Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

The War Comes Home: The Vietnam War ended long ago. But, for many veterans, it never truly stopped.

Search the term “Vietnam War” online, and you’ll get more than 30 million results. There will be pictures, descriptions of the war, a lot of websites with facts and a few with opinions.

Most online accounts list April 1975 as the end of the war. But if you ask anyone who lived through that era, that date may be more opinion than fact.

The United States had already pulled out of Vietnam two years earlier with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. After a short ceasefire, fighting resumed between North and South Vietnam until April 30, 1975. That was the day Communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, forcing South Vietnam to surrender, officially bringing an end to the war, at least in the eyes of most historians.

Many people who have served in war zones say that the war doesn’t end just because you get your orders to go home.

Ann Thompson was an Army Nurse in Vietnam working at the 93rd EVAC Hospital in Long Binh, Vietnam, from 1964 to 1965.

“When I got home, I felt such a sense of relief, until I understood that war doesn’t stop the minute you land at Dulles,” she said. “It keeps on playing for you.”

Thompson knows that the “tape that keeps playing” is not unique to her own experiences in a war zone. Today, she volunteers at the Lebanon VA Medical Center, helping other veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“If you talk to Vietnam veterans, they say this tape is running in my mind—this particular battle, this particular day,” she said. “We ask young men to make life and death decisions, and they’re 18!”

Very Stressed

Flashbacks, upsetting memories and anxiety were common for those returning from Vietnam, as it was for veterans of the world wars, Korea and every conflict since. For hundreds of years the symptoms have been the same, but they’ve gone by different names like “shell shock” and “battle fatigue.” Vietnam vets were the first to have the term “PTSD” applied to them.

Thompson recalled an experience from years ago when she was shopping at a mall with a friend.

“They were having a sidewalk sale, so there all these tables out there,” she said. “Ten pair of tube socks for $1.”

The pathway between the shops was narrow, and it was hot, she said.

“I was with my friend, Carolyn, and she was walking ahead of me, and behind me I heard this Vietnamese chatter, and, all of a sudden, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, where am I?’ I didn’t know that I was in Lebanon.”

Carolyn saw that Thompson was suddenly very stressed.

“And she said, ‘What’s the matter with you?’” she said. “And I said, ‘We need to get a soda.’  That Vietnamese chatter was just enough to remind me of the markets in Saigon. You know, that are crowded and hot and noisy, and everybody’s chattering away.”

Without any warning, her memories triggered the old feelings of stress and anxiety she had experienced while working in a war zone.

“And I didn’t feel safe in Lebanon, Pennsylvania,” she said. “I didn’t feel safe.”

In 1998, Thompson traveled back to Vietnam. There, she met a former soldier wearing a cap that said, “Vietnam Veteran.”

“So I went up to him and asked, ‘Why are you here?’ and he said, ‘I came to change the tapes in my mind.’”

Past the Past

Bob Smoker, a veteran from York, traveled back to Vietnam on a mission trip. He was surprised to find the trip to be very therapeutic. While talking to local men, he found out that most Vietnamese soldiers have not held onto memories of the war like their American counterparts. Why?

“Well, suppose you and I loved the same girl,” he said. “We date the same girl at the same time, and we have good times and bad times with her. But I marry her and you go home. Twenty years later, all you have left is memories of the girl, whereas she and I have built a whole new life together. We’ve built a new history together. All you have are memories.”

Smoker now helps other vets travel to Vietnam so they can replace the old memories with new ones.

“We all deal with things that are difficult,” he said. “But I’ve come to believe firmly that we don’t have to let the past dictate who we are today. For the average person, it’s possible to get past the past. That doesn’t mean you have to go back to Vietnam. There’s ways of building a new history without going back to Vietnam. But (creating new memories) is an important thing that can be done, and (it will) help a person get past the past.”

He’s been back 13 times.

Thompson agrees with the concept of replacing old memories with new ones. She now volunteers at the Lebanon VA Medical Center, helping other veterans work through their own experiences with PTSD. She said that talking about past events can be therapeutic.

“If you talk about it out loud, it doesn’t seem quite as horrible as your mind projects it to be,” she said. “It’s difficult, but we think it’s important that people understand that war doesn’t end when we come home.”

For Thompson and Smoker and many veterans, PTSD remains a reality of everyday life.  But like any good soldier, they aren’t giving up the fight. 

Michael J. Williams contributed this story on behalf of WITF, a community publisher for TheBurg. On Sept. 17, WITF will premiere, “The Vietnam War,” a 10-part, 18-hour documentary directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.


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