During the period from Sunday, August 3, 2008, through Thursday, August 14, 2008, I attended and participated in daily TAT sessions from approximately 6 pm – 9 pm on ten of those days.
I am 65 years in age, and a retired 31-year veteran of the U.S. Army, having spent a major portion of my career in Infantry, Airborne, and Special Forces assignments. I spent two years in combat in South Vietnam, from December 1966 – December 1967, and again from early June 1969 – end of May 1970, serving in Special Forces. We were a special operations unit that conducted long range reconnaissance missions deep behind enemy lines. Our mission was to collect information/intelligence about the enemy and his intentions, to harass the enemy, to capture prisoners, and to take some fight to their rear areas with the clear understanding that we might never return. Each mission could be our last and during my second year as the S-3 Operations Officer it was my objective not to lose a soldier regardless of what it took. I also served in Grenada, during operation Urgent Fury, as the J-3, Director of Operations. In addition I had the opportunity to travel extensively during my career in Honduras, Egypt, and throughout Europe and parts of Asia.
When I began this TAT work, I knew I still harbored sights, images, sounds, feelings, and emotions from my two years in combat in Vietnam. I have always, since returning from combat, had some difficulties communicating with my wife, and with developing close friendships. My senses have been super sensitive, I have been a light sleeper, and am always assessing my surroundings, as if I face an immediate security threat.
During the initial TAT session, I worked on the images that I encountered in mid-1967 during a difficult body recovery mission where the body had been badly mutilated. I have always had periodic images of this scene and always felt like there should have been something that I could have done to prevent this from happening, even though I know I could not have actually influenced the outcome. Following the session, I am able recall the situation in greater detail but without all of the tightness and emotions filling my body.
During the second session I worked on a heavy combat situation that occurred in the A Shau Valley, along the border with Laos, where we encountered a base camp in a small valley and had to fight our way through clearing the bunkers, thatched one room houses, and other facilities of the enemy, and taking some wounded. Then a heavy firefight broke out and we called an air strike in our position. At that time I dove to the ground, falling partially into a punji trap and getting wounded in the neck. I had to be medically evacuated by helicopter, and always felt like I let my unit down. To me it was a form of harboring some level of guilt. At the end of this session I no longer felt the sense of guilt that I had carried.
During the next three sessions I thought of three other vivid situations while engaged in combat. These caused a heightened sense of inner turmoil whenever I was reminded of them. Through the workshop session, these were diminished to the point where I no longer thought of them. I can recall details in clearer images but without any of the past normal emotions of withdrawing within myself.
During the sixth session, because a year of combat has so many images, sights, sounds, smells, and other emotions that can be triggered, I focused on the entire year, everything that led up to the year, and everything that I encountered when the year was completed, and this included a return to no fanfare, and actual feelings of disgust. Over the next weekend I found that everything about that first year was calmed, and while I can trace the entire year in my mind, it is more like reading a book than anything else and no sense of reliving any portion of that time in combat.
When the sessions resumed the following Monday, August 11, I thought of my entire second year in combat. During this year I was flying every helicopter mission for multiple combat operations on a daily basis. The helicopters were constantly hit by enemy fire, a soldier next to me who was a door gunner was hit and killed and I had to take over this machinegun to suppress the enemy. In this session I took my entire second year in combat, and everything that led up to the situation and everything I encountered when I returned back to the United States. This was very important to me since some of the images and experiences of the first year seemed to cross over into the second year. Since I spent both years with the same unit and some of the same people, this was a normal occurrence for me. I find that I can now recount details much more clearly, look at photos and not get tightened up, and see both years of combat like chapters in a book. I can now recall all of this without the emotions that I have harbored inside over the years.
During the next session I took on a larger personal challenge, and I considered my entire military experience. This included anything from the two years of combat, time in Grenada, time in Honduras, and time doing all sorts of other high-risk training and assignments. This complimented what I had done before and put my entire stretch of military service behind me. This included training deaths, training casualties, perceptions of failed efforts, incomplete actions, and other lingering doubts about the success or failure of an entire career.
During the ninth session I started with my divorce that is nearly over, and all of the anguish that I have been carrying. The feelings of failure associated with ending a long marriage, even though it had to end. During this process, my body brought up from deep inside feelings that I can’t describe but I would attribute to base instinct survival feelings left over from my military service and time in combat. It was like they wanted to be free. Following the session I could not describe the different level of feelings, but I feel like a huge weight has been lifted and I have been given a fresh start. My only regret is that I was not able to go through this many years ago, as it has given me a fresh look at life and one that I have not had since 1966 when I was preparing to go to war in Vietnam and all of the years since.
During the final session I put my fear of making close friends out there as well as all of those elements within me which have been causing stress.
I have been under a doctor’s care for growing high blood pressure, and was supposed to begin a regimen of medium strength blood pressure medicine. Last week I had a follow up appointment and my blood pressure is back to normal, and at the low range of normal. My doctor asked how the medication was making me feel for me to achieve such a return to the healthy normal level recorded. I hadn’t started the medication yet, so I explained that I had been going through a trauma healing process and a stress reduction process, and that is the only way I can explain my blood pressure measurement.
Since going through this workshop, I sleep deeper than I have for years and wake up more rested. I feel significantly less stressed and more at ease than I can ever remember. It is my intent to go through this TAT process at least once a week for the rest of my life.