The malodorous cramped room was dark. He felt claustrophobic. A sleep-deprived Matt Rogowicz was quietly sitting on his wrinkled, sweat-soaked bed at three in the morning. His head was slumped forward in despair and supported by trembling hands that were dampened by his wet brown hair. Matt’s elbows dug into thighs that had not been exercised in months. His heart was racing and hammering vigorously against his chest wall. His pale skin was cold from evaporating moisture.
He was terrified.
Getting drunk on Jack and Ginger at the local bar the night before did not bring sleep. This tactic had become routine over the past few months. Even getting laid did not dismiss his mental demons. Matt knew he was suffering Vietnam’s delayed stress, today’s PTSD1.
His voice echoed in the confining room, “I can’t shake these recurring feelings of fearing death, the guilt of surviving, being forced to murder, the flashbacks.” He then lamented, “I’m still lost floating between the morality of my childhood and that of killing.”
He had spent six sweltering months engaging the enemy in the dense threatening Vietnam jungle as a rifleman. This was followed by another six months at the 85th Evacuation Hospital as a specialist treating the wounded. For a year, he had witnessed the devastation war rendered on the body, mind, and soul.
His second active duty assignment was at Walter Reed Army Hospital near Washington, DC. There, he suffered the most damaging event of all to his psyche. Being distanced from the menace of Vietnam did not protect him. Matt was a seasoned lab technician at Walter Reed and had discovered an abnormal white cell in a patient’s blood that had never been previously reported. He was convinced it was a significant finding. His superiors did not. Subsequently, that post-op patient suffered an excruciating death. Matt could not shake the guilt of not pressing the issue with the Major in charge of the lab. He would scold his reflection while shaving, “I could have saved that boy’s life.” Yes, but in the Army, you do not override a superior’s decision. Even so, the death tortured him with increasing guilt and depression. Due to the threat of stigmatization by the military culture that ruled his life, he refused to seek professional advice while on active duty.
Matt had been honorably discharged from active duty in February 1972. He was sent back to the U.S. without being counseled on how to reintegrate into a peaceful society, which moreover, treated Vietnam veterans with disdain. He was ashamed of what he had become and had no inclination to return to his hometown. He found himself near New York City, leased a one-room apartment in Queens, NY, and lived on his separation pay. He had no one with whom to share his traumatic wartime experiences and began self-medicating with alcohol to seek relief from his evolving delayed stress.
After a few months he hit the bottom of despair. Matt admitted to himself that he needed help. He joined a veteran self-help group, and with their support, became capable of forgiving himself for the patient’s death sufficiently enough to stop drinking. He achieved enough self-confidence to begin managing his lingering delayed stress. He applied to a local college to complete his four-year degree.
It was the last day before leaving to enroll in school. Matt disclosed to his veteran group, “If I could only revisit the circumstances of that patient’s death and find out more about the abnormal finding to understand its significance, I would be empowered to shed my remaining demons.”
His associates responded, “Go for it.”
He retorted, “I don’t know how.”
They encouraged in unison, “You’ll find a way.”
1 To avoid confusion for the reader, the term PTSD will be used throughout the mystery. However, in reality there is a range of symptomatology from PTS, which is not debilitating, to PTSD, which may be debilitating. See: https://www.brainline.org/article/what-are-differences-between-pts-and-ptsd
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