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Decades later, Vietnam veterans trying to cope with PTSD, Part II

By Staff | Oct 1, 2015

I’m just a local boy, I didn’t spend much time in school. I sit beneath the guava tree, the river is my swimming pool.

And we could never be more happy when our backs are young and strong.

And we could never be more happy when we sing the whole night long.” (By Keola and Kapono Beamer)

It was, indeed, a joyful, carefree era across America to grow up in – most especially in the foothills and valleys of Honolulu during the 1950s. This is where Ricehead was raised, in a single mom household with six brothers and sisters, with the collective will to move ahead through life in the face of any obstacle or setback. It was the optimism of the country’s greatest generation to succeed, and it was propagated by his mom, who told him as he left for Vietnam, “Always stay strong; keep your head with courage, and you can accomplish anything thrown in front of you.”

Ricehead didn’t think much about enlisting in the Army when he turned 17; he figured if he signed up, he wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam.

“Wrong. Six months later, I was air transported to the Mekong Delta, to a place called My Tho. We got off the plane and we’re surrounded by vehicles mounted with 50-caliber machine guns. They handed us M-16s that looked like they hadn’t been cleaned for a long time – looked like they would jam if we tried to use them. I was scared s***less. We were a supply unit for an infantry division and involved in firefights. I never saw if I hit anyone because I was firing into the jungle, but I did see men being hit on our side.”

“I was on guard duty one night with another guy at a bunker we had just built,” Ricehead continued to say. “The North Vietnamese would fire rockets into our compound – one after another; I counted 17 that night on guard duty. I took cover next to a two-and-a-half-ton truck nearby, trying to bury myself into the dirt. When we went back to the bunker, we found that a rocket had hit right where we had been standing guard duty. In the morning, I went over to that truck and kissed it for saving my life.”

“But the worst thing that happened was when we cycled out of Vietnam and landed in California. People called us killers of women and children; they yelled and spit on us. I was 19 at the time and I thought they were crazy, and not realizing at the time how much this affected me as the years went by.”

It would be 40 long years before Ricehead was able to figure out just what was happening to him.

Stop and think about that for a moment. You’re 17 years old – just a happy-go-lucky kid from the islands. You join the U.S. Army, go to a jungle country in Southeast Asia to do your duty, go through the terror and trauma of war for a year-and-a-half (he signed on for more tours of duty there), and you come home to that? That experience left deep wounds in his psyche – searing brands upon his personality that remain close to a half century later.

He moved to Lahaina after being discharged from the Army and worked at what was then the Lahaina Broiler (now Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.). When people asked if he had served, he would answer “yes” but go into no detail.

He moved to California for a few years, but returned to Maui after a time and settled into what appeared on the surface to be a dream life in the paradise we call home.

Behind the curtain, however, the anxiety and pain of his experience festered inside throughout those 40 years.

His wife, a beautiful woman with crystal blue eyes that radiate peace and tranquility, throughout those years has been a savior for him.

“She has been my rock and my strength when it came to dealing with Post Traumatic Stress; I leave out the ‘Disorder’ because I don’t think it is a disorder,” said Ricehead.

“She helps me when I go off on tangents by being understanding and not letting things escalate.”

But the biggest positive influence on dealing with his situation came about when he went to the VA Clinic to see if in fact he had PTSD. He learned that he did – for 40 years! Like so many other war veterans, he didn’t realize he could get help – and worse, didn’t feel that he deserved it.

“I never went for compensation or treatment, because I thought that was for the men and women that went out into the jungles and rice fields for 12-18 months in Vietnam. A friend named Hiram told me that it did not matter; he told me I should go talk to Dr. Richard Sword.”

“After 40 years, I stayed in his office for two hours crying and realizing I had been a bastard for those years, but it was not all my fault. Dr. Sword, who has passed away, was instrumental in getting help for vets, not only with PTSD but with getting compensation.”

Now, Ricehead and a growing group of Vietnam vets have once a week sessions led by Dr. Joseph Lenz, who has taken over for Dr. Sword.

“I am telling my story so that other vets can get the same help I got. All the vets need help, but a lot of the Vietnam vets don’t think they deserve it or just said, “(forget) it,” because the system makes it so hard to prove things, especially after 40 years,” he commented.

“I was fortunate to be able to talk to people who help and understand the situation; some of the most helpful people have been the ones I see on the Wednesday sessions up in Makawao at Dr. Lenz’s. I was in Vietnam for 18 months, and I still can’t give a solid reason for me extending my last six months of duty. Two birthdays, two Thanksgivings and one Christmas in Vietnam. When I first experienced Thanksgiving there, I thought I was eating water buffalo!”

Today, Ricehead and his wife live what appears to be the surrealistic pillow life that Maui offers to so many. Home ownership, two highly successful businesses and the invigorating outdoor lifestyle geared to ocean sports they immersed themselves in. “It is just the tip of the iceberg in the big picture,” he said.

We say, let the light shine in and bring peace to your souls.