Crashing and Burning Years After the War Is Over

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My friend Paul Critchlow fought in Vietnam, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with valor. Then he returned home to Omaha, Neb., and nobody wanted to talk about it. So he did what many combat vets did after the war: He kept his head down and drove on, built a career, raised a family, avoided anything that reminded him of Vietnam, compartmentalized the trauma, drank heavily and abused drugs. He did as his old coach once advised after he broke his leg playing college football: “You’ve got to play above the pain, Critchlow.” It was a productive approach.

He eventually landed on Wall Street and rose to become head of communications for Merrill Lynch. But then one morning in 1994, he woke up and couldn’t get out of bed. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t find the will to move. The doctors told him he had clinical depression. In Critchlow’s mind, however, it was much more specific than that: a hill in the Central Highlands of Vietnam that the Army numbered 102. Many of his close comrades died there during the battle in which he was wounded. He blamed himself.

There were fewer than 200 American soldiers on Hill 102 when it came under siege by the entire Second North Vietnamese Army Division on the afternoon of Aug. 19, 1969. Critchlow was a 23-year-old forward observer for Charlie Company, responsible for calling in airstrikes and artillery barrages. As the Vietnamese troops advanced farther up the hill, the grunts dug in along the perimeter shouted over the radio to Critchlow for more and more bombs. The battle raged through the evening, and once it got dark, Critchlow lay on his back in a roofless French plantation house and used a strobe light to guide an AC-47 Spooky gunship to its targets. Just before midnight, a lone figure appeared in Critchlow’s periphery. He was armed with a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher, and Critchlow knew he was an NVA soldier by the shape of his helmet. The explosion lifted Critchlow off the ground, and suddenly he was immersed in brilliant white light, spinning slowly through the air, certain he was dead. Five hours later, he was tossed onto a helicopter packed with bodies, and bullets pierced the fuselage as the bird lifted off the ground. Critchlow begged God not to let him die after all he had just survived. He prayed to go home. But as soon as he got there, he wanted to turn back around. He felt as if he had abandoned his men. “By putting myself in harm’s way, I left them behind,” he recalled thinking after waking up in a hospital in Danang.

Following his nervous breakdown in 1994, Critchlow started seeing a therapist. Still, he refused to talk about Vietnam. He didn’t see how it was relevant. As far as he could tell, it was his work, not the war, that stressed him out, that kept him drinking to calm his nerves. In 1996, he finally mustered up the courage to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Walking across the National Mall, Critchlow’s first thought as the wall came into view was that it was a lot bigger than he had imagined. Then names came into focus. There were so many. The war as it existed in Critchlow’s mind was much smaller, more personal. He found Aug. 19, 1969, and worked his way down, slowly, reading each name, touching it, letting the emotions come.

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After that trip, Critchlow eventually made his way back to the Central Highlands in Vietnam. It took him all day to find Hill 102, and when he got to the spot where he was wounded, he fell to his knees and sobbed. He had spent nearly three decades obsessing over the battle, scrutinizing it from every angle, noting everything that he had done wrong to get himself wounded and let his men down. But now, in the bright light of day 31 years later, a kind of clarity set in. Critchlow could see where the perimeter had been and his location at its center. He realized that he had to expose his position to direct the gunship that night. The strobe light was necessary. He had spent nearly his entire adult life punishing himself for nothing. This time, when he left Vietnam, he was ready to go home.

How does a person survive trauma and not be miserable? I genuinely wanted to know when I started researching the essay I’m sharing with you now. Because like Critchlow, I also crashed and burned years after coming back from war. In my case, the flash point was an explosion in southern Afghanistan that decimated my platoon. And the way I saw it, it was either atone or die as the guilt continued to erode my will to live.

Adam Linehan is a freelance writer and journalist. He served as a United States Army medic and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.