’s like incredible. It’s indescribable. And so, just settling down after that, would be sort-of tough.

“But, it wasn’t so much the first time, or anything like that; it was just really, those that stood out were those that in retrospect, jeez, you know, maybe I could’ve done this, and he would’ve lived—that kind of stuff.”

“What about when you came home, was it tough adjusting to life back home?”

Tom: “It was really tough, yeah. Actually when I came home, when I was flying… I had one crew chief killed, then the other one got killed, and the family asked me to escort the body home. So that’s how I came home. And you gotta remember the times, like, we were all freakin’ baby-killers and stuff, which wasn’t true. And people were very much against the war.” Tom was seated next to a woman on the plane who was working for a Congressman that was against the war. He told her that he was just coming back from the war himself, but that he respected her for taking a stand in something she believed in. On returning from the restroom later, the woman had left, having asked to change her seat. “So I just thought to myself, so this is how it’s going to be,” he said. “Anderson for the Washington Post truly did us a huge disservice: it was one article after the other, about how we were all f’ed up and on drugs. The research actually showed, in retrospect, that less than 5% of us were. And on TV, it was always a Vietnam vet going crazy…. We were treated really badly. Even the WWII vets didn’t want to have anything to do with us, for the most part. So it was tough, it was tough coming back. And you didn’t tell people…. But you won’t see a lot of Vietnam Vets like you used to see the WWII and Korean vets at VFW posts, ‘cause we just don’t go, because of the way it was when we first came home.”

“How do you feel PTSD affected your life before you were diagnosed?”

Tom: “It was just in retrospect. I always had it, but not to the level… it just sort of exploded on me. I was having tons of flashbacks, a lot, and I said, everybody must have this who’s been in combat. And so I used to just work, totally, I worked a lot. And that helped, sort of like a work-a-holic, to get it out, and it was always on-the-edge type shit. It was always nursing where life and death was an aspect of what I was doing. It was tough, and then it finally exploded, when I was like 48. I think it just got out of control.

“But see, when I went to the VA when I first got home, I was 121 pounds and couldn’t pick up a cup of coffee without spilling it on myself. When I went to the VA for help, they gave me endless prescriptions for valium, said ‘good luck, you’ll be dead by the time you’re 50, there’s nothing we can do,’ you know, and ‘don’t drink.’ You know, that kinda shit. Whereas when I went when I was 48, it was incredible. It was like ‘where you been?’” They helped him to realize that he was having flashbacks, and that he had been coping by avoiding situations. He spent a couple of weeks in a locked psychiatric ward, then a couple more in a regular psychiatric ward. He was out of work for 3 months. “Tons of meds. I was on tons of medication. Now I’m on very little for what my diagnosis is, the severity of it. And I do a lot, a lot, with Tai Chi…. Sleep’s still an issue, you know, but fuck it, I’m alive, you know; that’s not a big deal. But at one time I used to wake up every night at three o’clock in the morning, drenched in sweat, to the point where I used to even sleep with towels. You know, couldn’t go out in public; somebody touched me, I want to kill ‘em. Stuff like that. It was dangerous, very dangerous, and suicide was also an issue. You know, although I kept it under wraps, I never went ahead and did it, I was real close a few times. So, it was pretty bad.

“But now, no, now… I have to be careful. My home life is good. My wife understands most of the time…. Basically, what I need to do is be in control of my environment, so, like, if there’s a sound I can’t identify, I have to identify it before I feel safe…. Because, you know, out in the jungle, and every little thing, that’s combat, like hyper-alert…. I’m on very little medication now, as I said, in comparison to somebody who has my diagnosis, the severity of it.”

“Do you know of other people who probably have PTSD, and didn’t get care, and has it been a big problem for them?”

Tom: “Most of them I try to convince to go now (to the VA). A lot of them committed suicide, you know, years ago, or through their lifestyle died, through drinking and whatever, and drugs. A lot of the Vietnam vets… (the VA) they didn’t know how to treat it (PTSD), didn’t want to treat it, or whatever…. It’s been around for quite a while.”



Of the more than 3 million U.S. service-members that served in Vietnam, 31% of men and 27% of women were found to have suffered from PTSD.  The repercussions of PTSD among Vietnam veterans—as with veterans from all of our nation’s wars—cannot be overstated: increased rates of crime (almost half of all male Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD have been arrested or jailed at least once), domestic violence, divorce, joblessness, homelessness, drug-abuse, death due to excessive risk-taking behavior, and suicide.  There is even evidence of increased suicide rates among the children of Vietnam veterans (a study of Australian Vietnam veterans found that their children were three times more likely to have committed suicide.) 

The effects of PTSD on the nation as a whole—and more-so on individuals and families—are mostly silent, and yet, profound.  And with estimated cases of PTSD from our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan approaching 30%, the stage is set for more trajedy.  However, with greater awareness of its prevalence and symptoms, more effective treatment, and more military and societal acceptance and support, the hope is that PTSD’s effects can be mitigated.  Tom Sullivan would say that he plays a very small role in that mitigation; but the truth is that, through his efforts, he has probably saved lives, and certainly a great deal of heartache.  

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