PTSD: A War That Lives On Inside Him

Robert Dorroh
By Robert Dorroh March 15, 2010 17:25

Joe Garcia (right) in Khe Sahn foxhole, 1967

The screaming rockets and bursts of cannon fire during the Vietnam War still haunt the dreams of Marine veteran Joe Garcia, 62.

The nightmares and flashbacks are among many symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects many war veterans and others.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after a terrifying event where the person was physically harmed or felt threatened. Garcia enlisted in August 1966 at age 19 and was a “rocket humper” and mortar gunner with L Co. 3rd Battalion 26th Marines.

Since then, it has been a challenge for Garcia to trust people and be around them. He buys his groceries early in the morning before it gets busy. He avoids picking up his mail when neighbors are present, rarely leaves his home, gets only three hours of sleep a night, has a bayonet in his bedroom and a rifle underneath his bed. He and his wife divorced 12 years ago.

Garcia traces the events that led to his PTSD to the beginning of his tour of duty in Vietnam, from December 1966 to February 1968. He had become close friends with a fellow Marine, Texan Pat Cochran – nicknamed “Roach” – who was killed in an ambush.

“I never got close to anybody anymore,” says Garcia, who started drinking heavily after the war. “It was very difficult for me. I just could not deal with friendship again.”

He helped set up ambushes and foxholes during the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh, part of the 1968 Tet Offensive. An estimated 700 to 1,000 U.S. soldiers died in that siege.

His unit was hounded by constant North Vietnamese army attacks in which whistling rockets and shrapnel often found targets in foxholes.

“I saw bits and pieces of bodies,” Garcia says. “We couldn’t even identify some of them.”

He is deeply affected by the fact that he survived and others didn’t.

“I sometimes wonder why I made it and others didn’t. I don’t know … I guess I have survivor’s guilt.”

Before Vietnam, “I was the kind of person who liked to make people laugh,” the Tuolumne County man recalls. “I was pretty social, always in a crowd.”

He came back a different person. He had never heard of PTSD until a few years ago, when fellow Chapter 391 veterans encouraged him to seek help. Though he attends a monthly support group and gets counseling, daily life is often a struggle.

By sharing his story, he hopes other veterans affected by PTSD will realize that they are not alone, and perhaps seek treatment.

Says Garcia: “So many veterans are afraid to seek help, but they should.”

© 2010, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Robert Dorroh
By Robert Dorroh March 15, 2010 17:25
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