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Invisible Wounds - Part 1
By Joseph Giannini
Re: VA claims for post-traumatic stress disorder and hearing loss
Service: USMC 1966-1970
Military Occupational Status: Infantry
Rank: Captain USMC
I am 70 years old. My father, Victor, was an Army veteran who served twice. Once during The Great Depression. Then again as a tanker with the Ninth Armored Division during World War II.
He was stationed at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma when my mother, Gertrude, gave birth to me in Kings County, New York. My mother at this time was working for the Federal Government. When I was about six years old, my father moved our family to Plainview, Long Island.
My dad was very patriotic. He raised me to believe in "My Country, right or wrong." Starting as a child, I was very interested in war and playing war games. I remember when I was about 10 years old reading about the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The battle that ended the French Indochina War and marked the beginning of our Vietnam War. My war.
On June 25, 1961, I graduated from Massapequa High School. I played football in Junior High and wrestled through High School. I went to Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY with the help of a wrestling scholarship. I majored in Political Science and graduated with a B.A. in January 1966.
On March 15, 1966, I enlisted in the Marine Corps. While going through Boot Camp at Parris Island, I applied to Officer Candidate School. After completing Boot Camp, Advanced Infantry Training and Basic Specialist Training, I was accepted to OCS.
On October 5, 1966 I reported to Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. I graduated in December of 1966 and received a commission as a Second Lieutenant. After OCS, I attended The Basic School for Officers from December of 1966 until April of 1967. While at The Basic School, I received my MOS: 0302, Infantry Officer, and volunteered to serve in Vietnam.
On June 12, 1967 while on leave I married my girl, Annette Pagnotta. Twelve days later I left for Vietnam. The day before my 24th birthday. I had orders to report for duty with The Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. Vietnam.
In early July I choppered into the DMZ, or Dead Marine Zone. Joined the First Battalion, Third Marines, also know as The Home of the Brave. They had just gone in to reinforce the First Battalion, Ninth Marines. 1/9 had encountered a large North Vietnamese Army force. When I arrived, 1/3 was mopping up. Mostly collecting dead Marines from 1/9.
1/3 was part of the Special Landing Force in Vietnam. Two battalions that stood offshore on Amphibious Assault Ships and were deployed mostly into hot situations. When I first came on board I was assigned to Headquarters Company and given command of the 81mm Mortar Platoon. Their Platoon Leader had just been killed in the DMZ. Shortly after, I was reassigned to Bravo Company and took Command of Bravo One, First Platoon. This was the first of four Rifle Platoons I would command during my 13-month tour as a Marine in Vietnam.
On August 12, 1967, I suffered my first fatal loss. We were in Happy Valley, southwest of Da Nang. Corporal Joseph Listorti, a Machine Gunner attached to my Platoon, was accidently shot in the head by another Marine. In the light of a full moon, I ran over to the Machine Gun position. Knelt beside Joseph. Saw thick dark blood oozing from his left eye. He was moaning softly. Within a few moments he was dead. We wrapped him in his own poncho and lifted him onto a Medevac to start his journey home. As the chopper rose I felt a twitch in my right eye. It would come and go during my whole tour. I often wore dark glasses to conceal it. I believe the twitch was caused by stress. Leading my Marines in combat. Knowing that any mistake I made could be fatal to them. I was responsible for their lives. My life was expendable.
On August 17, 1967, I suffered the second loss under my command. In the early morning hours.
This time in total blackness. Machine Gunner Cpl. David Calabria was killed by an NVA grenade during a vicious hill fight in the Que Sahn Valley. Also known as the Valley of the Walking Dead. Corporal Calabria was only with us three days. He was Corporal Listorti's replacement.
It was around this time I realized we were not fighting in the name of freedom and democracy for the Vietnamese people. Nor were we fighting Communists there so that we would not have to fight them here in the streets of America. There was a civil war going on between the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese. Our presence was only making it worse. We did not fight for high ideals. We fought because we were Marines. We fought for our battalion, for our company, for our platoon, for each other. We fought to survive. We loved each other to death. We fought to get on the Freedom Bird back to The World.
I wound up having an unusual but lucky tour. Our Battalion was hard on young Lieutenants. Most that came on board before me and after me were killed or wounded. I remained on the line. Served with three consecutive rifle companies: Bravo, Delta, and Charlie. Unusual. Infantry Officers stayed on the line for six or seven months and then rotated to a safer position. Many times I was scared. Incoming rockets terrified me. I realized there was nothing I could do. Surviving was a matter of luck. Lucky. I survived without a scratch.
I sensed a change within. An ongoing struggle to retain a bit of my humanity. A battle for my psyche. In sum, I did some very bad things and some very good things. As we say in the Marine Corps, "There it is."
On my 25th birthday, June 25, 1968, I was a short-timer. Less than 30 days to go In Country. Due to the high attrition rate of lieutenants I was both the X.O. of Charlie Company and Platoon Leader of the Third Platoon. At the beginning of July I turned over the Third Platoon to Second Lieutenant John Murphy. My replacement.
