BAYOU BLUE -- Thirty-year-old Marty Chaisson, a decorated former Marine Corps master sergeant who saw combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan, says he now realizes that he has lived with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) all of his life. "I just couldn't recognize it growing up," Chaisson says, smoke curling up from his cigarette. "I thought everybody went to grandma's house at 2 a.m. because their dad would lose it."
Home could be havoc when Marty's father, James Chaisson, was around. But that wasn't often. A decorated Vietnam War combat veteran, James usually worked offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes he was gone four weeks at a time, leaving his wife, Donaleen, with their three children -- including Marty, his only son. "I grew up with my dad not being connected to us," Marty says.
James, seated on his son's left, nods. James was about 18 when he left the Houma area for Vietnam in 1968. He served a one-year tour of duty as a specialist and crew chief for the Army First Air Cavalry, A Battery, 2/20th Artillery. He flew as a front-seat gunner on a Cobra helicopter gunship, loaded with aerial rocket artillery.
His ship had more than 200 confirmed kills in March, 1968, he says. He received a promotion and a raise for the high enemy killed-in-action ratio. Now, he sometimes talks about Vietnam as if it happened to someone else. "Within a month and a half, the person you were isn't there anymore," James says. "The person that went has never come home."
Marty recalls that his father did not play ball with him like other dads did with their kids. By the age of 8, Marty had been taught that he could see more in the dark the closer he was to the ground. "By the time I was 13, I knew how to set up a perimeter," he says.
Some nights, the Chaisson family would be sitting in a room and James would slip outside. He would shut off the lights to the house and then re-enter the darkened house posing as an intruder. Marty would crawl on the floor to evade detection. "My mother didn't like those games too much," Marty says.
As Marty grew up, he wanted to know what made his dad the man he was. So he went to war. He joined the Marines, and saw heavy fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. "I went, and I found out what he was all about, and I didn't like it," Marty says.
Nowadays, Marty makes the one-hour drive from Bayou Blue to New Orleans once a month for group therapy and medical treatment at the PTSD Clinic of the Veterans' Administration (VA) hospital. Just like his father.
IT IS A COOL JANUARY AFTERNOON. We are sitting on the porch of James' home, a neat, one-story house he shares with his wife of 37 years in Bayou Blue, a rural community between Houma and Highway 90. There is a view of the woods, and a large American flag covers one wall.
At Gambit Weekly's request, four decorated combat veterans have agreed to meet here to discuss their personal battles with PTSD. Joining Marty and James Chaisson, 57, are Vietnam veterans Loyd Olin, 61, Army 18th Aviation Division, and William "Bill" Runnels, 58, Navy Coastal Division No. 13.
All four men are from the Houma area and are of Native American ancestry. They are now members of the "Forgotten Warriors of Louisiana, Houma Chapter 2," a small veterans' service organization. They believe that the federal government is not doing enough to alert troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to the dangerous effects of PTSD.
"My belief is that they should inform the Iraq veterans who have been in intensive combat about PTSD and the help available to them and their families," Runnels says, "and from what we are hearing back here, that is not being done." Runnels is president of the local Forgotten Warriors chapter and was diagnosed with PTSD in 1992 -- nearly 20 years after the Vietnam War ended. "We were caught too late," he says. "The young ones coming home now can be helped if we can get them into the PTSD clinic of the VA in New Orleans. The longer they stay out of treatment, the worse it's going to be."
The Warriors have invited a fifth veteran to attend the meeting. Cpl. Miguel Perez, 22, of Thibodaux, is a young Marine who was sent home from Iraq to recover from an enemy bullet wound to the stomach. He is the only one of the five veterans who is still in the service, and he is the only one here who has not been diagnosed with PTSD. He is anxious to rejoin his unit, the 8th Battalion 1st Marine, when it rotates back stateside in three days. "That's my family," he says.
Before he leaves, however, the four veterans want the young corporal to hear about what they call "the hidden wounds" of war.
The Forgotten Warriors say they have re-emphasized the importance of PTSD since early this year, after six native sons of the Houma area were killed in Iraq while on patrol for the Louisiana National Guard. During memorial services in the bayou city, Runnels says, one grieving fellow Guard member left behind in Houma lamented that he was not on patrol with the men when the end came. That reaction is "survivor guilt," one of the most disturbing symptoms of PTSD, Runnels says. Since then, PTSD awareness and outreach has been a top priority for the veterans' group.
The vets with PTSD are admittedly suspicious of "non-veterans," government and the media. "One thing I want to stress is that we do not get together and tell war stories," Runnels tells me. "Our objective is to get around the war stories and go to the symptoms of PTSD."
They also disdain talk about medals, concurring with research on attitudes of PTSD vets toward media war coverage. "All that hero stuff doesn't help," Runnels says.
