LOST IN AMERICA
Outside, the rain is beating a relentless riff that is familiar to anyone who has lived through a monsoon in Southeast Asia. Inside the Army-issue tent in a clearing at the jungle's edge, Nash A. Miller, a onetime helicopter door gunner and crew chief, is changing into a dry pair of camouflage fatigues. As his two watchdogs prowl silently, Miller, nicknamed "Nam" (his initials), recounts his tale with a small, innocent smile. It begins at a firebase in the badlands west of Kontum, near the Vietnam-Cambodia border, in the summer of 1970.
As Miller's gunship, a ponderous Huey "hog," was taking on a fresh load of rockets and grenades, a Soviet-made 122-mm shell exploded several yards away in a lethal burst of metal. Fragments shredded his pants, embedding themselves in his legs. One shard burned its way into his throat. After the field surgeon in Pleiku extracted a chunk close to his jugular vein, an opening the size of a quarter remained in his neck. "I was fascinated by the hole," he says, rubbing the scar. "When I looked in the mirror, I could see my Adam's apple."
Two decades later, Miller is still on intimate terms with the war. "For years, I've slept with my left hand on my Bible and my right hand on my .45," he says. But the particular piece of tropical rain forest that Miller inhabits is a long way from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Miller's base camp hunkers down on some hardscrabble red dirt several miles outside the village of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii. In touch and smell, as well as sight, it is the closest to Vietnam that one can get within the U.S. "I will never live anywhere else," Miller declares. "The jungle is my home."
Today, as Americans once again hear reports of U.S. soldiers taken prisoner of war or missing in action, many are reminded that not everyone lost in the last big conflict has been accounted for. The government of Vietnam last month continued to return the remains of U.S. fightingmen who lost their lives there. Lobbyists go on pressing for the location of other MIAS (surprisingly, many Americans still believe there are U.S. soldiers being held captive somewhere in the jungles of Indochina). Much less attention has focused on another group of "lost" warriors: those combat veterans who, like Miller, disappeared into the jungle after they got home.
Most of the "bush vets," as they've come to be known, prefer it that way, having chosen to shun virtually all human contact. Many returned home only fleetingly before retreating into tropical solitude. "My family thinks I'm an MIA in the U.S.A.," says Glenn Hayne, 44, who made it back to Oakland in February 1968, after a tour full of fire fights and body bags with the Tenth Cavalry, only to drift to Mexico and then Hawaii. He supported himself by growing the powerful local variety of marijuana known as pakalolo but, after a recent crackdown by drug agents, has switched to fishing. Patrick Barnett (not his real name), on the other hand, who is originally from Honolulu, lived for years under trees and bushes in the Waipio Valley, subsisting primarily on breadfruit, mangoes and bananas. "My first 14 years on this island were spent in hiding," says Barnett, who is stooped, almost toothless and looks decades older than his 41 years.
By some estimates, there are several hundred Vietnam veterans living on the mountainous and sparsely settled Big Island, as well as clusters in such diverse places as the Pacific Northwest and the backwoods of Maine. An accurate count is tough to come by. "You don't have to move very far upslope to get out of sight," says Stephen Staten, a psychiatrist who began counseling bush vets at a Veterans Administration clinic in Kona 16 months ago. No one is looking too closely either, since some of the bush vets are armed, unpredictable and have set booby traps around their camps. "There are veterans in the bush who are beyond help," says Michael Cowan, who in 1987 helped found V.F.W. Post 3874 in Kona. "I hate to say this, but the authorities need to go in, drop nets over them, confiscate their weapons and put them in straitjackets."