On July 21, 1968, I was with Charlie Company at LZ Stud. Not far from the Khe Sahn Combat Base. Khe Sahn had been under siege, successfully defended, relieved, and abandoned in April. I got a radio call to report to the Battalion Commander. When I entered his command bunker, he said to me, "Lieutenant, your orders came in. Go home. Good luck." This came as a surprise to me. I did not expect to leave for at least two more days. I grabbed my gear and boarded the next chopper out. Left without any goodbyes. Including John Murphy.
On my way home, I kept making connecting flights, without any layovers. Ended up back in The World one day before anybody expected me. I thought being home meant the war was behind me.
When I got back, I still had a year and a half to do in the Marine Corps. I did this at the Landing Force Training Command in Virginia Beach. Avoided anything having to do with Nam. Hardly ever spoke about it. Never with my wife, Annette. I threw myself into work, working out, and surfing. Realizing now that the working out and surfing were safety nets. Self-therapy. This did not stop the onset of recurring nightmares. About being overrun. Incoming. Beginning a second tour with a rifle company. The nightmares quickly became debilitating.
When my commitment to the Corps ended I decided not to re-up. I knew that if I did, I would be on my way back to Nam and most likely be given command of a rifle company. Just like in my dreams.
At the end of my commitment, Annette and I moved back to Brooklyn, to work, and also for me to attend Brooklyn Law School on the G.I. Bill. I was still avoiding Nam. Did not talk about it. Did not follow it on TV, did not read about it.
Before enlisting in the Marine Corps, I had smoked marijuana one time. That was the extent of my drug use. Back in Brooklyn, I started smoking marijuana on a regular basis and then added the use of cocaine and amphetamines. It could be that surfing stopped me from falling into addiction and serious drug abuse. I never got arrested. On occasion people have asked me what it is about surfing. I tell them that I do not live to surf, I surf to live. I think that surfing has always been a buffer in that way, a balance. An addiction, but a healthy one.
In 1971, Annette and I separated during an unplanned pregnancy. Our son Ron was born on January 3, 1972. I struggled to stay in law school. Graduated in 1973. Admitted to the New York State Bar in 1974. Have been in private practice as a criminal defense attorney since 1975.
When Ron was 35, he had what psychiatrists told us was a break with reality. It was serious. Ron was hospitalized in a Mental Ward and diagnosed as suffering from Schizophrenia and Severe Paranoia. Shortly after being released, he tried to kill himself by carving deep x-marks in both wrists with a steak knife.
Ron is now 40. Medications have helped him some but not enough. Ron can no longer work. He is on Social Security Disability. He lives at home with his mother in Brooklyn. He cannot be left alone. I have an agreement with Annette where I go live with Ron several times a year, for a month at a time. So she can take a getaway break. This arrangement has put a strain on my relations with my current wife Nikki and our 27-year-old son Victor.
Nikki and I met in 1973 and got married in '78. She says I never mentioned being a Marine or being in Vietnam until we had been together for almost five years. The only other person I told that I was a Marine and had been in Vietnam was my friend Lou Schwartz. He was a fellow student at Brooklyn Law School who became a close friend.
For 34 years, from 1968 to 2002, I mostly avoided Nam. Hardly ever mentioned to anyone I was a Marine that served in Vietnam. This would change during the summer of 2002. By chance, Annette and my Mother returned to me hundreds of letters I wrote while in the Marine Corps and Vietnam. I did not know they had saved my letters. Included with those returned by my mother were the letters written to my Dad marked "For your eyes only." Meaning not to show these letters to Mom and Sis. These contained hurtful truths and graphic descriptions of the fighting. Early on in my tour, Annette asked me not to write any more about the fighting. It frightened her too much.
One afternoon shortly after, I sat down with my letters and started going through them. I ended up reading almost non-stop. Picking up each day where I left off the night before. It took about a week. Every letter took me back In Country. I saw vivid images. Re-heard sounds. During my reading of the letters I started to watch Vietnam War movies. Particularly Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Deer Hunter. Over and over.
One evening Nikki came home from work. She found me in the living room surrounded by letters and watching a Vietnam War movie. She walked straight over to me and said, "I want you to do two things for me. One is to get some counseling. The other is, you've talked about writing, do it." She handed me a college catalogue and said, "There are some writing courses being offered in Southampton."
I did both. I got into counseling in the fall of 2002 and enrolled in a Southampton College Continuing Education course called "What Is Remembered." After a few weeks, the instructor of the writing class, Barbara Wersba, told us the weekly assignments were suggestions only. We could write about whatever we wanted. There were no rules. "If it makes sense when you read it, that's what counts," she said. The first story I wrote was Double-Time Duffy (printed in the Spring 2005 issue of The Veteran www.vvaw.org/veteran/article/?id=548), a tribute to my commanding officer at OCS, Capt. Patrick Edward Duffy. It is a war story. Tragic. The first of many I would write over several semesters about my time in the Marine Corps and Nam.
To be continued in next issue of
Joseph Giannini, a local criminal defense attorney, served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 with the First Battalion, Third Marines. A victim of Agent Orange, he is currently writing a book of short, non-fiction stories about fate, surfing, and war.