If you follow The Standard-Journal’s weekly series, “Honoring Valley Veterans,” you’ve read some of the horrors of combat lived by the men we send into harm’s way.
From World War II veterans who fought the Germans at Bastogne and in the Ardennes to Navy veterans who floated through the body parts of Marines at Iwo Jima... From the Marines who survived hell at places many Americans couldn’t find on a map: Chosin, Khe Sahn and Hue, to Army vets who saw the sands at Normandy Beach and triple-canopy jungles of Vietnam the stories are traumatic, heroic and utterly life-changing.
For years now, it’s been my privilege to bring those stories to you. As I see it, having combat veterans share their stories is imperative as so few realize the sacrifice needed to preserve this democracy, especially today as fewer and fewer combat troops are called on to do multiple tours of duty.
In addition to the weekly stories, I’ve authored a couple books and a novel, all of which deal with the Vietnam War. Over the weekend, I received correspondence from a retired colonel, now living in California, who had read the most recent release, “A War We Can’t Forget.”
The book deals with the experiences of Ed Ramon, a native Texan and Native American, who completed two tours in Vietnam as a combat assault pilot manning Huey and Cobra helicopters. He earned dozens of air medals, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and was nominated for the Medal of Honor. His war experiences are far too extensive to delve into here, but suffice it to say he’s been to hell and back — more than a handful of times.
Mr. Ramon’s family has a rich history of service to this country. His brother, father, uncles, grandfather and great-grandfathers all served, all the way back to World War I and beyond. His descendants included code talkers and a horse-drawn artilleryman who was buried in France during the “Great War.”
Unless you’ve read the book, you aren’t familiar with Mr. Ramon’s story as I’ve never shared it in the newspaper. Much of the book deals with his actions in combat throughout South Vietnam, which included a stint with the famed Seawolves. He was among the best of the best when it came to flying helicopters. Much of the book is also dedicated — at his request — to living with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), something he takes very seriously.
In one of our first discussions, long before I considered telling his story, Mr. Ramon told me about his first visit to a mental health counselor at the Veterans Administration. He sat with the doctor and after some conversation was told, “to just forget the war.”
Upon hearing the diagnosis, Mr. Ramon rose, grabbed the chair he had been sitting in, and threw it through the window. He was then committed to the psych ward — padded walls and all. It’s tough to imagine an American hero locked up for seeking help, but it wasn’t the first time a Vietnam War veteran had been mistreated, overlooked, or just ignored.
So Ramon took it upon himself to educate himself, and he did. He earned a degree and began to speak out, and listen. To this day, Ramon, despite being a shell of his former self — he played semi-pro football and was part of the cast of “The Longest Yard” — due to cancer, he attends counseling sessions and advises combat veterans dealing with PTSD.
As much knowledge as he’s accumulated, it’s life experiences that dictate his path. His father and brother, mentioned earlier... they committed suicide. His brother saw combat in Vietnam while Ed was between tours. His brother, Willie, fought during Tet, came home, married and had children, then took his own life. His father was a World War II veteran.
Mr. Ramon is a man of faith, and one who readily admits his shortcomings. He’s not proud of his record as a husband and father, and on more than one occasion has thought of ending his own life. He’s not the first, and most certainly not the last to ponder such action.
From the time I first sat down with veterans who saw fierce combat, I’ve said, “Supporting our troops and our veterans is more than yellow ribbons and parades.” Meeting and talking with Mr. Ramon only further reinforced that notion.
At no time in history is that sentiment more apropos than now. Funds that could be used to aid our combat troops returning from multiple tours of duty, and those aging warriors who are dealing with the wounds received decades ago, are squandered daily in Washington.
Over the weekend, I received a letter from a retired colonel in California. He had read “A War We Can’t Forget” and noted he was the subject of one of Mr. Ramon’s missions, which happened to be outlined in the book.
This man, who was then a major, said the book brought back many memories, including some lighter moments with Ramon, with whom he had flown quite a bit. But, as is so often the case, the colonel later alluded to the memories of war soldiers can’t forget.
“I too have suffered from PTSD, the fetal curl, the unrelenting shaking, weeping, moaning, aching, total loss of control... only hoping to end it all for relief,” he wrote. “Somehow I managed to lock it up and carry on, completing 31 years of active duty. I was most vulnerable at night and away from my wife, but sometimes it gets out even now without warning. I can just be reading or sitting quietly and bang, I’m all choked up, sobbing... it’s unnerving and leaves me shaken for a few days. It never goes away, no matter how long you live.”
The colonel is now 85... Ramon just turned 76.
As the colonel said in his letter to Mr. Ramon, it’s impossible for the average citizen to understand combat. It’s something only those who’ve lived through it can understand. Most people haven’t hovered in a tight jungle space with small arms fire surrounding them while trying to retrieve the bodies — alive and dead — of Rangers on the ground. Most people don’t understand what it’s like to see the faces of grunts on the ground who look up at a chopper and realize that bird is the only way they will live to see another sunrise.
We call on these men to fight our battles. We rarely consider the toll it takes on them.
“I’m still fighting the war most nights, but usually wake up before it gets too bad,” the colonel continued. “Some nights are worse than others.”
Chris Brady is managing editor at The Standard-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.