By T. Anthony Bell, Fort Lee Public Affairs
FORT LEE, Va. – His response to the angry voices of protest upon his arrival home from the battlefields of Vietnam in 1970 was akin to ripping out the critical chapter of a book, crumpling the pages unreadable and discarding them as trivial matters.
“The way a lot of Americans felt about Vietnam veterans was very disappointing to me,” said 66-year-old Henrico County resident Jim Murphy. “It almost made you ashamed to be a veteran.”
The sentiment many Americans expressed about the war in the late ‘60s bordered on intolerance, the result of a weariness and a longing for clarity.
Collectively, massive protests and civic unrest were common occurrences.
Individually, behaviors best described as repulsive were sometimes directed toward those sworn to fight.
The protest movement crash-landed in Murphy’s life when he returned home after completing an 11-month tour with the 11th Pathfinders Company, 11th Aviation Group, 1st Air Cavalry Division based in Bien Hoa, South Vietnam.
“‘Boo! Baby killers! Here comes the baby killers,’” Murphy said the protesters shouted at him and other military members debarking the plane at the Oakland airport.
The 20-year-old Murphy was befuddled and unable to comprehend their actions. A draftee, he had risen from poverty and destitution in the nation’s capital, embraced the pathfinder military occupational skill with strong measures of pride and resolve, risked his life in the execution of his duties and earned three Bronze Stars in the process.
Now, he was confronted for the first time by the realities of the world beyond the jungles of Southeast Asia, a world where some held opinions that his actions were anything but heroic. The counter-reception really took hold when he witnessed fellow warriors shedding their military attire at the airport rather than confronting the opposing views. He was steeped in the experience, however, and could not fathom such an act.
“I wanted to wear my uniform home,” he recalled. “I was proud.”
Murphy also remembered the gloomy stares and tepid reactions on his way home. He later took note of the news broadcasts and “how everybody had just turned on us,” he said. His chest, once swollen with the air of accomplishment, was gradually deflating, turning bravado into uncertainty. He grasped for answers.
“You’re telling me all of this that I’ve been through meant nothing,” he said in retrospect. “As a matter of fact, that I’m really the enemy, that I didn’t defend my country, that I was misled and misguided.
“It was hard.”
Now discharged and somewhat distraught, missing the life-or-death camaraderie that shaped his persona as a foot Soldier and having no one he could connect with, Murphy wore alienation like well-fitted Army fatigues. He compensated by making disingenuous attempts to integrate as a civilian.
“I started to wear a mask,” said the father of three, grandfather of 12 and budding poet. “I started to be two people.”
Substance abuse followed “to keep these two people separated,” said Murphy. “You can’t be real because you can’t really be yourself … I felt like I was dummying down.”
Murphy dummied down for more than 30 years, repressing the most critical chapter in his life. He was fired from a job (and rehired) and went through two marriages. His third to Christine Murphy 25 years ago was the impetus to get help and support.
“Early into our marriage I noticed him fighting in his sleep,” said the Fort Lee Survivor Outreach Services financial counselor. “I would have to wake him. I didn’t know anything about this because we didn’t have much time in the relationship (the Murphys were married within a few months of meeting).”
Among the indications Jim needed help were incidents in which he blockaded himself inside his home while Christine was away and the day he locked himself in an employee’s lounge at work.
“It was apparent to me that something was wrong,” he said of the events that occurred roughly 16 years ago. “I drove myself to the VA hospital and checked myself in.”
The hospital admission was sobering. Previously, Jim had never talked about Vietnam. “It was off limits,” said Christine, “meaning if you asked him something about it, he would deflect it and go to something else.”
Now, Jim and Christine were attuned to the necessity of confronting the daunting problem of post-traumatic stress disorder, the illness for which Jim was diagnosed and one in which Christine knew nothing about. A Richmond veterans support facility and one of its counselors helped her tackle it in pieces small enough to decipher.
“I went to the Vet Center and she taught me what it is, how to cope with it, what to look for … I ended up having to go through counseling myself to understand what it was I had gotten myself into and how to continue to have a life,” said Murphy, an ordained minister.
Following the diagnoses and subsequent treatment plan, Jim frequented the Vet Center because “he was with other vets and it was not a hospital,” said Christine, implying Jim did not want the stigma of having a mental illness.
Progress was gradual, and there were signs of encouragement. For example, Jim began frequently wearing cologne to drown out smells that could trigger traumatic memories from the battlefield; he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in his hometown; and he began to openly talk about the war during group therapy sessions at the Vet Center – gradually replacing the many pages of his tour in Vietnam.
“The group helped me find some value in what I had done and helped me to marry that with the other part of me, so to speak,” said Murphy.
Jim’s full acknowledgement of his wartime experiences came when he framed his medals and placed them in the house where it was offered as a conversation piece.
“The first time people saw it, they were like ‘What is this?’ Of course, I had to share something about it,” said Murphy.
With his Vietnam War experience now an open book, Murphy said he does not mind telling his story to those who would listen. He said the act of sharing is therapy for the problem.
Coming to grips with his part in the war, however, does not solve his medical issues, said Christine.
“We have a good life, but life is still a journey,” she said. “This is unfortunately not something you can say, ‘Well, OK, I’m cured.’ It doesn’t go away. You work on it constantly. So, life is a journey, but we’re a lot better in it, and we’re in a position to reach out and help others. At our church, we have younger veterans who are married. Guess what?
“You pay it forward. That helps us.”
Holding a position for which one can help others is a blessing, said Jim. He acknowledged first and foremost his wife for sticking by him; a fellow veteran, Rev. Thomas Bynum; and his church, Victorious Living Christian Center, for “never giving up” on him. Not least, it was his family that gave him encouragement and a sense of purpose to continue his recovery.
“They’ve been my anchor,” he said. “Love is not tangible, but family is. I’ve been able to see love in action; I’ve been able to see my children come to me and say, ‘Dad, we need you, we love you and you need you to function better. I have a loving, Christian family that never said ‘we’re leaving you or we’re giving up on you.’ They’ve never done that. I’m one of the more fortunate ones.”
The tools the couple has at their disposal, said Christine, has allowed them to create a more robust family life.
“I’ve trained him a lot better. The toilet seat now comes down,” she said with a laugh. “It’s sweeter in that we’ve seen the children go through school together, and we’ve been there to see a lot of things happen in the next generation of our family. We’ve been there as an anchor for our children and their families. Broken families breed broken families. We’ve stopped the brokenness. That alone gives us satisfaction.”