Prolonged Exposure Therapy
By Gregory Ross
Prologue: The original piece I wrote starts with the next paragraph. My VA therapist for Prolonged Exposure Therapy [PET] asked me to be one of a few PET "graduates" to speak to prospective new enrollees. I read this to them, then spoke the Epilogue, the last paragraph.
I close my eyes. This is what I see: Eleven months with the Seventh Fleet off the coast of Vietnam. Our ship had sixteen inch guns; powerful enough to throw two thousand pound ordinance up to twenty miles. Back from Sea Duty — I need Philippine Pesos. The Black Market offers the best exchange rate; which buys a lot more beer, pot and bar girls. I take the Navy bus to the base at Subic Bay, then a jitney to the Bazaar on the outskirts of Olongapo City. As I wander the Bazaar I come to an open spot. It is a beautiful tropical day; sunny, warm, clear. I stop in the middle of the opening. I am in a very good mood: back from sea; a beautiful day. I am just feeling good.
Why I notice the Fleet Sailor, I don't know. I do remember he is smiling; like a Rube who just bought a $10 knock-off watch and believes he got a bargain. He is holding it out in front of him; admiring his good fortune; his shrewd dealing.
Then everything changed: the sun warm, the air clean, the temperature agreeable but, everything changed. Faster than can ever be told, a life ended. A Philippina girl came from behind the Fleet Sailor; grabbed the watch as if he handed it to her and ran. The Fleet Sailor yelled. Almost in front of me, just slightly to my right, she exploded. Her white shirt turned red. Her body slammed down into the dirt. I watched her slide, face down and come to rest, crumpled. Then I registered the gunshot.
I turned to see a Philippine Constabulary; forty five caliber pistol still raised. The girl was not moving. Her shirt was now almost all red. Blood was pooling around her. She was not breathing. The Fleet Sailor is as white as his Dress Uniform. I see the PC start walking towards the girl, who was still not moving, not breathing but, I thought she might get up and run; might get away; just leave the watch and blend into the crowd. I still thought she might be saved.
I observe the PC pick up the watch, holster his weapon and while grinning, walk towards the Fleet Sailor. The Shore Patrol and the Military Police have shown up; surrounding the Fleet Sailor, leading him away. He is in shock. Before they can leave, the PC tries to hand the Fleet Sailor the watch. An MP takes it. They leave.
No one has touched the girl. She is not moving, not breathing; not even bleeding; just there, driven into the ground by the force of the bullet; sinking slightly into the little puddle of mud formed by her blood and body fluids. It is still a beautiful day, sunny, warm, clear, clean, and tropical but, everything has changed. The girl is dead; inhumanly killed over a cheap trinket. I am no longer able to deny that I am in a war. Her death is a symbol of war: callous killing, not worth one life. I could deny the one ton ordinance because I did not see the death and destruction. This small piece of metal, not fired by me, shattered all denial.
I realize that I am the only American in the clearing. I look at the body one more time but, she does not get up, does not breath, has no more blood; cannot be saved. I fear for my safety. I leave. I hail a jitney. I go to the Navy Base at Subic Bay. I show my ID card and walk in. I take a deep breath; the first since the shot was fired. Waiting for the bus I go to the Enlisted Men's Club and drink rum and coke. The bus comes. I ride in a stupor, some of it alcohol induced. When we get to my duty station, I go immediately to the Enlisted Men's Club; more rum and coke. Back at the barracks, I roll a fat joint, stuff pot in my mouth and begin to chew, as I walk down to the beach to smoke. On the way back I stop off at the Enlisted Men's Club; more rum and coke. I pass out. The next day, I remember nothing.
More than a decade later I enter a VA drug, alcohol and PTSD program in Menlo Park, California. In eleven months of this program I do not remember this event. But, I get my life together: I fall in love; get and remain married, have a son; finish Acupuncture College; work for twenty five years with chemical dependency programs; with HIV and AIDS programs; with a SART [Sexual Assault Response Team]. Thirty years after getting out of Menlo Park; I get laid off. I have no place to put my guilt; no place to make a difference, no place to help others and myself; no way to balance my Karma. I begin to remember the girl; to once again cry uncontrollably. I go back to the VA because I have lost my medical insurance. I ask for help. The VA therapist says, "Close your eyes and talk about it," again and again and again.
Epilogue: In a sense, my therapist recruited me to speak today. Unlike a recruiter, I will not lie to you. This is hard work. Perhaps the hardest emotional work you will ever do. But, it is healing work. Whatever brought you to this meeting; to hear us speak our pain and our healing; for you to carry this without help is harder work, and, destructive.
Gregory Ross: Navy, the Gun Line off coast of Vietnam with the 7th Fleet [1968-69]. Graduate of a VA drug, alcohol and PTSD program ; Acupuncturist, Detox specialty [since 1989], laid off , published in "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace". Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org.