The Army is good at improvising and Vietnam took a lot of improvising, flat out winging it really. After a short time Michael Simpson found himself sweeping roads for land mines, his official titles became combat engineer and demolitions specialist.
He seemed calm, peaceful even, but there was some sadness there as well, perhaps a great deal of sadness. Imagine, you are a kid really, and you want to get out of a difficult situation at home, so you enlist in the Army. Your plan is to learn to drive heavy machinery in Europe and you end up in Vietnam.
It was the first time he had experienced another person wanting to kill him.
Like I said he was a kid, as many of were.
Vietnam was a completely different culture, climate, terrain; the people, all completely new and extremely different.
It was also his first experience with abject poverty. What do you hold onto in a situation like that? Where do you turn to get your bearings?
“I stumbled through Vietnam it was dumb luck I survived,” Michael said. Imagine a two year stumble, no bearings, no familiar land marks, just you and some other guys and a lot of them are disappearing all around you.
He holds no malice for the Vietnamese in fact he has a great deal of compassion. “They were not making war against us they were just trying to survive,” Michael said. He also saw lots of dead Vietnamese children, women and elderly. “No amount of patriotism can make that all right,” he added with some grit in his voice.
You come home and the familiar landmarks and people are there, but you are changed in some fundamental way. “My family was afraid of me, I was a different person,” he said about his return from Vietnam. He was much more isolating and his temper would flair when pushed. I mean what do you say to people. You sense they can’t understand, maybe don’t even really want to hear it.
Michael is 24 years sober this September and actively working to help mentor other Veterans that end up in the court system. He is good at it. Veterans talk to Michael and for the first time realize maybe someone really does understand them.
Extensive long term trauma like Michael and others experienced in Vietnam can change the structure of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, so he believes there may be no cure for his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But it was only a few years ago that Michael even began to seek help for PTSD, or even admitted he had it. He like a lot of men in this country; he had the suck it up and get things done attitude.
But the wounds were still piling up. His dad, a World War 11 Veteran, was dying in the hospital. He had been married and divorce four times.”I have trouble with long term relationships,” he said as sort of an understatement. Then his son died.
At that point Michael became what he called, “malleable.” That’s not to mention all the, what he called, “red rages.” Events like fights where afterward he wouldn’t remember a thing that happened.
A Veteran’s Doctor convinced him to seek some help for his PTSD.
The groups he attends for PTSD have been extremely helpful. “It is good to hear from other people who have been through something similar,” he said. It makes him feel less alone.
Spirituality has been a major part of Michael’s recovery. He took Aikido for many years from Quang Minh Tran a Vietnamese instructor in Pullman, Washington. Aikido teaches to give way and least resistance. Sensei Tran had an extensive library and one night at a party Michael pulled the I-Ching off the shelf and something resonated in the teachings. Eventually he started studying in depth.
Michael’s card has a quote from the I Ching: “The mind is quickened by external things, and destroyed by the excessive pursuit of them.” He was ok with the more revealing aspects of this interview; “If there is one thing I have learned it is that God is truth,” he said.
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