A Peaceful Hillside: Veterans Day 2019 Special Issue, Nonfiction

I came back from Vietnam with a chest full of medals and a head full of nightmares, a full-blown case of post-traumatic stress disorder, the dreaded PTSD. I can’t count the number of times I’ve woken up from a deep sleep in the middle of the night and sat bolt upright in bed, dripping with sweat, my body tense, tingling all over, knowing I was about to die, reliving the worst moment in my life as if it were happening right now, instead of happening long ago in a place far, far away?

I can’t count that high. The flashbacks are always the same, the incident is always the same, and my reaction is always the same; heart pounding, pulse surging, and when I wake up it is almost impossible for me to breathe. My fight or flight response has already kicked in, flooding my body with hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline, totally disrupting my body’s chemical balance; turning me upside down and standing me on my head, so I have no idea which way is up.

Doctors and pharmacists say it only takes about twenty to sixty minutes for the body to return to normal, but what do they know? It has never happened to them; it happens to me, and every time I have a flashback it ruins my entire day. It ruins the rest of the entire week for me. I am on edge, waiting for it to happen again, and again, and again.

That was no way to live, but I haven’t found any other alternative yet, baring suicide, and that was something I am not ready to deal with, at least not yet.

Somehow, I survived, but that moment still haunts me to this day. Over the years, my symptoms have gotten better because I go to the VA regularly for counseling, but there are still times when outside events, such as a commercial for a TV program on Vietnam or the death of Senator John McCain, trigger the flashbacks.

Whenever that happens, I get in my car and drive for an hour and a half down I-390 to Bath National Cemetery, the only place I can find peace. It’s a long drive, but it’s also a beautiful drive down through the Genesee Valley, which I think is one of the most fertile and beautiful places on the face of the earth.

The National Cemetery is the only place I can go to find peace on those days when I feel alone, so all alone, on those days when nobody I know seems to understand, not my wife, not my children and not the people at the VA. My father-in-law had understood, because he’d been through it too when he was a young man, in a different time and a different war. But my father-in-law died, so now I can’t sit in my father-in-law’s back yard anymore or go into my father-in-law’s workshop and talk my way through it with him. I have to face it alone.

Those are the days when I drive to the National Cemetery and walk through the grounds looking at the gravestones, the trees, the hills, and the valley. To me, Bath National Cemetery is the most beautiful and serene place on the face of the earth. A place where no one seems to bother me, a place where no one intrudes on my thoughts, and the ghosts of the people buried there seem to welcome the ghosts of the people who haunt my brain, the ghosts of the friends I’d lost in combat.

Their ghosts are with me every day, rain or shine, and I can see their faces, their smiles, and the exhausted look they had on their faces at the end of a brutal day in combat. How do you forget people like that? How do you forget the people who meant so much to you? How do you forget the best friends you ever had? You don’t. That’s why combat veterans are different from everybody else.

The whole world is different when your best friend is killed in action, blown away, vaporized. The whole world is different when your best friend suddenly disappears from the face of the earth, before you’ve have a chance to tell him how much it meant to you that he was such a good guy, such a good friend to start with, much less that he’d made you smile and made you a better person than you were before you’d met him.

I can hear my friends’ voices saying hello; I can hear them laugh, each one’s laugh different from the others; and I can see them and hear them waving goodbye and saying, “See you tomorrow.”

But it wasn’t to be, life doesn’t work like that, and it tears me apart. Why had they died, and why was I still alive? It didn’t make any sense. Those are questions I can never answer, no matter how hard I try, and on my worst days, when I can’t get their faces out of my mind and their voices keep ringing in my ears, I go to the National Cemetery and walk the grounds until the ghosts of the soldiers buried there quieted the ghosts of the dead soldiers in my head. It is truly the most peaceful place on the face of the earth for me, and I know that when I die my soul would find peace there surrounded by others who had been there and done that, so they would understand.

About the author

Thomas Mangan is a freelance writer who lives in Brockport, a beautiful Erie Canal town in western New York. He’s a Vietnam veteran who has made his living for the past forty-five years writing everything from user manuals and help screens to advertising copy and a blog on local politics. His stories have been published in VFW Magazine, The Sea Letter and Blue Nostalgia.

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