Walter Pearson finds that country life not only provides inspiration for a good yarn, but also relief for long-open wounds.
Nobody speaks English in my town, not even my son. So when another English speaker comes to visit, I cannot shut up. When our last visitor came up, we talked a lot over coffee in the morning and during the cool of the evening. I discovered my guest was someone with whom I have a lot in common, and at the same time very little.
We joined the army at about the same time, trained together, came to Vietnam together, were wounded together, and that was it. He stayed 20 years in the army and became a physical training instructor. I got out, studied East Asian history and Chinese and became a journalist. Yet, the experiences we shared keep us connected. And the post-traumatic stress disorder, too, I guess.
He came to my home in the bush for a stay, his first time back in Vietnam since the war. Seeing him up close after not being in each other’s presence for two decades or so, I was struck by how PTSD and personality combine.
PTSD and years of teaching young men how to overcome pain barriers, carry out anti-ambush drills, engage in minor infantry tactics and bear the hardships of the bush had created for my friend a worldview where survival is paramount.
I remember living in that world for years after discharge. It is a world where everything is a threat, every place has dangers and every person is suspect. It is a bi-polar world of the strong and the weak; the strong are to be admired and the weak are to be pitied. There is no room for self-reflection, just a commitment to action. There are only opportunities or problems. Opportunities are to be seized, and problems resolved. Then we move on. Always forward, never back. Just keep moving, keep doing.
My friend says he cannot read a book or sit still to see a movie through to the end. His sleep is so erratic he has a bed in another room away from his wife. He volunteers at the local football club as much as he can — the young people need leadership, need to understand loyalty and honour, and need to show self-discipline. He drives the war widows in his town to social gatherings once a week and mows their lawns for them — he thinks it is the least he can do because they remained loyal to their dead husbands and never re-married.
The world my friend lives in is very black and white; there are no nuances. There is no place for self-indulgence and no self-forgiveness. You either man up and accept your failures or avoid the issue through more action, drinking or drug taking.
However, there is something about bringing veterans back to Vietnam. I have conducted hundreds of veterans on tours and visits to the country. Without exception, the return has had positive effects. I consciously avoid clichés about ghosts being put to rest. The process is much more complex than that, and more personalised. No two veterans carry the same burden and therefore relief is different with every man. I had one veteran who felt guilty about his involvement here and thought he deserved to be hated by every Vietnamese. So I took him on a homestay in Ben Tre with my wife, Sister Eight and the Child Grace. His release from guilt came from his close association with them.
I think my friend who was visiting just needed time out, a forced break from taking action. His visit to the countryside did that. For two days after he arrived he slept in our hammock or on our couch. He went to bed early and woke up with the persistent pain in his back much reduced. His worldview had not changed. He still insisted I needed to take my son out and teach him how to fish — a good way to get a feed if times are tough. But my friend did sit down and read a book all the way through.
He relaxed, I think, for the first time in many years. He really enjoyed that weekend’s wedding. However, he did complain about the fact everyone, including me, was talking in Vietnamese.