From Vietnam Veterans Against the War,

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Invisible Wounds - Part 2

By Joseph Giannini

East Hampton, New York
September 12, 2012

We were at war again. Afghanistan in 2001. Iraq in 2003. The stories and images of these wars cause vivid flashbacks and even more nightmares.

In counseling, Susan Mandel, LCSW, diagnosed me with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was in denial. I did not accept her diagnosis. I just could not believe it. It went against my image of being a strong person, both physically and mentally. Were it not for the insistence of my family, particularly my wife Nikki and my younger son Vic, I doubt very much if I would have sought help. Not for my severe hearing loss or for the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Although for many years I tried to leave Nam behind, my efforts proved to be futile. Vietnam is spreading through my life and thoughts, taking me away from the here and now. I watch everyone and everything as if through a sheet of gauze. I look at my two boys and wish that they could have known me better. Vietnam claimed my youth but it also shaped my life and destiny.

Theirs too. I want them to know I am not lost to them, just on a long journey back.

At present I am under the care of Dr. Stephen Friedes, a psychiatrist. At first I resisted his suggestion that medication could help me with some of the symptoms of my post-traumatic stress. I have never been a big believer in that kind of thing. Taking drugs to help you cope with your life. Cope with what? I mean it is not as if we are living in a combat zone. I continued to see Dr. Friedes. My symptoms were getting worse. I came to see that I had been living with a lot of unresolved issues about my time in Vietnam. That the nightmares, sudden inexplicable outbursts of rage and my general avoidance of social contact really date back to my return from Nam.

They took a toll. On my wives, on my sons, and others. About ten months ago Dr. Friedes finally convinced me that my snowballing symptoms were not going to go away on their own. I agreed to give medication a try. I am now taking Zoloff daily, for anxiety and depression. I am not sure if it is helping me or not. My concentration and memory problems are still getting worse. But I notice that on some mornings when I wake up I do not have that awful feeling of dread.

I sleep only with the help of a strong sleep aid. Every night without fail I take Tylenol PM, three or four 500 mg tablets. (The maximum recommended dosage of this medication is 1,500 mg per day.) A study came out showing that prolonged use of this medication can be damaging to the liver. Fortunately I have never been a drinker. On special occasions I may have a bottle of beer or a glass of wine just to be sociable. I continue to work out daily and surf as often as possible. I deem both of these activities to be self-therapy. They help keep the daytime demons at bay and tire me out so I can sleep. Even if doing so opens the door for the night demons and their terrors.

I wish now that I had been able to share some of what I did and saw in Vietnam with my two sons. It might have made all of our lives more bearable. The cost is not so high.

In 2003, a surfing buddy of mine put me in touch with a young Marine who had had a run-in with the law. He was just back from Iraq. He had been in heavy combat. His battalion fought in the Battle of Nasaria. I agreed to defend him. In court, I made a motion to dismiss the charges against him in the interest of justice, citing the young Marine's exemplary and brave service in the Corps and War. The motion was granted.

This Marine is presently on his second tour in Afghanistan. He sends me a steady stream of emails describing "the truth on the ground." Recently he wrote about the deaths of two of his buddies. One by an IED and the other by small arms. He titled the messages "Moments of Remembrance." Most of the e-mails end with the words "Don't Forget Us." I cannot.

In a recent dream, I'm alone. On my stomach in a dirt field. Attempting to disarm an IED by moving a little metallic silver ball down a narrow metal groove. Calmly facing death. If the ball turns red, it means I've failed. The IED will arm and explode. Using my left index finger, slowly I move the ball along. Left to right. It flashes red. I'm dead.

Double-Time Duffy and Soft Targets, are two of the many non-fiction pieces I wrote in the writing class my wife insisted I take. I submitted Double-Time Duffy to The East Hampton Star at my instructor's suggestion. I was amazed to see it published. They wanted to see other stories I had written so I continued to submit. The Star has so far published about 10 of them, some including photographs I loaned them. When my writing instructor and a few close friends saw how much my confidence was boosted by seeing my writing in print they became very interested in seeing my work appear as much as possible.

Knowing that I had carried those memories inside for 34 years without putting them into words, spoken or written. With their encouragement my stories were also published in an international magazine and in a special veteran's issue of a literary journal. The only time I got paid for my writing was from the magazine. It would have been nice to earn money as a writer. I am not earning money like I used to as an attorney. This is hurting me and my family. They have rightful expectations of me that I can no longer meet. The pain and stress of this have hit me hard. It keeps getting harder. Harder to get work. Harder to do my job well when I am retained. The combination of all the trauma, the hearing impairment, the memory loss, the anxiety in public, make even the most minor court appearances difficult. Several times a day I am overcome by exhaustion. Brought on by I don't know what. The things I used to be able to do.

Collateral Damage
JFK Airport, NYC
June 24, 1967
"Babe I'll be back in a little while." Kissed her one last time. Turned and walked away. I was 23 years old. Turned 25 in Vietnam. Thirteen months later I was home. That young man she knew never came back. Physically I was here. Much of my psych was there. I realize now, she kept it secret, our marriage died In Country. Back in the states I tried not to think about my buddies still there. Didn't speak about Nam. Wouldn't read or watch anything about the war. Sure I was relieved to be back in The World. The twitch was gone. I took up tennis. Worked out. Surfed as much as possible. I knew I wouldn't go back. Got out of the Corps just before they gave me orders to return. I still have dreams I was sent back. I'm there. Annette suffered while I was gone. I should never have asked her to marry me. We were together two weeks before I left. How naïve. It wasn't good between us when I got her pregnant. She agreed to abort. Her parents changed her mind. Ron knows I didn't want him. I left them before he was born. She moved on. Re- married. Me too.

When he was an infant I tried to take him every weekend. He hated going with me. Would run away from me. I chased him down. He would punch and kick me. Scream, "I hate you" again and again. I never left without him. Ron had a little security blanket. He would put it over his head as we drove off.

I was driving to my place downtown. Going over the Gowanus Canal. Ron is three years old. Sitting in the passenger seat. Head under his blanket. He must have screamed "I hate you" twenty times since we left Annette's.

I lost it. Yelled, "Fuck you."

Finally silence.

Slowly he pulled the blanket off his head. Looked over and said, "I don't really hate you. I love you."

My dad always said I had the patience of a saint. I was too busy and self absorbed to see the change in Ron. Nikki did. She recognized the symptoms. Counseling hasn't worked. He's not an easy person to be around. Always complaining. Trying to annoy me. He does. Knows it. Wants my attention. So different from Vic, his half brother. There are many good things I remember about Ron. Especially his feistiness as a young child. Took him everywhere with me. Beach, gym, boxing matches, court. He didn't take to surfing or working out. I thought he was being independent. Now at thirty-one he's working out. Just got a tattoo on his right shoulder. A gargoyle with wings sitting on a skull. Says it means he's fleeing from evil. Maybe he means life.

Next, Invisible Wounds, Part 3, about Joe being diagnosed, in 2013 as having Chronic Ischemic Coronary Heart Disease. On the list of "presumptive diseases" caused by Agent Orange since 2010!

Joseph Giannini, a local criminal defense attorney, served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 with the First Battalion, Third Marines. A victim of Agent Orange, he is currently writing a book of short, non-fiction stories about fate, surfing, and war.

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