A Veteran’s Duel with the Death Impulse

In 1966, Everett Cox never anticipated that four decades of recurring suicidal thoughts and multiple suicide attempts would stem from what he learned in army boot camp. Nor could he have imagined what would help him.

| Fall 2016

  • "I was a mess. I saw more warfare in my dreams than I ever did in real life. I was drinking and drugging, whatever I could get my hands on. I would start and quit jobs, with a month down in between.”
    Photo by Jessica Cohen

In addition to learning hand-to-hand combat, how to use a bayonet, and how to march, he said, “We were told that if one of us fails, we would all be punished. Don’t let anyone fail,” recalled Cox, of Warwick, New York. “It was a powerful moral, physical lesson, and an important part of my disintegration in Vietnam. I was 19, strong, and in good shape. I wanted to be a good soldier.”

But Viet Cong mortar and rocket attacks late at night around his Vietnam barracks were intended to ruin soldiers’ sleep and unnerve them, and they did, said Cox. 

A man was killed, and a close rocket explosion one night sent a crowd of terrified men running for the door, only to be logjammed there. In the dark and chaos, Cox picked up men, one by one, and threw them to the side.“I heard them grunt when I picked them up, grunt when I threw them, and grunt when they hit the floor,” he said. That moment’s panic left him with chronic “shame and guilt,” he said.

“I felt that I couldn’t do my duty and protect my brothers during an attack. I was not looking after others, just myself. I felt like a failure and wanted to be dead. I hoped a rocket would drop on my head.”

Cox, an aerial camera specialist at Marble Mountain Air Facility, was unable to sleep. At night he wandered in the air field and spent time alone in a bunker with planes. He was in Vietnam less than six months, but by the time he returned home, he had lost 40 of his 180 pounds. He was gaunt and “wobbly” on his feet. He grew his hair out to “assimilate into hippie culture” and did not identify nor associate with veterans. But the war dogged him inside and outside.

He recalls mentioning his military duty at a job fair he helped organize, then being approached by a young woman.“I thought, ‘This is nice,’” he remembers. “But she spat on me. It’s such a shocking thing. Most vets have been spat on and called baby killers,” he said. He had the experience multiple times, even 15 years after his deployment.

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