By Julie Titone
A young Marine officer in Vietnam sits alone, holding his bowed head in his hands. He has just lost 13 men in combat. A photo capturing that moment became part of the Veterans Administration case file on Tom Williams, helping confirm his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Tom not only knows what PTSD feels like, he knows how to help others who suffer from it. After the war he became a clinical psychologist who edited two seminal books on the subject published by the Disabled American Veterans: "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders off the Vietnam Veteran" (1980) and "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders: A handbook for clinicians" (1989). He would own more copies of those books except that he was asked, after 9-11, to send them back to New York and to the Pentagon, so they could be used to help treat people traumatized by the terrorist attacks.
Tom is the latest of the kind, resilient veterans who have agreed to help me out at public readings of “Boocoo Dinky Dow: My short, crazy Vietnam War,” which Grady Myers and I wrote. They stand in for Grady, who survived his battlefield wounds but died in 2011. Tom will be my guest reader at Village Books in Bellingham, on March 28 at 4 p.m.
These days, Tom is retiree with a dynamite grin who meets other vets regularly for breakfast, brotherhood and shooting the breeze. He invited me to join them recently at the Curious Chef, an aptly named place for me to ask about their military experiences and them to turn the tables with questions for me ("So, what did you think of the war back then?" and "What caused Grady's death?"). They let me snap their picture, shown below.
Their camaraderie brought to mind what Tom told me about veterans who recover from the trauma of war. He cited a nationwide survey of 200,000 Vietnam veterans.
“It was a beautiful, expensive study," he said. "They came up with a couple of things: The guys who are doing well have a stable relationship with a woman, and they have contact with fellow survivors."
Tom lives in a riverside home set apart from the world among the firs of Whatcom County, Washington. When I visited him there, he patiently answered my questions about his life and work even though the sun was shining and he was eager get out on his red Ural motorcycle, which has a sidecar for his lady. A sunny day in the North Cascade Mountains is not a thing to be wasted indoors.
We talked about how the movie "The Deer Hunter" made him realize the war’s impact on his psyche; how he and his colleagues designed a national model for helping distressed veterans; how families like his and mine are affected by the ripple effects of stress. We also talked about the persistent “crazy vet” stigma; how the Veterans Administration lost its way; and how humor, like that which punctuates “Boocoo Dinky Dow,” is so important to mental health.
I'll elaborate on Tom's experiences and ideas in an upcoming blog post. I’ll also reflect on my last few years of sharing Grady’s stories. It’s been an enriching journey during which I’ve learned a lot about history, and a little about myself.
Julie Titone is co-author of the Grady Myers memoir "Boocoo Dinky Dow: My short, crazy Vietnam War." Grady was an M-60 machine gunner in The U.S. Army's Company C’s 2nd Platoon, 1st Battalion, 8th Regiment, 4th Infantry Division in late 1968 and early 1969. His Charlie Company comrades knew him as Hoss. Thoughts, comments? Send Julie an email.