Tuesday, July 5, 2022 Jul 5, 2022
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For many combat veterans the war will never end. It can explode, without warning, in their minds.
By Rowland Stiteler |

The transaction took place shortly after dawn. Almost everyone on the small Caribbean island of Antigua was asleep. A twin-engine Piper Aztec which had flown from nearby Barbados dipped from the clouds, banked, and landed on a deserted runway. A man wearing sunglasses and a business suit emerged from the plane and walked across the runway to meet two other men. He had the money they wanted, seven thousand dollars. After counting the money, they gave Col. Jim Martin what he had come for, what he had tried several years to obtain. Not narcotics or microfilm or anything else that a career Army intelligence officer like Martin might be expected to acquire in a transaction like this. The Antiguans were selling Jim Martin something more valuable to him: his son, Gary.

Gary Martin was born into the military. Jim Martin’s career with the Army had taken his wife and two sons all over the world. Even now, Wanda Martin is not sure what country Gary started school in. There were lots of countries. But Gary Martin had grown up a homebody, a quiet, bright boy, with B-plus grades in the numerous schools he had attended.

After high school, there was little debate about where Gary was going. He had always been destined for the Army. His father, who was stationed in Panama when Gary signed up, performed the swearing-in ceremonies. The year was 1968, and there was only one place for a young soldier in 1968: Vietnam.

Gary became a forward artillery observer, whose job it was to go into hostile areas and direct where the artillery shells would fall. The job had two major hazards: Sometimes the Viet Cong got you; sometimes your own shells did.

No one knows whose mortar shell blew up near Gary’s head that day in Vietnam. The explosion took part of Gary’s hearing, but the full extent of his injuries was not immediately apparent. Gary completed his tour of duty in Vietnam, received two Bronze Stars for valor and a Purple Heart, and after 13 months of war came home to spend a month with his parents, who had moved to Fort Worth.

But the Gary who came home was more distant, quieter than he had been as a youngster. He seemed suspicious of everyone, even his parents. Before the month of leave was over, Gary disappeared. He had gone AWOL.

He soon showed up in El Paso and turned himself into the Army at Fort Bliss. Being absent without leave from the Army was not unusual for men who had spent a year in Vietnam, and Gary’s punishment was not severe. Soon he was home with his parents again, but now he was more distant than ever, and he occasionally became hostile. He broke into a sudden rage one day at the dinner table because his brother’s children were making noise. It frightened his mother, but he refused to discuss the incident afterward.

His parents eventually persuaded him to talk to the doctors at the Army hospital at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. He hadn’t been long at the hospital when he called some family friends in San Antonio and asked them to drive him to the airport so he could go home to Fort Worth. On the way to the airport, Gary pointed out an elderly woman on the sidewalk.

“You see that woman over there?” he said. “She wants to take my brain.”

When Gary got home, his mother pleaded with him. “I’ve got to know what’s bothering you, Gary. You’ve just got to tell me.”

“Don’t you see?” Gary said. “Don’t you understand? You take a little boy and you send him to a place that is very far away. Don’t you see what’s going to happen to him?” It was as close to communicating with her as he was going to come. “Later,” she recalls, “it dawned on me that he was talking about being sent to Vietnam.”

Gary reluctantly agreed to return to San Antonio for treatment. This time he stayed three months. Then he was discharged from the hospital – and from the Army. He had been diagnosed as paranoid-schizophrenic, was certified by the government as 70 percent disabled, and would receive a pension.

When he came home from the hospital this time, Gary was less hostile, more communicative, more like the son Wanda Martin knew. But before long the rage and suspicion surfaced, worse than ever.

One day, Mrs. Martin found Gary in the garage, taking apart shotgun shells and pouring the gunpowder into a bottle. He was making a bomb.

A few days later, while the Martins were away from their home, Gary broke into the house by shattering a glass patio door, even though he had a key to the front door. He was waiting with a rifle when his parents came home. He fired a couple of shots at his father, but missed.

Then he ran from the house. While the police and his parents were out searching for him, however, he calmly came home and made something to eat. “What was the problem? What’s wrong?” he asked when his parents found him there.

“I don’t think he was trying to kill me,” Jim Martin told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “He was too good a shot to have missed me.”

