Holidays are ‘downers’ for some of us vets

Holidays ain’t what they used to be when you were a kid. Particularly, if you ended up in the military and spent some of your formative years in a war zone like the Vietnam War. 

I could not celebrate Thanksgiving Day this year. It was the 50th anniversary of a comrade of mine named Victor Lee Ellinger, a first lieutenant who was shot and killed by an enemy sniper just three days before the holiday.  (See Cost of War.)

I’ll never forget the anguish I felt and the inability to properly mourn him. The holiday lost all of its meaning years later when I looked back and recalled the events of his death. There were three junior officers in our company. Victor was by far the best and I’ll never forget how the other lieutenant and I ate our Thanksgiving dinner in a rear encampment away from the “bush” just three days after the shooting. It seemed there was little if anything be thankful for that day in 1970.

—————–

Christmas was also bad that year. I had been relieved of my command right before the holiday. As an officer, I had ordered mortar rounds to be fired upon a river bank where I was leading my platoon and suspected the enemy was waiting to ambush us. The rounds fell a long way off the target and I kept ordering the sergeant shooting the armament several clicks away to “step down” to get the mortar rounds closer to the VietCong. 

After three or four attempts the last round struck us and five of my platoon members — called “grunts” — were wounded and eventually medevac’d out. An investigation was conducted about the so-called “friendly fire” episode and I was held responsible for the mishap and relieved of my duties. 

I’ll never forget lying on the cot in a tent in a rear base camp and feeling lower then dirt that Christmas morning. Yes, lower than dirt. At least dirt could provide something useful such as transforming food to grow from soil. Me? I felt I wasn’t good enough for anything that holy day of days. 

I was given a new command and made good (See Mutiny). And was given the honor of a 21-gun salatue by my platton upon leaving Vietnam some six months later.

—————

Let’s not forget my birthday which is celebrated today. My 21st birthday was a most forgettable one. I was stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana, as a training officer in boot camp. We had an IG inspection the next day and I remember inspecting the barracks the night of one’s most celebrated days and feeling so very alone in the army. 

You see, I was a commissioned officer. I could not fraternize with the troops or the drill sergeants. I hardly ever visited the officers club and never hung out with any other lieutenants. I was alone that day and since then I have never wanted to mark my birthday as anything special. 

So, bear with some of the veterans you know during these days of festivities and joyful outpourings. Some of us have been marked by trauma and experience events a little differently and all we need is a single person to try to understand that . . . Thanks for bearing witness this holiday period. 

16 comments on “Holidays are ‘downers’ for some of us vets

  1. inhiscare753 says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and prayers for thanksgiving blessings Amen 🙏

    Like

  2. Thank you for sharing this very personal and important reminder. My heart goes out to you and the many others who faced experiences and losses most of us could never imagine. Lots of care sent your way.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jeff Flesch says:

    Wow. Thank you for sharing a part of your story, and thank you, thank you for your service. May you be blessed in all you do.🙏

    Liked by 1 person

    • contoveros says:

      Thank you. We all have something that may rub us the wrong way in life and it really feels good to get it off your chest and not feel judged negatively for your feelings.

      Like

  4. […] Michael gave his permission to share his original work here. I encourage readers to visit his insightful and informative blog. You will find his article “Holidays are ‘downers’ for some of Us Vets” at https://contoveros.com/2020/12/01/holidays-are-downers-for-some-of-us-vets/ […]

    Liked by 2 people

  5. LaDonna Remy says:

    Reblogged this on Perspective on Trauma and commented:
    This article is written by Michael Contos who is the author of the blog Contoveros. Michael’s blog offers considerable insight on the topics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the impact of the Vietnam War on military personnel, and moving forward through spirituality, mindfulness, and meditation. The attached article chronicles part of his experience as a 21 year old, First Lieutenant serving in Vietnam. The article “Holidays are ‘downers’ for some of us vets” speaks specifically to the difficult decisions our military personnel are faced with, the potential outcome of this experience as it relates to PTSD, and a solid reminder that our holiday season can hold difficulties for many. It is a well written personal experience which sobers the reader, provides insight into traumatic experience, and reminds us all of the sacrifices made in serving and protecting our country. I gained Michael’s permission to share his article along with his hopes that it might assist others. I encourage taking a look at his blog and substantial writing on traumatic impact and healing.

    Like

  6. Nicole Perry says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Michael. As you know, my dad was a Vietnam veteran too (US Army, 1970-71). He didn’t talk much about it, which was certainly understandable– yet also makes it hard to truly understand. Whenever I read accounts by veterans who are willing to share, I feel closer to his experience. Thank you for being a voice for us to learn from. Sending much love and warmth to you this holiday season.

    Liked by 1 person

    • contoveros says:

      My dear friend Nicole,

      Not many of us like to talk about our experiences, but I met with a bunch of veterans at Omega Institute where we meditated and shared stuff with a Buddhist ordained minister who had studied with Thich Nhat Hahn.

      The teacher was also a machine gun operator on a helicopter in Vietnam and knew how to relate to those of us who served.

      Thanks for sharing about your dad.

      See you soon, I hope!

      Like

  7. My heart breaks reading this. I am so sorry on so many levels. I’m not sure what to add, only that I want to give you a hug and tell you that I’m grateful for our Veterans and so heartbroken over your pain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • contoveros says:

      Thanks my dear. When I was writing it I thought of a quote attributed to another veteran, a writer from some previous war where he must have gotten what they called “shell shock.”

      There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed” —
      ——– Ernest Hemingway

      Us Bloggers kind of knew that after posting some of our really deep stuff . . .

      Here’s a big hug back at you!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. LaDonna Remy says:

    You write with such truth and eloquence. Your experiences and sacrifices, are more than any could imagine. The feelings you’ve shared and response to this season, of seeming joy, make so much sense. My hope is that you see the value so many of us see in you and all those who serve our country and protect our way of life. I know it would be difficult for any of us to truly understand the depth of these losses, or the experiences attached to these. I think when we are faced with unspeakable odds, all we literally can do is make the best of the worst possible choices. I imagine that is what you were faced with at such a tender age in life. My genuine belief is it is our intention behind action that is indicative of us as individuals. I can see and hear in your writing the incredible strength and depth of character that exist in you. I am glad you are writing and sharing. Thank you for all that you have done for our country and what you continue to do through such depth of sharing. I am sending you lots of genuine care as you navigate this season and I do hope that your birthday can be an occasion to celebrate all of who you are. 🤍

    Liked by 1 person

    • contoveros says:

      I am as humbled as the little altar boy I once served as while reading your comment.

      You deal with trauma and know how it can affect a person in so many ways. I didn’t know I had PTSD until some 30 plus years after the war. I got counseling for what was called “anger management” but didn’t learn it was combat-related until years later. I remember attending a veterans group session with a psychologist who was also a veteran. He spoke about a Christmas when he was in country and one of his fellow vets wase killed in a helicopter attack. Whenever Christmas came around years later, he just couldn’t get up for it and avoided any and all celebrations.

      Then he learned that if he focused on just one person who understood his feelings he could not only survive but get into the holiday a little better. Just one person who could understand without judgment.

      Thanks LaDonna for being one of those persons!

      Liked by 2 people

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