How strange life was that it could start out in one direction, then make a turn in a completely different direction.
We we're at the point of adolescence, just out of high school, then put into ranks and remolded. We were made over; we were made to “about face” the naïve or simplistic life we lived.
(“About face” is a military term, which is the act of turning to face in the opposite direction, or it could also mean a complete change of attitude or opinion.)
We stood shoulder to shoulder and through mass psychology we were entirely changed. They used us in Vietnam and trained us to think nothing at all about killing or being killed. Then, suddenly, we were discharged and we were told to make another “about face," but this time we had to do our own readjusting without mass psychology, without officers’ aid and advice, without help whatsoever.
The military did not need us anymore, and we were pawns that served them no more. We were scattered throughout the country without any welcome ceremonies or parades. I remember the day I was released from the U.S. Marine Corps in Camp Pendleton, California. We were told not to wear our uniforms and to just go home and forget the war. We’d just left Vietnam three days ago! Outside the main gate protesters were yelling and throwing trash at us.
History proves the impact the war had on us. Many of our young boys were destroyed mentally because they could not make that final “about face" alone.
My life was permanently changed and my safe world became transformed in my journey from civilian to warrior to civilian. It has taken me years to get to where I am today.
After many years attending PTSD sessions with the VA system, I have finally completed my “about face.” Instead of walking toward the dark side of my life, I am now walking toward the light. That is not to say that PTSD is behind me. I still face my demons daily. Many of the warriors I know are still living subconsciously in Vietnam. Many of our combatants have suffered from some of the worst-case scenarios that I know. We're losing 25 veterans to suicide per day. We lost over 58,200 soldiers in Vietnam; we have lost tens of thousands of Vietnam soldiers due to suicides since the end of the war.
How can we explain to someone who has never been in combat what it is like? How to convey all the ways soldiers change in the course of surviving a war remains a mystery to every combatant who returns home. We lost warriors daily, but we had to survive. We finally convinced ourselves, “It don’t mean nothin'.” This was a common phrase we used every day almost like a mantra. Oh, it meant a lot, but we told ourselves it didn’t mean anything when something bad happened, but it always hurt just the same. We had to give up our emotions to accomplish our mission. I hardly ever saw a Marine cry or show grief or vulnerability. That showed weakness and we had to succeed. I suppose we had to do this to survive. The mantra had a numbing effect to help us cope with the situation. However, it brought on separation, isolation and alienation. At this point we have gone too far. There is no “about face," it’s only onward soldiers.
I remember one specific operation. We were on a search-and-destroy mission south of Da Nang. Suddenly we heard an M-79 (grenade launcher) explode and we witnessed a water buffalo being blown to bits. A Marine got bored and wanted some excitement. When the other Marines witnessed the event, they started laughing, enjoying the excitement. Personally, l accepted it as part of the war, I felt unfazed. It don’t mean nothin'. The Marine who killed the water buffalo felt no remorse. You must remember, we were playing on Satan’s playground. There were no boundaries, no rules and no thought of an “about face."
For seven years I was the Jasper County coroner and dealt with murder cases, suicides, car wrecks and the list goes on. Again, I dealt with trauma like that of Vietnam. I was doing an "about face" continuously during these years. The situation was different, but trauma is trauma. During this time, I attended paramedic classes and learned procedures that I could have used in Vietnam. More lives could have been saved. While in Vietnam, I felt that if I was a better corpsman, I could have saved more lives. However, I did the best I could at the time.
“I am young, I am 20 years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear ... What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterward? And what shall come out of us?”
— Erich Maria Remarque, “All Quiet on the Western Front”
Hospital Corpsman Master Chief Ronald C. Mosbaugh, 2nd Battalion 1st Marines Hotel Company, served in Vietnam in 1966-1967. He is the author of “Marine Down, Corpsman Up.” He lives in Joplin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.