Cowan, a Silver- and multiple Bronze-Star winner who guided artillery and air strikes in Vietnam, ought to know. He self-destructed when he went home to Oklahoma. His marriage failed, he was dismissed from the Army, and he spent four years in a mental hospital after being arrested for his role in a shooting incident. In 1983 he hit the beach in Hawaii, a burned out case who washed windows for beers and scrounged in dumpsters for food. In 1985, 12 years after his last combat action, Cowan was giver a medical explanation for his troubles: post-traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD is the modern term for what used to be called battle fatigue or shell shock. A congressional study in 1988 found that about 479,000 of the nation's 3.5 million or so Vietnam vets are afflicted with serious cases; an additional 350,000 display more moderate symptoms. PTSD is a state of extreme arousal caused by the virtual nonstop release of adrenaline and other similar substances into the bloodstream. When cars backfire, PTSD patients generally hit the dirt. The sound of helicopter rotor blades causes some to conceal themselves in trees. A baby's cry can invoke instant rage. Put in nonclinical terms, says psychiatrist Staten, the symptoms of PTSD are "like experiencing one's most threatening nightmares." A recent medical study found that the adrenaline levels of PTSD sufferers remain higher during hospital treatment than those of manic-depressives and paranoid schizophrenics.
In Vietnam, PTSD was often caused by the prolonged stress of trying to survive an ambush or a fire fight. Bill Ralph developed his case riding shotgun on fuel trucks engaged in night resupply missions. For seven of the 18 years he has lived in Hawaii, Ralph occupied an 8-ft. by 12-ft. hilltop shack. If a stranger approached, Ralph would slip into the jungle, his knife at the ready. "I didn't even know I was sick," he says. "I just thought I was a little different."
At the Kona clinic, Staten has been working to coax Ralph and a handful of others out of desperate isolation. Some of the men have formed a self-help group. At meetings of the new Hawaii Veterans Association, in the town of Captain Cook, they begin to make peace with the demons that haunt them, by discovering that others are haunted as well.
They also nurture communal outrage at the bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration, their latter-day Viet Cong, for making benefits difficult to obtain. Adrian Yurong, 45, who served about a year and a half with the 25th Infantry Division near the Viet Cong stronghold of Cu Chi, has been denied benefits because his job description shows he was a radar operator. Yurong, now known simply as Nano, was pressed into service, he says, as an infantryman throughout his tour. The VA grants that he has PTSD but says he must have contracted it elsewhere. Such arguments enrage V.F.W. activist Cowan. "When you first go to the VA, you are denied benefits. Fifty percent of the vets don't go back. The second time you are denied, you lose another 25%," he says. "You must be willing to put up with total bullshit to get help," says Cowan, who fears that his own disability payments may be threatened by his activism.
Samuel A. Tiano, director of the regional VA office in Honolulu until a recent transfer, says dismissingly of the bush vets, "Some of these people would live this way if they had not been to Vietnam. We have some who are always wanting this and wanting that." But such service requests, says Tiano's boss, Edward Derwinski, the Secretary of Veterans' Affairs, are exactly what the veterans should be making. Says he: "The customer is always right." Derwinski, whose department has been embarrassed by recent reports of negligence at VA hospitals, concedes that his bureaucracy has not always acted compassionately. "We have had a communications gap with Vietnam veterans. It is not a perfect situation."
Staten is trying to rectify that. In the process of helping the bush vets, he has learned that theirs is a well-traveled path. When Roman Legionnaires returned from war, they were encouraged to settle in rural areas where they could decompress quietly. Japanese literature tells of samurai retiring to tend the "perfect garden." For many of these men, the island of Hawaii is that perfect garden, or as Staten calls it, the "gentle jungle." Says Cowan: "It is like a sanctuary. I trust my emotions and feelings here."
Some bush vets have been drawn to the jungle, subconsciously seeking what therapists call "belated mastery." They want control over an environment that once terrified them. Says former Green Beret Lee Burkins, who has lived in Hawaii for 11 years: "I didn't plan to go back to the jungle to taste my fears. I wanted to achieve inner peace. But I kept looking for a foot, a pair of eyes or a gun muzzle. I had to tell myself not to worry about that anymore."
Not surprisingly, these veterans have strong feelings about the potential human consequences of America's latest war. After decades of suffering, they have a message for the future veterans of Operation Desert Storm. "There are occupational hazards in fighting a war," says Burkins. "They are costly." Cowan adds a sobering caveat: "If a nation is going to suit up its young men and send them to war, it should be prepared to take care of them afterward." In the case of Hawaii's bush vets, that care has been long overdue.
By PAUL A. WITTEMAN CAPTAIN COOK
Source:Time, 2/11/91, Vol. 137 Issue 6, p76, 2p, 3c.
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