LOYD OLIN IS A BURLY MAN of Choctaw heritage with long graying hair and big hands. "PTSD affects your relationships with people because your emotions are always on a roller-coaster, between reality and what the traumatic event caused," Olin says, looking directly at Cpl. Perez. "You avoid people. People are your enemy. Authority is your enemy. And you really cannot explain why you are so mad until you meet other vets. Until then, the best you can do is stay busy all the time.
"So as time goes on with not having normal relationships, you get so overloaded emotionally that you get tied down to a stretcher like I did and taken to a mental institution -- like I did."
By July 1965, Olin was almost 22. He had flown 225 combat missions in Vietnam as a specialist and crew chief for the Army's 18th Aviation Division. "I was ready to come home," he says.
Three weeks before the end of his one-year tour of duty, he was captured, beaten, taken out of Saigon, put in a cage and left to die. He was rescued by villagers and returned to Saigon 10 days later.
Another time, he recalls, he was hit by sniper fire, but the bullet struck his flak vest. He saw a man blown apart at Pleiku. "You never got a break from the booby traps and snipers," he says.
On another occasion, one of the pilots on his crew suffered a nervous breakdown and killed a fellow pilot.
"Toward the end, I had had it." Olin recalls, his hands trembling. "I took my gun and put it to my own head."
Someone took his weapon away. Instead of ending his own life, Olin returned to Louisiana a decorated soldier. But when he came home, his mother was the only one who recognized him at the airport. He had wasted away to 125 pounds. "When I left home my nickname was Smiley,'" Olin says. "But when my little brother saw me, he looked straight at me and says Where's Smiley?' And I realized Smiley' was gone forever."
He still weeps at the memory. Eleven years ago, Olin apparently suffered a nervous breakdown. He was taken to a mental hospital, and later released. Medication helped keep his suicidal thoughts away, he says.
"If it had not been for James and Bill, I would probably be in the crazy house or had committed suicide," he says.
MIGUEL PEREZ WANTED TO BE a Marine since he was 8. Now, a married native of Thibodaux, he has a son who will be 2 years old in May. Perez has been home for six months -- since he was shot and wounded by Iraqi insurgents during a firefight in Fallujah.
The quiet, stoic Marine seems less reserved after hearing Olin's account. He tells us how he got shot. He was first deployed to Iraq in March 2003 for the invasion, but his unit left the following month. They returned in June 2004.
On the night of July 29, he was with a platoon of about 50 men. They were in a convoy of armored trucks and Humvees patrolling Fallujah. The insurgents attacked, first with an IED (improvised explosive device), then gunfire. "We passed right over a drainage ditch and I saw him detonate it from his front yard," Perez says of the insurgent.
The Marines jumped off the trucks, returning fire. One of Miguel's buddies was hit and wounded. "I shot one guy," Perez says, before being shot three times himself. One shot hit his rifle. One hit his protective vest. But the third shot struck below his vest, punching into his stomach area. He collapsed, bleeding and under fire.
"But my friend who got hit came and got me," he says, still obviously proud and amazed. Other Marines hustled Perez into the safety of a Humvee, beginning an odyssey that took him to Camp Fallujah, then Baghdad, then Germany, and finally home to Louisiana.
Marty Chaisson, who led a platoon of 96 marines in Iraq, shakes his head. "Convoys were the worst. You don't go through Nasiriya at night."
He notes that U.S. troops use red tracer rounds, the insurgents use green. "Same as Vietnam," James Chaisson says.
OCCASIONALLY DURING THE LONG afternoon, the veterans complete each other's thoughts. "The military taught us all how to kill ..." James Chaisson begins.
"... they just didn't teach us how to live with it," Runnels finishes.
Marty Chaisson recalls how he joined the Navy after graduating from high school, with ambitions to become a medic. His mother was a nurse and he was interested in medicine. He attended lab school at the Navy Medical Research Institute. He wasdischarged from the Navy in 1996 and returned to Houma.
"I wanted to follow in my Dad's footsteps," Marty says. In 1997, he joined the Marines. He became an aviation ordnance expert, working on weapon systems for fixed-wing aircraft.
After 9/11, his unit participated in the invasion of Afghanistan. He spent six months in-country setting up mobile refueling and re-arming stations for U.S. helicopters. "Once we got to Camp Rhino, there were Afghan bodies everywhere," he recalls. "We had to start tossing bodies into a pit."
The invasion advanced to Kandahar, where his unit drew fire from Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. "We got probed and there were tunnels everywhere," he says. His unit also set up a detention center for 260 enemy detainees. Flying over Bagram, his platoon drew heavy anti-aircraft fire. At one point, they had to wrap up a Navy corpsman in tape because there was no body bag. Chaisson recognized the deceased as a former classmate from the Navy Hospital Corps School.