The Martins sought help from the psychiatric clinic at the Veterans Administration hospital in Dallas, but the hospital would take Gary only if he voluntarily signed himself in. “There was no way in the world that Gary was going to do that,” Mrs. Martin says. “There was no way in the world he would go into a mental hospital again voluntarily.” The only alternative was commitment.

Jim and Wanda Martin filed the papers for a commitment hearing in the Tarrant County judge’s office; sheriff’s deputies picked up the 19-year-old veteran and took him to John Peter Smith Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. While he was in the hospital, Gary attacked his father with a plastic knife. The doctors recommended long-term treatment at the VA’s regional mental hospital in Waco, the only veterans’ hospital in the state that takes patients who have been committed by a court.

Gary hired a lawyer to defend him at the hearing before Tarrant County Judge Mike Moncrief. The “prosecution” at such hearings must prove to the judge that the “defendant” is mentally ill at the time of the hearing and is dangerous either to himself or to others because he is mentally ill. In fact, lawyers in such cases often put up only a token defense, especially if they feel it is in the best interest of their clients to “lose” the case.

Gary Martin was committed to the VA hospital at Waco for a period not to exceed 90 days, the longest period a person can be committed to a mental hospital at the first hearing. But Gary was soon released by the attending psychiatrist, who advised him to get away from home, to try to make a fresh start somewhere else. His parents objected to the quick release, but there was nothing they could do about it.

Gary enrolled in a VA-recommended computer school in Minneapolis. Before he left Fort Worth, he obtained a passport. “You never know,” he told his mother, “1 just might want to do some traveling.”

Things went well at first for Gary in Minneapolis. His grades at the computer school were good, and he supported himself by working as a delivery boy for an architecture firm. But before long Wanda Martin stopped receiving letters from him. When her letters to him began coming back unopened, she called the school. Gary had dropped out of the course, they told her; people who knew him there said he had become very withdrawn and then had just disappeared.

On Father’s Day, 1972, Gary Martin flew to Antigua. What happened on his arrival there is still unclear. Apparently, Gary used what money he had left to buy a gun. The day after his arrival, a plain-clothes policeman noticed him sitting on a curb, with a gun in a paper sack next to him. Other policemen were summoned, and a crowd gathered.

Gary pulled the pistol from the sack.

“Get back,” he told the strangers, “Or I’ll shoot.”

For a few seconds, no one moved. Then Gary fired, killing a cab driver with the first shot and wounding another Anti-guan with the second. (Wanda Martin believes Gary had been either robbed or shortchanged by the cab driver on the day of his arrival.) The enraged Antiguans began beating him, but the police wrested Gary from the mob and took him to jail.

The next day, Jim and Wanda Martin received a telegram from the State Department – collect. “It cost us $13,” Mrs. Martin says, “to find out the horrible news of what happened to our son.” Before the ordeal was over, the Martins would spend some $50,000 to rescue Gary from Antigua.

A month later, the Martins were reunited with Gary in a cell-like room in an Antiguan hospital. He was catatonic, unable to open his eyes or eat; he had defecated in his bed. “Gary still had blood under his fingernails and in his hair from the beating he had received,” Mrs. Martin recalls. “It was terrible. I tried to talk to him but he just couldn’t hear me.”

The Martins were almost sure their son would die in the hospital before he ever came to trial. But gradually, Gary became well enough to eat Jell-O spoon-fed to him by the hospital staff. When he had partially recovered, he was taken to jail, where three American psychiatrists, including the VA doctor who had treated him in Waco, were allowed to examine him. Gary had stuffed cotton in his ears to try to silence the imaginary voices that were tormenting him.

At the murder trial, the doctors testified that Gary was severely paranoid-schizophrenic, but the trial ended in a hung jury. The Antiguans couldn’t decide what to do with Gary Martin. In June, 1973, more than a year after he had been imprisoned, there was another trial. This time, the jury reached a verdict: “Guilty, but insane.”

“Your son,” an Antiguan official told the Martins, “is never going to leave this island. Never.” The Martins tried everything, including appeals from Congressmen Jim Wright and Olin Teague and from several veterans’ organizations. Wanda Martin even wrote the Queen of England, asking her to use Britain’s influence over the Antiguans to allow Gary to be transferred to a psychiatric hospital in the United States.

