Tyrone’s story is a true experience shared with Dr. Dawley by a Vietnam veteran he evaluated during his employment as a Veterans Affairs psychologist. Tyrone is not the actual name of the veteran who shared his homecoming experience and care has been taken to protect the identity of the actual veteran. Dr. Dawley was so moved by this veteran’s story he never forget it and it eventually motivated him to produce this documentary.
Tyrone is a 30 year black man who was born and raised in a small rural Mississippi town that he’d never left until he was drafted into the Army. His childhood was happy and he had a close relationship with his mother, father, and a sister who was two years older. His father died when he was 14 and he developed a close relationship with his mother. He played basketball in high school and was active in his church. He had a girlfriend and was planning to attend a nearby junior college after being discharged.
He served 14 months in Vietnam and saw a great deal of combat. He developed a close bond with the other men in his platoon. His best friend Tommy was a boy from Alabama who had also played basketball in high school. One evening his unit came under heavy rocket fire and they were almost overrun.
Best Friend Tommy
“Tommy was a white boy who was my best friend. We had a special bond between us. We were both from small rural towns in the deep south and had played basketball in high school. He stuck up for me once when some other white boys were trying to put me down. It was strange but when he was next to me in a firefight I felt a certain degree of security. It really hurt me when he was killed”.
When Tommy was Killed
“The Viet Cong were trying to overrun our area and were firing everything they had at us. Tommy and I had our guns on automatic and were firing at them as fast as we could. I turned to pick up more ammunition when three of them rushed our bunker. Tommy was firing at them and killed two outright and wounded the third before being shot in the head.”
A Sense of Loss and Vulnerability
“I knew he was killed when I saw the hole in his head. I lost it at that point and jumped up out of our bunker and started firing wildly at the Viet Cong. I stayed up firing almost non-stop at them. When my gun jammed I picked up Tommy’s gun and continued firing. When the firing stopped I slouched down started crying as I looked at Tommy. I felt a great sense of loss and with an eerie sense of vulnerability.” (Tyrone was awarded a purple heart and a bronze star for what he did the night Tommy was killed,)
“I didn’t know I had been shot until the medic came up to me. I had been hit in the leg and shoulder. He bandaged my wounds and I was placed on a stretcher. I was carried to where a Huey helicopter had landed and along with several other wounded was flown to a field hospital.”
“After I returned to my unit things were different. Several men had been killed and many others had been wounded and had not returned to the platoon. New replacements had been sent in and there were a number of men I did not know, Plus, Tommy was not there anymore. That’s when I began using heroin.”
Scared, Really Scared
“I was promoted to sergeant and was not happy with it. It was tough enough trying to save my own ass without worrying about others. I also felt different when I returned to my unit. I was scared, really scared. I had seen death first and had killed several men plus saw my best friend die beside me and it got to me.”
“The funny thing is that as lay in my hospital bed recovering from my wounds I found comfort in thinking about how I would be treated when I returned home. I was the only boy from my town to go to Vietnam. When I graduated from basic training my picture was in the town paper and when I came home on leave several people congratulated me. I kept thinking boy how much better in would be when I came back from Vietnam!”
“In the dark days and nights of combat I found comfort thinking about how nice I would be treated coming home. Boy, I thought when I returned home as a Sergeant with medals it would be something else! Who was gonna be there, I wondered. It’ll be my momma, my neighbors plus maybe even the mayor will there.
Well Boy I See You Made It Back
In a flurry of dust a bus pulled into an old run down service station that was the town bus station. The door opened and Tyrone stepped out lugging his heavy duffel bag, The door of the bus closed and another swirl of dust engulfed him as the bus drove away. With his heart about to jump out of his chest he stood there looking around to see who was there to greet him. Straining to see, he saw no one other than the old man that ran the service station. Tyrone stood there in disbelief. The old man had been staring at him trying to figure out who he was. It took awhile to recognize him but the old man finally said “Well boy, I see you made it back OK.”
Puzzled and Hurt
“As I walked into town I saw several people who I knew recognized me but they looked away. I was confused, puzzled, and hurt. It was not what I had expected. I continued walking into town and a few more people saw me but did not acknowledge me. I began to feel a deep hurt inside, a type of hurt that I had never experienced before. Little did I know it was going to be a hurt that would never go away.”
“I just wanted somebody to acknowledge that I was back. A few people looked at me and smiled but they didn’t say anything. We have a little town paper and I picked up a copy and quickly read thinking that there might be mention of me returning home. There was no mention of me returning home from Vietnam.”
A Ride Home
“I walked to the center of town where I met a couple who had been my neighbors. They offered me a ride to my mother’s house. They talked about how happy my mother would be to see me. They never once asked me about Vietnam or what it is like being in combat and being wounded. I wanted to tell them how scared I was but that I still did my duty but they made small talk and did not bring up the fact that I had just returned from combat in Vietnam.”
“As we the got closer to my mother’s the wife turned to me and said “Hide down and we will surprise your momma.” I knew it was going to be a joyous reunion, that nothing could change that. I grabbed my duffel bag and jumped out of the car.”
“Oh, my baby is home. Praise the Lord, my baby is home.”
“As the neighbors drove off we hugged and started crying and continued to do for at least five minutes. I had so much hurt and disappointment inside me that I had to get it out. I could not explain to my mother why I was crying so much. I felt better after I cried but the hurt is still there.”
“At last! I finally had a chance to tell somebody what I did in Vietnam; somebody I knew would sit there and listen. I told her about crossing the International Date Line. I told her about the fighting that I did, about how I swam in the South China Sea; I told here about my leave to Singapore, about how hot it was and how it would rain for days and days without stopping. And I told her just how a soldier lived in war. We talked over an hour”
“I walked three miles to my girlfriend’s house. As I approached I saw her by their well pumping water. She spotted me at about the same time. She dropped the bucket she was holding and started running toward me as I began running toward her. We met and embraced. We talked until midnight before I went home.”
“When I got home I went to bed. As I lay in bed all of the bitter disappointment of the day welled up inside me. I wanted to cry because doing so made me feel better earlier but I couldn’t cry, I never cried again.”
“It was a fairly good wedding. We had one good month together before the trouble started. I began having nightmares and would wake up screaming. One time I awoke thinking his wife was an enemy trying to kill me. I began drinking.”
Tyrone’s marriage began to fall apart. Eight months after returning home from Vietnam he left for work at the nearby processing plant and just kept walking past it to the interstate. Once there he hiked to New Orleans where he briefly lived with his sister before living on his own. The hurt inside remained as did his nightmares and flashbacks and he found himself drawn back to drugs. He said when he took drugs the hurt went away as did his desire to hurt others. The problem was that when the drugs wore off the hurt returned. He added “Nobody wants to hurt all of the time so I kept taking drugs.”
Within a few years Tyrone was addicted to heroin and was receiving treatment for it at the VA hospital. He was also suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his combat in Vietnam, a problem exacerbated by the way he was treated when he returned home from Vietnam.