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United States of America flag       Vietnam Combat Veterans PTSD Survival Manual
Combat Action Ribbon Vietnam Service Ribbon Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm Ribbon Republic of Vietnam  Civic Action with Palm Ribbon Vietnam Campaign Ribbon

Chapter 5 - What About Those Nightmares?

If you have ever had one of those PTSD nightmares you may agree with me that the human mind is the ultimate high definition device. The ones I remember, and the ones I still have, come in 3-D, HD, surround-sound, smellavision, and vivid color. To say that they are disturbing and upsetting is to indulge in classic understatement. They are all that and more.

For a while, as I was trying to peel the outer layers off the onion that is my life, I got into insomnia rather than face these dreams. You don't want to do that. First of all, it doesn't work. You eventually get so tired that you have to sleep, and the dreams are still there. Secondly, walking around sleep deprived makes you a sitting target for depression and for many of your old familiar PTSD symptoms. I definitely don't recommend insomnia.

If you should find that you're having problems with insomnia, for goodness sakes get help with that. Like me, you may find that you have severe obstructive sleep apnea. This is treatable. Tell the staff at your local VA about the problem and get some help. In the meantime, it is reasonable to consider good sleep hygiene the same way that you might look at regular physical exercise and a healthy diet. The excellent guy who ran my first exercise program sums it all up in three words: eat, sleep, train. By good sleep hygiene I mean just keeping regular hours of rest, spending some time preparing for sleep, learning how to clear your thoughts, and practicing a few simple breathing techniques. I don't mean drinking yourself into a mindless state, which is another of the blind alleys that I and many of my shipmates have stumbled down.

So, okay, you can sleep. What about those nightmares? I say bring them on. I would rather have my demons come in my sleep so that I can wake up from them than I would have them come when I am awake in the form of intrusive thoughts or images. Dealing with your legacy of combat experiences when wide-awake may be okay once you are strong enough and have learned the martial arts of how to defeat them. Until that happens, you may risk confusing the past with present reality, or reacting inappropriately to what is going on around you in the here and now.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that those dreams are fun. What I am suggesting is that they may have a purpose and they may be necessary. It took me some time to observe during my own early recovery that while I would wake up from a nightmare feeling shaken and rotten, there was an element of relief as well. I don't know how to describe this as a professional would. What I do know is that as the day wore on I felt less pressure and more able to take positive steps in my life. It was as if the nightmares functioned as a kind of relief valve during which time there was an opportunity to learn something new about the original experience. Many mental health counselors believe that the purpose of such dreams is to explore and rehearse alternative ways of coping with the prior experiences that caused the PTSD. I would agree.

Perhaps the hardest set of nightmares to deal with are those that repeat or recur. The one I remember most vividly in my experience goes something like this:

USS Jennings County (LST-846) in action in the Mekong Delta

I'm on the bridge of the JC underway in the Bassac River near a place where it bends. A PBR patrol from the embarked River Division reports on the tactical circuit that both boats are taking heavy automatic weapons fire from a hooch that sits at the point of that bend. The OinC of the River Division looks at me with eyes that say, "do something." We cannot ask the OinC of the embarked Seawolf attack helo detachment to scramble his fire team because they were launched earlier and are already engaged in support of another PBR patrol that is further up river. The ship is underway, and the site of the ambush is only a few clicks from the current position. The PBRs are told to break off and the ship steams to the ambush spot at general quarters. The PBRs come back and moor at one of the starboard boat booms, and the patrol officer comes to the bridge to point out where the enemy fire was coming from. I release the ships 40 mm battery to the gunnery officer with instructions to take out the position. It is a rare fine day and all six barrels in the Port battery are working. It is only a matter of seconds until the sustained fire (using that good old HEIT ammo) sets the hooch ablaze. Then a large secondary goes off and I hear my guys cheering. I am watching the hooch and the little clearing about it through binoculars, and I see a woman run out from the foliage into the clearing. She turns to the ship and waves her fist at it and at me. In her face I see a mixture of rage, pain, sorrow, grief, hatred, and anger. I give the order to cease fire, and as the ship continues upriver I watch the hooch burn to the ground. Then I wake up.

a 40mm twin gun mount on Garrett County, one of the Task Force-116 LSTs

Over a period of years, I became very familiar with that woman. I knew at the time that it happened, as I know now, that a favorite tactic of the VC was to launch a hit and run ambush from a friendly civilian location in order to draw fire from US forces and turn the populace against us. There was a better than 50-50 chance that is what happened on this occasion. It also seemed to me entirely plausible that the secondary explosion in the hooch had come from a drum of kerosene rather than a weapon stash. Nevertheless, if I were to allow a boat patrol to be fired on without retaliation, I might as well turn over the command to another officer. My effectiveness would be at an end.

Nothing that I did kept that dream from coming back, until it occurred to me that the central character in that scene was a powerful symbol for my feelings of guilt and betrayal about the war itself. With that insight in hand I decided to do something to change the endless looping of that sequence. The next time that hooch went up in flames I teleported myself into the clearing at the place where the woman appeared. You can do these things in dreams, and you can instantly speak fluent Vietnamese just as the woman in front of you has learned English. As she started to beat on my chest with her fists I grabbed her arms and held her. I was going to tell her that I was just doing my job. She told me that everything she owned was in that hooch, and that her family had gotten out except for one child who was still inside. I was going to tell her that I had a family of my own so I knew how she must feel. Instead, I told her I was deeply sorry and that I would never knowingly hurt a child. I asked her to forgive me, but I didn't stick around to find out if she did. Instead, I woke up and forgave myself. I never had that particular dream again.

One of the things that I found helpful in preparing to enter my dream with a purpose was to examine it in detail from the perspective of the various players. If you can begin to see your dream through the eyes of the PBR sailors, your own gun crews, and the Vietnamese woman, you can prepare yourself to change the outcome. You may also find, as I did, that there are lots of discrepancies in the dream scenario. When I began to calculate the distance between the ship and the river bank as we were firing, it occurred to me that I couldn't possibly have seen the face of that woman in enough detail for a long enough period of time to have recognized all the emotions that played out on the face of the woman in my dream. I believe it was that observation that gave me the clue that the woman might be my own reflection in a mirror. To this day, I don't know whether she was real or something that I stitched together out of whole cloth.

Pleasant dreams, shipmates.

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Last updated on October 15, 2011