A Veteran’s Duel with the Death Impulse
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.
Meanwhile, he said, “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.”
His parents were disappointed. His mother was a kindergarten teacher who had urged him to go to college and avoid the draft. His father was an accountant who had flown in a fighter squadron in World War II, supporting troops on their way to Berlin, a triumph that eluded his son. Cox was depressed, hostile, enraged and suicidal.
“I woke up and thought about being dead,” he said.
When he first came back from Vietnam, a psychiatrist told him he was paranoid and schizophrenic and would eventually need to be institutionalized. He would constantly look for signs of that descent. Meanwhile suicidal impulses proliferated. He walked back and forth on the George Washington Bridge, contemplating jumping. He recalls spending hours with a noose around his neck that he hung from rafters of an unused barn behind his house. His younger brother begged him to take it down, the same brother who would find him convulsing from a drug overdose.
But five years after his return from Vietnam, no one found him in the barn when he acted on an impulse to wire his wrists for electrocution.“It threw me to the floor. I couldn’t stop screaming,” he said.
For perhaps eight minutes he recalls screaming with pain that assailed his heart and out-flung limbs. He passed out intermittently. But when he smelled flesh burning on his wrists, he feared that he would lose his hands and survive. He struggled painfully to disconnect the wires until finally one fell off.
Later, he was more depressed than before, “almost catatonic,” he says, ashamed of his failed suicide attempt. What helped him was his job as houseparent for 12 homeless boys, who “had no patience with catatonics.” Helping others in some way would repeatedly sustain him.
By 1980, Cox’s variety of psychological symptoms were understood differently, newly listed in the psychiatric diagnosis manual as post traumatic stress disorder. If he had joined veterans’ organizations, he would have known he had PTSD, not paranoid schizophrenia, he said, but his shame deterred him. Not until 2010, when he attended a lecture on PTSD would he realize its symptoms resembled his. He also learned then about chronic suicidal ideation.
“For about 10 percent of suicidal veterans, suicidality never goes away,” says Adalberto Morales, a licensed social worker. He is one of two suicide prevention counselors at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania, serving 19 counties at a time when about 22 U.S. veterans commit suicide daily. “Suicide remains an option if pain gets out of hand,” says Morales. “Not many admit it. But vets say it’s an option. We need to address the intent when it manifests.”
Suicide is often impulsive, he says. A person intending suicide may send family on an errand, intending to be dead by the time they return. Immediately before a suicide, they are less likely to communicate, but often they give indications of intent. They may give away belongings, become increasingly isolated, and their substance abuse escalates. Given such clues, says Morales, family members should contact a professional.
With new information, Cox now attributes his chronic suicidality to changes in the brain as a result of trauma. But can the brain change again in a way that silences the suicidal voice?
What initially saved Cox was the physical work that supported him—gardening and landscaping. “I love to isolate and brood. But staying home, I have more suicidal thoughts,” he says. What helped him was the way he made a living. “I did physical labor in nature. It made me feel better,” he says.
Still, his ongoing silence about his persistent shame was poisonous. What finally began to weaken the self-destructive voice was words, spoken and written, exposing his experiences to the understanding and recognition of others. “But it took me 47 years to go to a retreat and talk and learn what to do that was good for me,” said Cox.
In Warwick, in 2010, he picked up an Omega Institute catalog that “seemed a little New Agey. One of its offerings was a Buddhist retreat for veterans.
“I don’t see myself as a veteran. I’m still becoming a veteran,” he said. “But I knew I had this ‘shadow warrior thing,’” an archetype facet he identified in a workshop on negotiation the year before. He was offered a scholarship and went.
The retreat leader, Claude AnShin Thomas, was a Buddhist monk who had contended with his own dark history. He had been an abused child before he became a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam, killing hundreds of Vietnamese.
He guided the veterans in silent sitting and walking meditations. He also spoke with veterans privately. “That was pivotal,” said Cox. “He asked me, ‘Why are you here?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t think of myself as a veteran, but things from Vietnam still disturb me.’ I told him about the rocket attacks, that I was so ashamed of my fear. Forty years of shame. I couldn’t bear it anymore. It was crippling, killing me. Forty years of sorrow.”
Cox cried then, six years ago, and he cried recently, describing his experience. “I hated being called a baby killer. We killed millions of women and children. For what?”
“He didn’t condemn me, though I condemned myself for 40 years,” said Cox. “He said there’s terror and fear, and self-preservation is instinctive. He advised me to speak to other veterans about my terror. They all said that’s what they felt too. It’s involuntary.”
Later, a Veterans Administration psychologist explained to Cox that a part of the brain, the amygdala, which is responsible for self-preservation, takes over with life-threatening fear.
AnShin Thomas encouraged Cox to keep talking about his experience at the retreat and beyond. Cox asked him how long he had to keep talking about it.
“Until you stop crying,” Cox recalls him saying.
Cox says his girlfriend saw him as “reborn” after the retreat. Also helpful for him had been seven years in the ’70s and ’80s at the New Experimental College in Denmark, where students designed their own courses and had no professors. And he spent seven years as a volunteer with the Association of World Education, a non-governmental organization at the United Nations in New York, promoting a global minimum wage.
But the point at which Cox says he “became a veteran” was in 2010, when he took a writing workshop for veterans at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, not long after the Buddhist retreat.
“I wrote my first piece as a veteran,” he says, an “open letter” to Iraq and Afghan war veterans. “Please don’t kill yourselves,” is the first line. He advises them to “get rid of the readiness” for suicide—pills, ropes, guns, electric wires—and take time to cook, garden, and volunteer. He gets a “powerful response” when he reads it to veterans groups, he says.
Recently, at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, he read his monologue about managing suicidal impulses, noting later that he was terrified and shaking. He described traumatized veterans as “silent, invisible, and lost in time.”
These days he works with a local veterans group Vet2Vet, extricating veterans from that isolation and helping them get services and assistance they need. He also leads Warrior Writers writing groups for veterans. But even prompts intended to elicit happy responses often bring tears. “Tears are so close to the surface, locked up,” he says. “They’re the cause of rage. Crying helps unload rocks from the rock sack.”
Cox says he sometimes goes to facilitate workshops depressed and comes out uplifted.
“I’ve never been happier,” he says. “But I still have suicidal impulses. I must avoid impulsivity. On the subway platform, I step back.”
He experiences suicidal impulses as a familiar “repeating loop” to be ignored.“Thinking about death became my safe place when I felt vulnerable,” he says. “When threatened, I still go there.”
A trigger might be seeing a parent being rough on a child, a violent movie poster, or violent news, he says.
But alongside suicidal urges he hears his counselor, his girlfriend, or his son, saying, “Don’t do that to me.”
He also recalls a conversation AnShin Thomas described having with his doctor after Thomas attempted a pill overdose.
“Will you do this again?” the doctor asked.
“Yes,” said Thomas. “I know it can’t be worse to be dead.”
“No, you don’t,” said the doctor.
Jessica Cohen is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania. She most recently reported on Empowerment Centers for Utne Reader(Summer 2016).
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