Meanwhile, Gary was transferred back and forth between the island’s prison and its only mental hospital. He developed heart trouble, which has been diagnosed as the result of shock therapy improperly administered at the Antiguan hospital.

The Martins were told, that if they would pay $25,000 to the family of the dead cab driver, there might be a chance of securing his release after the 1976 elections in Antigua; Gary was a political football. In the spring of 1976, a new Antiguan administration agreed to release Gary Martin upon payment of $7000. It was all the Martins had. They had sold their house and Jim Martin’s business to pay the legal costs of their long attempt to free their son.

So in the early hours of June 5, 1976, Gary Martin was flown to Puerto Rico, where he was examined by a VA psychiatrist. Once they were certain that Gary could stand the 14-hour flight to Waco, he returned to the hospital he had left five years before.

His recovery from malnutrition and heavy sedation was slow. First he began to speak in one- and two-word phrases. Then he became able to carry on conversations with his family. Finally, he voluntarily signed an agreement which will allow the hospital to keep him as long as the doctors think it necessary. That could be for the rest of his life.

Gary is a resident of the hospital’s locked ward. He never leaves it without orderlies to watch him closely.

“Someone who didn’t know about Gary’s past could carry on a conversation with him and never know why he is in a mental hospital,” Wanda Martin says. “He’s extremely bright. He reads a lot of books and magazines. The last time I was there he had me order a trigonometry book for him.”

At 27, Gary Martin has spent almost a quarter of his life locked up.

There are more than a thousand men like Gary in Waco, the living legacies of our nation’s military engagements – Vietnam, Korea, World War II, even World War I. For decades, Waco was a dumping ground for patients whom doctors at other hospitals had found incurable. When the hospital was built in 1932, it was designed to look like a prison. In many ways it was. Many of its patients were locked up, with virtually no hope of ever leaving. Now the patients who are locked inside the hospital are in the minority.

More than 400 of the hospital’s long-term patients don’t live there at all. They live in private residences scattered around Waco. Homeowners are paid an average of $300 a month per patient to keep the veterans, 90 percent of whom must take drugs to control their illnesses. Most of them will spend their lives in little frame houses in Waco because they have nowhere else to go.

“I realize,” says a hospital staff worker, “that what these guys are leading could never be called a normal life, but at least it’s a hell of a lot better than spending the rest of their lives inside the walls of an institution.”

Numerous Wacoans, like Bill Higdon, chief of police in the Waco suburb of Beverly Hills, apparently disagree.

On November 22, 1976, Higdon answered a disturbance call from Marstaller Motor Company, an auto dealership about three miles from the VA hospital. He found the subject of the complaint, Danny Broadway, at a service station across the street from Marstaller Motors.

Like Gary Martin, Danny Broadway had come out of Vietnam paranoid-schizophrenic. In January, 1972, he was discharged and committed to the Waco VA hospital. Over the next four years, Danny was committed and released five times, the last by the Dallas County mental illness court on November 4, 1976.

Two weeks later, Danny’s condition had improved, and he was allowed a day off. He could leave the hospital on his own. His doctors trusted Danny Broadway to come back.

About noon that day, Danny walked into Marstaller and told a salesman he wanted a Jeep. Somehow an argument developed, and Danny was told to get out. He left. Someone at the dealership called the police to file a “suspicious person” complaint about Danny.

Chief Higdon had handled hundreds of “disturbance” calls. We have only his account of what happened on this call. According to Higdon, the first thing Danny Broadway said to him when Higdon arrived at the service station across from Marstaller Motors was, “I’m sure glad you got here, because there are some sons of bitches in there that I want you to shoot for me.” Then Danny told Higdon he was a veteran and had a right to a Jeep, but the salesman at Marstaller wouldn’t let him have one.

“I’m a veteran myself,” Higdon says he told Danny. He showed his military ID card and suggested they get in the patrol car to talk things over. He assured Danny he couldn’t shoot anybody for him, but maybe they could go back to the hospital and work something out.

“In that case,” Danny allegedly told Higdon, “maybe you could take me to Clute” – a small town in South Texas – “or to Washington.”

