Fighting through pain
Vietnam veteran, author shares post-war struggles.
By SCOTT AUST
Like many Vietnam War veterans, Daryl S. Paulson returned from the war believing he'd be greeted as a hero for serving his country, but instead was met with protests, animosity and hostility.
When Paulson came back, he couldn't talk about the experience with anyone because no one was interested. He found himself ignored or cursed out for joining the military and had a hard time understanding why.
"That was the beginning of my neurosis. It was a very, very bad time," he said. "I had lost a lot of good friends in Vietnam and I didn't know what to do, so I discovered Budweiser and drinking and drinking and drinking."
Paulson, president and chief executive officer of BioScience Laboratories, Inc., a national testing facility in Bozeman, Mont., spoke at Garden City Community College on Friday as part of an annual public program in observance of Veterans Day.
Paulson earned the USMC Navy Commendation Medal, with "V" for valor, as well as the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and the Combat Action Award. He joined the military right out of high school in 1966. After the war he struggled with the trauma of war suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I had it really bad," he said.
Paulson shared his experiences dealing with the war and PTSD in a couple of books, "Walking the Point: Male Initiation and the Vietnam Experience" and "Haunted by Combat: Understanding PTSD in War Veterans."
Tuesday, Paulson highlighted some of the steps he traveled in dealing with PTSD.
After returning home from Vietnam, Paulson went into a spiral of drinking and paranoia. It got so bad, he said, that even while sober he visualized the people he had killed. He didn't know what to do or where to go for help. It got so bad he considered shooting himself.
"That seemed like the way out. Seemed like it would all be over then. One bullet. One .38 special hollow-point to the head," he said. "But right before I did it, I remembered the people I was in Vietnam with who were killed right next to me. ... And who would tell their story? That's what kept me alive."
Some Vietnam veterans joined the military because it was expected, a family tradition of sorts. Paulson said everyone's reason is different, but he joined because he liked to shoot and liked James Bond and he really didn't think he could do anything like welding, carpentry or auto mechanics.
"But I didn't have a clue about Vietnam. When I got to boot camp, I learned very quickly," he said.
Like other combat veterans, Paulson said he first believed his training would get him through the war. Then, he said, despair sets in as you see a lot of people getting killed. Finally, the combat vet's view changes to one of "when your time is up, it's up."
Through his own experience and that of other veterans, Paulson believes there is a core framework that leads to healing. In essence, it includes taking charge of therapy, looking at the war experience as a rite of passage, expanding from a personal/physical view to one that encompasses a much larger view, separate life into work and love, and integrating the war with pre-war in order to move on with life.
Veterans of the war found themselves not knowing what to do. Paulson said returning from war is not only physical, it is also mental and emotional. Many veterans with PTSD became "stuck" because they hadn't yet been able to integrate physical return with the mental and emotional return.
"They keep living it, and living it and living it. Living in the past because they haven't integrated it," he said.
To deal with the trauma, many veterans suppress memories of what happened, Paulson said. They find it difficult to be open about their experiences and often have a hard time feeling love and may feel uncomfortable being loved.
"Many vets are friendly, but have difficulty feeling love. Fear has blotted it out so they can survive. We must let the barriers down," he said.
Paulson suggested several hints for healing. First, find a therapist that you're comfortable with. It took Paulson four therapists before he found one he could work with, and he still doesn't consider himself 100 percent cured.
Expect not to feel better right away, he said. Have patience, and be honest about feelings of fear, doubt or anxiety. It took six months of therapy for Paulson to start feeling better.
The breakthrough happened when Paulson finally stopped repressing memories of the day two buddies died and he was asked to identify their remains. When it finally came out in therapy, he cried hard, then later noticed he could smell food again and noticed birds and birds singing. From then on he started feeling better.
Most of all, guilt needs to be overcome.
"Guilt is big," Paulson said. "When I came back from Vietnam I thought about all the people I'd killed, all the people I'd done bad things to, all this stuff. I started thinking about that."
Paulson imagined a scale measuring good and evil and felt his actions were heavily weighted toward bad. As a result, Paulson ever since tries to do only good things.
Finally, Paulson said the general culture's views about war do not fit with veterans' experiences. The idea that war is evil and should never be fought is not realistic because somebody must be prepared to respond when the country is attacked.
"Somebody has to do it. It may not be you, it may be friends or relatives. Maybe when they come back you'll be able to help them," he said.