Despite the hardships and combat, there were no obvious signs of PTSD among his Marines. "It was my job to be the rock," says Marty, then a non-commissioned sergeant. "I just suppressed any emotions. I had to make it better for my boys."
James then recalls a time in Vietnam when a mission went terribly wrong. Airborne over a suspected target, his gunship opened fire. "We were in too much of a hurry and they gave us the wrong coordinates and we killed every one of our own guys," he says. Tears roll down his cheeks. "Now how do you get over something like that?"
No one answers.
"AFGHANISTAN WAS A CAKEWALK compared to Iraq," Marty Chaisson says.
In early 2003, Marine Air Group 29 deployed to Kuwait to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. Chaisson says he had to steel himself both mentally and emotionally. "When I left my duty station, I made myself forget about my wife and kids real fast," he says.
When the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, his unit was the first arming and fueling team over the border, he remembers. The fuel convoy, like the invasion, moved quickly. However, an often-elusive enemy harassed the Marines, riddling their trucks with gunfire. "We lost six men en route to Tikrit," Marty says.
The war took a psychological toll. "My troops were my kids," he says. "I had to disarm and detain one. He put a rifle in his mouth and I took it away from him. A second later, he would have been dead."
On May 7, Marty and his unit were aboard the USS Saipan in the Arabian Gulf when an explosion ripped through a berthing compartment, injuring 11 people. Earlier, everyone had been ordered to pitch any war "souvenirs" overboard. But someone threw an artillery shell in an aluminum-recycling bin. It detonated with a flash. The aluminum turned into shrapnel just as two of Marty's Marines walked between him and the bin.
"Two of my boys got peppered with metal," he says, quietly. A third Marine, a lance corporal, was critically wounded, his right arm shredded. Apparently in shock himself, Marty's Navy medical training took over. "I wrapped his arm up and I didn't even know that I had done it," he says. "I heard that man scream like I never heard a man scream. He locked eyeballs with me .... I stayed in the infirmary with the others for three days as he was flown out to Germany and I never left 'cause I felt bad. I never had a scratch."
Later that month, Marty flew back to a stateside Marine base from Kuwait. In his July 2003 homecoming flight to Louisiana, he strained his back picking up his son, aggravating previous injuries from lifting corpses and ammunition in two wars. His military career was coming to a close.
JAMES CHIASSON HAS BEEN attending the PTSD Clinic in New Orleans for two years. In October 2004, Marty went to his first group therapy meeting at the clinic.
"I thought it was nothing but Vietnam vets, Korean vets and a few World War II vets," Marty says. "But I broke down that day. There are a lot of things I don't like to talk about. Most of us had to write a story. And that was the first time I laid it all out on the line. All of it. And after I did, I couldn't read it."
He says working with Herman Woodside, a popular therapist at the PTSD Clinic who has since retired, inspired him to pursue a career as a professional counselor. "His compassion and his demeanor clicked something in me," Marty says. On Nov. 15, he left the Marines on a medical/honorable discharge due to his back injuries after "12 years, three months, and six days" of combined military service. On Jan. 18, he started college at Nicholls State University to pursue a bachelor's degree in psychology.
Returning home to Bayou Blue, Marty began to understand the difficulties his father experienced, readjusting to life after war. His own PTSD is manifested in mood swings, Marty says. "My wife says she didn't go to the laundry -- it throws me into a fit of rage. I come home and apologize for what a jackass I've been. She says she wants to know what happened (in the wars). I told her, she doesn't want to know."
PEREZ'S FUTURE WITH THE MARINE Corps appears uncertain. His medical prognosis does not favor a return to combat. "I'm recovering pretty good," he says. "But the doctors say I'll never be able to run or be able to do anything physical again."
In addition, his contract with the Corps ends July 9. Unlike four years ago, his decision on whether to re-enlist will be made as a family man.
At the end of the day, I ask Perez what he learned from the older combat vets. "How they feel and how I feel are very similar," he says.
"What we hope to tell you is that you are not alone with those thoughts and feelings," Runnels says with a smile. "Especially you Marines. Y'all are tough nuts to crack."
- As Marty Chaisson grew up, he wanted to know what made his father, James, the man he was. So he went to war. "I went, and I found out what he was all about, and I didn't like it," he says.
- "One thing I want to stress is that we do not get together and tell war stories," says William "Bill" Runnels. "All that hero stuff doesn't help."
- When Loyd Olin came home from Vietnam, his mother was the only one who recognized him. "When I left home my nickname was 'Smiley,'" Olin says. "But when my little brother saw me, he looked straight at me and says 'Where's Smiley?'"
- Miguel Perez has been home for six months -- since he was shot and wounded by Iraqi insurgents during a firefight in Fallujah. His medical prognosis does not favor a return to combat.