Dreams of war
But there are three dreams I recall clearly, two because their essentials were repeated and one because it was so vivid and poignant that I was determined to burn it in my memory.
Some people imagine combat is such a searing experience that we must have had nightmares while in Vietnam. That did not happen to me, nor anyone I knew. Sleep in Vietnam was always a sleep of deep fatigue, if not exhaustion. When I got a chance to sleep, I fell asleep quickly, slept deeply and awoke remembering no dreams.
I rotated home from Vietnam at the end of January, 1971. For several months before my discharge, I was a rifle coach in Range Company, Edson Range, Camp Pendleton, Calif. In Range Company I bunked in a large open squad bay (room) with about 40 other rifle coaches. There was no privacy. Normal conversations could be overheard across the room.
The young men sleeping in that room were mostly grunts who had returned from Vietnam in the previous two years. At night they dreamed. At least they talked, moaned, cried out and gritted their teeth in their sleep. Most of what they said was unintelligible. But I also remember hearing curses, radio call signs, combat jargon and names.
I awoke often in the night because I was used to waking up to stand watch every few hours. No doubt I was having dreams, too, but I remember none from that period.
I remember only one sleeping utterance in detail. I was awake late one night when a guy two or three bunks away said urgently, “Smitty! Nine o’clock!” He may not have been dreaming about Vietnam, but I assumed he was. I took it as a warning for “Smitty” to look at something to his left (9 o’clock).
After my discharge late in May, 1971, I entered college and tried to fit into campus life. I attended classes, studied and socialized, giving no special thought to Vietnam. I certainly didn’t talk much about Vietnam, since the war and veterans were completely out of favor on campuses at the time.
I dated several girls and got very involved with one I remember for her striking pale blue eyes, among other things. But the relationship was stormy and we broke up several times. We made a final break in, I believe, January, 1972.
After that I began sleeping badly and remembering dreams about Vietnam. At first I thought I was depressed because of the breakup. But I wasn’t dreaming about my girlfriend, I was dreaming about Vietnam. The end of the relationship was just a triggering event.
That was the beginning of a two-year bout with symptoms people now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But PTSD wasn’t documented until later in the 1970s. In 1972 I thought other Vietnam veterans were adjusting normally, and I was the only one going crazy. Eventually I resolved some of my strongest feelings about Vietnam and the PTSD symptoms faded away. Meanwhile I had many dreams about Vietnam.
The first dream I remember having at least twice. I dreamed CAP 2-7-2 was moving at night, single file, headed south on a trail that ran along the west side of an area we called The Island. I can give you the exact map coordinate of the spot — 034626.
The dream happened in slow motion, but in real time it would have taken only two or three seconds, the duration of one footstep. I was carrying machine gun ammo and walking behind the gunner when I saw the brilliant wink of a muzzle flash from the corner of my eye. It was far out across the rice paddies to the west.
From the corner of my eye I watched a single glowing tracer bullet floating slowly towards me, looking like a tiny ball of green light. I felt no anxiety even when it became clear the bullet was headed straight at me. It hit me in the upper right arm, smashing the bone then ripping into my chest. I felt a blow but no pain, and began slowly, slowly falling forward. The end.
I remember having the second dream at least three times although the details are not as clear as the first. I was leading a small daytime patrol. I knew we were in our ville, the way you know some things in dreams without being told, but I didn’t recognize the specific area. Walking point I suddenly spotted a VC fleeing through the brush. He saw me and ran. I gave chase along the winding footpaths of the ville, ducking between houses and skirting stands of bamboo.
Just as I was beginning to catch up with the VC, I saw him duck into a small Vietnamese house we called a hootch. I ducked into the hootch only seconds behind, my rifle ready. But there was nobody in the hootch except a woman and some children. Then I heard one of the patrol members shouting outside.
Dashing out I saw the VC fleeing into the bush. Again I gave chase with my patrol mates pounding along behind me. Again the VC ducked into a hootch and I followed on his heels and there was nobody inside but women and children. The same shout came from outside and the chase was on again.
I don’t know how many times that scenario repeated, but the dream was accompanied by a growing sense of frustration. The meaning of that dream was pretty obvious. It reflected the difficulty of finding Charlie among the civilians in our villes. I would wake up from the dream feeling angry and deeply frustrated.
I believe 1974 saw the end of my frequent dreams about Vietnam, although I awoke from one or two a year for a decade afterward. Stress would sometimes trigger a dream, but they didn’t come with the distress of dreams I had during my months of PTSD.
A girl I knew in 1978 told me she heard me talking in my sleep once, in a language she didn’t recognize. Another time the same girl woke to find me standing silently at the foot of the bed, staring motionless out the window with a pistol in my hand.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
“Somebody is out there,” I replied sleepily.
She coaxed me into putting the pistol away and getting back in bed. It was only while getting back in bed that I became conscious I had been out of it. Most women would have been scared witless. She may have been scared, but she was a mental health counselor and did not consider me fundamentally dangerous.
The third dream I remember having only once, in the middle 1980s when I was living in Oregon. That was at least a decade after I put PTSD behind me. But I made a special effort to remember.
The dream began with me flying slowly through the air above Vietnam. I was about the height a helicopter would cruise — maybe 1,500 feet — able to see a wide swath of countryside below me. The treelines were dark green and the flooded paddies a metallic grey. I know I was heading south because I could see waves on the South China Sea off to my left. And it was the monsoon season because an unbroken layer of dark clouds was just above me and curtains of heavy rain were sweeping across the ground below. I think I was flying above our old area of operations in Dien Ban District.
Suddenly I swooped down without any conscious wish and was flying fast and low, maybe 50 feet above the ground. I watched paddies, treelines and thatched roofs sweep by underneath. It was exhilarating. I could see I was heading straight towards a large house in the middle distance, surrounded by trees.
Suddenly I was inside that house in a darkened room that either had no openings, or the windows and doors were shuttered. I was sitting or standing at a table in the middle of the room. A single oil lamp sat on the table, shedding a dim light. The room was crowded with Vietnamese men dressed in ragged and bloodstained ARVN uniforms, at least 20 of them. They were sitting or standing or lying on a bed off to one side. Nearly all were wounded, some badly, but their wounds had been treated and were covered with battle dressings. They gathered around, looking at me. Some were smiling and nodding. I felt no anxiety, but I knew that something was about to happen. Then one of them spoke to me, quietly.
“We are ready to fight again. Come and help us. Fight with us.”
I didn’t speak for a few moments. Then I said.
“Yes, I’m ready. I will fight with you again.”
Then I woke up twisted in the covers, with a deep feelings of grief and loss. I decided never to forget that dream and retold it to myself occasionally from that day to this.
Posted Jan. 17, 2000