“I can’t do that,” Higdon replied, “but maybe somebody back at the hospital could set something up for you.” Higdon and Danny got in the patrol car and started back to the hospital.

On the way back, while they were waiting at a traffic light, Higdon says Danny grabbed a billy club from under the dash of the patrol car and started hitting him. “If you’re not going to take me to Clute,” Danny allegedly said, “then I’ve got to kill you.”

As the two men struggled, the patrol car rammed the car in front of it. Higdon and Danny fought over the nightstick, then Danny grabbed for Higdon’s pistol, the chief contends. Higdon says he held onto the pistol with one hand and struggled with Danny, who was kicking him. Finally Higdon was able to reach for the door handle behind him. He fell into the street.

Danny moved behind the wheel of the car; Higdon stood and drew his pistol, ordering Danny out. Danny refused.

“Believing that he intended to try and run over me and leave in my police car, and fearing for my life and believing I was going to pass out [from the blows received in the fight],” Higdon wrote in his report, “I pulled the trigger.”

The war was over for Danny Broadway. He died in the front seat of the car.

Higdon was no-billed by the McLennan County Grand Jury for the killing.

The incident has had a lasting effect on Higdon, however.

“I always take a witness or two when I go to pick up one of those guys now,” Hidgon says. “And I don’t put up with anything from those guys.

“I’ve been contending for years that they ought to do a better job of locking those guys up,” he says. Many townspeople feel the same way, and they frequently call Higdon when they see patients indulging in what they consider suspicious activity.

“Just the other day I picked one up who didn’t want to go,” Higdon told me. “I told him, ’Fella, you’re going with me. We can go to the hospital, or we can go to the jailhouse, or we can go to the morgue. I don’t give a damn which.’ “

I had a delivery man out here the other day who wanted to know who all those guys walking around outdoors are,” one of the doctors at the VA hospital told me. “When I told him most of them were patients, he was shocked. He wanted to know why they weren’t locked up ’where they belong.’ It’s the type of attitude we see all the time.”

The attitude of those who are not mentally ill is one of the most serious problems faced by those who are, psychiatrists say. Vietnam veterans who are mental patients are doubly stigmatized; they belong to two unpopular groups.

Last spring, the President’s Commission on Mental Health concluded a study on Vietnam veterans. One of the commission’s findings was that the “popular stereotypes of Vietnam veterans as losers, misfits, drug addicts and public risks [result in] the exacerbation of existing health and psychological disturbances [among veterans].”

Another of the findings of the commission is even more disturbing: There are about one million young men in this country walking around with time bombs in their heads. That is the number of men who were exposed to combat or other life-threatening situations in Vietnam. They represent about one third of the men sent to Southeast Asia during the ten years we were engaged in war there.

The time bomb is combat neurosis. It can happen years, even decades after the combat is over. It represents a major part of what the presidential commission called “the legacy of delayed and chronic disorders which arise and persist long after the soldier has returned to civilian life.”

The victims of combat neurosis are already beginning to come into the veterans’ hospitals in significant numbers. During a two-month period last fall, the Dallas VA hospital treated 180 Vietnam veterans, 97 for psychiatric problems.

A typical patient is Larry. Larry was a cheerleader at a Dallas high school, outgoing, ambitious, with a knack for dealing with people. He had a lot of plans for his life. But being a soldier wasn’t one of them.

When he got his draft notice in 1971, Larry seriously considered going to Canada. But his wife was pregnant, and he didn’t want to subject her to the uncertainties of exile at a time like that. So he reported to the Army induction center on Jackson Street as ordered. Maybe, he thought, they won’t send me to Vietnam.

That hope disappeared midway through his first day at Fort Polk. “Don’t you guys kid yourselves,” the drill instructor growled. “You guys are going to Nam. My job is to see that you know what to do when you get there.”

Larry had never been a violent person. He didn’t like the fake bayonet drills in which your goal is to hit the other guy in the face with a heavy pole before he hits you. But what stuck most in Larry’s mind was an exercise he learned in advanced infantry training: the “Zippo raid.” The Zippo raid was designed for “free fire zones,” areas where the government had declared every living thing an enemy, and ordered soldiers to shoot anything that moved. Part of the procedure was to set fire to the thatch huts that dotted the Vietnamese countryside. Anything that fled from the burning house was to be shot down.

