“I know he adores me, but he doesn’t let me in.”
Worry is an accessory many spouses of combat veterans wear every day, a constant accompaniment in a life that otherwise hums along with work, kids, grandkids, errands.
Of the wives who accompanied their husbands on a recent tour of 1968 battle sites, several said they had trepidation about what the return would reveal to them. Maybe the door to that locked part of him would open. And what would that be like?
“There’s part of him that you realize you don’t know,” said Vicki Gant, whose husband, Bruce, was a corpsman with the Marines. “We’ve been together since 1987. When we first started dating, I knew he had been in the war, but nothing was ever said.
“Then we were in a Mexican restaurant and the song ‘Crystal Blue Persuasion’ came on, and he was crying.”
The Shondells’ song from 1969 had triggered a memory of when Mr. Gant was going home from Vietnam, where he had made life-and-death decisions in triage, watching mortally wounded people take their last breath. “I think they all held that grief. On Hill 100, he got to a guy who was probably already gone and they had to tear Bruce off him. Two days later, a guy who was close to him died in a helicopter crash.”
Mr. Gant has made four trips back to Vietnam. This trip, in particular, was rewarding because he was able to return to Hill 100 (a key strategic site in Quang Nam province during the war), which he hiked alone, he said: “I was able to get to those spots again.”
Vicki Gant said the trips back have done her husband good, “but the pain’s still there. He still goes to group [therapy] in Orlando,” near their home in Titusville, Fla.
Combat veterans say the pain will always be there. Going forward depends on how you accommodate it.
Amanda Cobb said she grew up hearing her father, Rich Cobb, tell lengthy stories, using humor. A veteran of the Battle of Hue who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C., he has been back several times and said the burden eases each time “a little bit.”
Right across the street from where Mr. Cobb sought protection from an old tree on Jan. 31, 1968, Larry Lucas went down, shot in the neck. He made the trip back with his wife, Nancy, and daughter Chelsea. They live in Camas Valley, Ore.
Nancy Lucas said she does not have a key to the door her husband keeps locked.
“I’ve been lonely a lot in our marriage,” she said. “I know he adores me, but he doesn’t let me in.”
Nellie Medeiros and her husband, Clarence, grew up in Hawaii, went to high school together.
“When he came back for R and R, we started dating,” she said. “He was a tough guy, and he seemed OK when he came back” in 1972.
He had served in the Army in Khe Sanh, and survived ambushes and rocket attacks shot from the mountains in nearby Laos.
“In the early ’80s, he was working as a maintenance engineer in a hospital and he hurt his back. That caused all the emotion to break loose. He had chest pain, heart palpitations, anxiety attacks, but everything checked out. He said, ‘Then why do I feel like this?’”
A psychological diagnosis sent him into denial, she said.
“He said, ‘I am not off my rocker.’ He wouldn’t open up and make himself vulnerable. He didn’t want to go to public functions. We had kids in elementary school and he withdrew.”
Ms. Medeiros said her husband’s despondency worried her enough that she didn’t want to leave him alone. She took time off from work to take care of him until he seemed more resolved to survive.
It took some time, she said, but he finally admitted to having post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD, in order to get treatment.
Melissa Meadows worried when her husband, then-Capt. Chuck Meadows, was in Vietnam and she was trying to raise their first daughter. But she didn’t bear the emotional anxiety of his trauma because his years as a career Marine gave him daily access to people he could talk to about the horrors he endured.
He told her many of the stories, too, so she was able to put faces and places to names when she made the recent trip, her first to Vietnam
“I am always so proud of Chuck for what he does for his men — hugs, walks, late night phone calls. He is always there for them.”
Nancy and Chelsea Lucas went to the Dong Ba market one afternoon in Hue. The market lies along the Perfume River just east of the Truong Tien Bridge. The bridge was built in the early 1990s. The previous one, the one her husband, Larry, and the rest of his Golf Company buddies crossed on Jan. 31, 1968, had been damaged by mortar, rocket and machine gun fire.
Mr. Lucas made it across the bridge, but one block later he was wounded.
“We took a few minutes to take it all in,” Ms. Lucas said. “I told Chelsea, ‘Just close your eyes and try to imagine your father here at the age of 18.’
“This trip is more difficult than I thought it would be,” she said. “There is a place in him I have tried to get into for 33 years. I thought I’d be the one to reach him. That was my dream. I know now I never will.
“He has stayed steady, though, and maybe that’s what I needed.”