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Helping veterans tell stories

Tom Smith shares tales from Vietnam

November 18, 2013
NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

SARANAC LAKE - Keene Valley's Tom Smith shouldn't be alive. In Vietnam, he was a 1st Cavalry Division helicopter scout pilot.

Helicopter pilots, especially scout pilots, flew through the heaviest enemy fire of the war. Cavalry Division scout pilots were hit hardest. Their attrition rates were 20 times that of U.S. Air Force pilots, their survival rate 40 to 50 percent, their life expectancy three weeks. Tom's job was to fly at speeds under 30 mph at treetop level, locating enemy soldiers, usually by drawing their fire.

It took Smith a long time to realize he lives with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition brought on, he shared with me, not so much by horrific combat experience - being shot down multiple times, trees snapping his copter's rotors off as it plunged earthward, looking down at gunmen whose bullets ripped through his fuselage - but by living with the daily grind of fear.

Article Photos

Pilot Tom Smith and his gunner “Wolfman” pose with their light observation helicopter (Photo provided)

"For me, PTSD comes more from living in a total environment of fear than from events precipitating it," Smith said. "When I got shot down, on fire - that was really scary. There was no place to put the helicopter down. I had to fly a burning helicopter for an inordinately long time to crash it. Terrifying. Getting shot down through 150 feet of trees, rotor blades being ripped off. Terrifying. And painful! My back and jaw were broken. I went in knowing what I was getting into. It's living daily in an environment of fear though - the fight-or-flight fear that doesn't go away - that stays with you leaving the hospital and going into civilian life. It changes you as much and more than any combat situation."

The writing he took up decades later has helped Smith come to terms with and speak openly about living with PTSD, its impact on him and his family. The long weekend of Oct. 24, StoryCorps, a Library of Congress nationwide oral history program, came to Saranac Lake to record interviews with two dozen veterans, service members and family members as part of their Military Voices project. Homeward Bound Adirondacks helped arrange the initiative, and I interviewed Smith for the program.

"A veteran of combat has entered another family, another world, another society, the laws, punishments and rewards of which were clear and defined," Smith said. "Coming back into the civilian world, they're a different person, think differently, their friends are different from what they were. Having relied on trusted colleagues to keep them alive in difficult situations, they need a long adjustment period to re-establish communication with people back home.

"Harder still, they've changed. They've gone beyond the world they were in. To talk to them, you've got to be as credible as those who shared their more recent world. So if you don't clearly know something that relates to them, or can't get that information to them quickly, they're generally not able to communicate with you. It's far easier for the veteran to communicate with people they knew in combat."

"When or how," I asked, "did you first realize you are living with PTSD?"

"To be honest with you, I still can't quite see it," Smith said. "I can't quite look at myself and say, 'You have PTSD.' I see the symptoms. I've written books on it. I've talked about it across the country. A large part of the difficulty is it's so ingrained in us. Living in an environment of fear, out looking for the enemy, you're in a heightened state of awareness, keyed to the fight-or-flight reflex. Getting home, you're not aware of that. The truth of the matter is that living in a combat zone or any kind of trauma involving fearsome environments doesn't go away. Every day the fight or flight is there - and still there - changing you as much as the combat situation.

"There are various stages. First, you don't believe it. It usually manifests in anger. Clearly, everyone around you is doing things that make you angry. They can't help it; you can't help being angry. From small things it progresses, reaching a point where marriages break down, friends ask what's wrong with you, you drink too much, crash a few cars. So you go seeking help. They say you have some form of PTSD, and you go into some form of denial. Problem is, that constant fear (What happened? What's coming? What do I think's coming?) is intertwined with some of the most well-structured, well-constructed parts of our lives. So it's very hard for us to see it.

"Writing my first book, 'Easy Target,' and looking back at it helped me see threads of fear within me, its peaks and valleys. But only when I wrote my second, 'Facing PTSD,' did the fear become obvious. I think the best thing for veterans is to talk about what's going on in their lives, why they're screwed up. We know what's happening, that it's happening, and shouldn't be embarrassed about it. We should talk about it. I've learned to assume no one knows what's going on in your head, even if you have explained it to them. Dealing with a veteran, you definitely have to assume you haven't a clue what's going on in their head.

"If someone wants to talk to a veteran about PTSD, I recommend beginning, 'I know I haven't a clue what's going on in your head. I can't conceive what brought it about or where it's gone. I know it's very troubling to you. I'm just here. I'm a friend of yours, and I want to hear.'

"I've heard some veterans say they are uncomfortable being thanked," I said. "'What are you thanking me for, the number of people I killed? The collateral damage I caused?' Of course they'd rather be thanked than spat upon, as happened to some Vietnam vets, and understand that people intend to show appreciation for their sacrifices; however, people can't understand what they've been through. What vets desire is someone's understanding their experience."

"Every guy is different," Smith said. "When I came back, I appreciated being thanked. I would say, 'I was just doing my job.'"

"Then what would you counsel a civilian to say, knowing they've not had your experience?" I asked.

"The best thing is, 'I know you're a veteran of war. I'm not. I have absolutely no idea what's going on in your head. I know it's uncomfortable and unpleasant at times. I'm your friend.' Or just, 'I'm here. I'm an interested person.' Also, 'Do you want to talk about it?' Your admitting you know nothing takes you out of the category of having to be qualified.

"I learned I had to apologize a lot. You can deal with anyone so long as you're aware. ... Feeling you're under attack the whole time is a big problem. You lash out! You need to recognize the irrational response to whatever you perceive the offense to be and learn to start apologizing. You can apologize four or five hundred times a day! That doesn't go out of their mind! Although it doesn't ease the force of your anger, just admitting and apologizing helps. To my son, I would say, 'Ti, this is what set me off. I am sorry. It shouldn't have. I reacted irrationally, and I apologize. It could happen again in the same situation, so please work with me on this.'"

"I hear you asking people to be straight with you, on the other hand, saying you also need to be straight back," I said.

"StoryCorps' Military Voices initiative provides spaces for veterans to tell their story to family members, friends or fellow veterans," said Homeward Bound Program Director Jordanna Mallach. "Sometimes they're uncomfortable speaking with someone they know personally, so a Homeward Bound staff member can be the facilitator. Homeward Bound was approached by StoryCorps. Did we know veterans interested in doing this? We had 24 recording spots and filled all but one. Many locales didn't have such a good turnout. I'm proud of our initiative."

This Veterans Day, National Public Radio aired excerpts of such recordings from across the country on "All Things Considered."



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