Larry was a member of a squad being transported across the Mekong Delta in a helicopter. They landed in a small clearing where they had landed safely many times before. This time, however, it was surrounded by Viet Cong, who opened fire the second the helicopter touched down. Sitting by the door of the aircraft, Larry was the first to see what was happening. As he turned to shout a warning, he saw a friend he had just been talking to. A large projectile, probably a recoilless rifle shot, had taken the man’s head off. At the instant Larry turned around, the soldier’s body was still upright, headless.

That instant froze in Larry’s mind.

The others in the helicopter were fortunate. The pilot had not cut the engine; they made it back to their base with most of the passengers still alive.

After that, Larry had two goals: to stay alive and to forget that horrible moment. He succeeded in the first.

He thought he had succeeded in the second. Then, a few months ago, as he and his wife slept in their Garland home. Larry’s mind replayed the whole macabre scene. It was as vivid as reality. He woke up screaming. A week later it happened again. Now it happens frequently.

Larry is afraid to go to sleep. Not long ago, as he was watching the all-night movies and chain-smoking Salems, Larry thought of a strange analogy. In Vietnam, for years, the U. S. and South Vietnamese governments had control by day and the Viet Cong ran the country by night. Now it’s that way with his mind.

Something else bothers Larry: rage. He had always gotten along with people. Now he gets mad, furious at little things. At work he shuns people. At home, he becomes vicious when his wife or children do something to set him off. Not long ago, he slapped his daughter for some trivial offense. He doesn’t know why.

According to Dr. R. H. Rodriguez, staff psychiatrist at the VA hospital in Dallas, Larry’s behavior is typical of dozens of veterans who have sought help from him.

First, patients like Larry don’t want to talk about the war. They want to forget. But something within them wants to resolve the experience. Larry’s dream keeps recurring because his mind wants to find a solution, a happy ending to the horrible experience. It’s as if his mind will keep replaying that scene in the helicopter until no one gets killed in it.

Larry’s inability to control aggression is also typical of many Vietnam veterans.

“Many of these people are very frightened by their own aggression,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “It’s something they didn’t know they had inside them which has been released and now they don’t know how to stop it from coming out again. It’s frequently as frightening to the veteran as it is to those around him.”

It is possible for a life-threatening experience such as combat to transform a non-hostile, non-aggressive person into a hostile individual who is subject to uncontrollable, unexplainable periods of aggressive behavior, Dr. Rodriguez says. It is quite common for a problem like Larry’s to end in suicide. It has happened numerous times.

Fortunately for Larry, he has decided to forget about being considered “crazy” by his neighbors and seek psychiatric help. There’s a good chance he can solve his problems.

The President’s commission found that while a smaller percentage of soldiers were treated in the war zone for psychiatric problems in Vietnam than in previous wars, “the actual rate of mental and emotional disorders ultimately has been far higher among Vietnam soldiers than it was for veterans of previous wars.” Waco VA psychologist Cliff Knape says, “One out of every five Vietnam veterans needs some type of psychological adjustment counseling.” There are thousands of veterans in this country who don’t yet know they have a problem.

Why does the problem seem so much more acute for veterans of the Vietnam war than for those of World War II or Korea? Psychiatrists and psychologists I interviewed have a number of theories. The most commonly shared are these:

The soldier in Vietnam frequently did not grasp the reality of what was happening around him. He was taken quickly from the safety of the United States and, after a year in Vietnam, taken just as quickly back, making the whole experience seem unreal.

Soldiers in Vietnam, unlike those in Korea or World War II, were assigned to Vietnam not for the duration of the war but for one-year periods. Their personal goal was merely to survive for a year. Then the war was “over” for them.

Soldiers in Vietnam were keenly aware of the rejection of the war – and hence of their participation in it – by many of the Americans. Many veterans feel guilty for having participated in the Vietnam war.

“With the veterans of Vietnam,”Knape says, “I’ve seen something I’venever seen from our patients who servedin other wars. I see Vietnam veteranscoming in here who feel guilty becausethey didn’t die over there.”

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