He had never planned to be a soldier.
He had never planned to spend his days walking through rice paddies or pushing through dense jungle listening for the click of an M-16.
And, he had never planned to watch his friends die.
Warner Fosberg was simply working his way through college, trying to find his way in life, first at the University of Washington and then at Western Washington University, when he received a letter from the draft board that left him reeling.
“I had stayed out a quarter,” he said. “I hadn’t really decided what I wanted to do yet, and then I got the letter that said I
‘wasn’t pursuing an education’ because basically I had taken too long.”
The news was traumatic. “Vietnam was going on, so I assumed that’s where I would be going,” he said.
He was right.
The sandy-haired 22 year old ended up assigned as light weapons infantryman in an Army platoon and was deployed in 1967 for one tour of duty in Vietnam. It was a shock to his system.
“We were out in the field for 20, 30 days at a time,” he said. “You carried everything you owned with you on those missions, and you slept with your boots on. I, like most guys, kept my gun next to my body so I could feel it and be able to use it if I needed to. It was intense.”
The patrols would send them out to secure perimeters and gather information, and the men each took turns leading point and blazing the way for others to follow. It was a dangerous position because it meant you were the first one out, and the first target for any attack that might come your way.
“It was always scary when you were the first. There were places where the grass was so tall, you had to cut your way through with a machete,” Fosberg said. “You didn’t know what was out there. You were always on constant alert and always afraid you were going to die.”
The first time he was directed to lead point, three weeks into his deployment, he was all nerves. He knew his decisions would affect every man in his platoon, and as they walked to secure their perimeter, he was on edge. Every sound was an enemy waiting to attack and the threat of booby traps loomed all around him. “A stick might not be a stick,” he said. “You never knew what you were going to find.”
But he was a soldier, so he carried on, even though the stress was unbearable. He was often asked to lead point, even though the job was supposed to rotate. “I guess they thought I was good at it,” he said. “I was scared for that whole year –
every day and every night,” he said.
The fear followed him home.
Readjustment wasn’t easy for Fosberg, and the toll of war began to weigh on him shortly after his return to the states. He was happy to be home, but found that he wanted to isolate himself from his friends and family.
Then the nightmares began.
“They would come even though I knew I was okay,” he said. “I was going nuts.”
When a coworker startled him while he was working on a sensitive piece of machinery at the Arco BP Refinery and he walked off the job in tears in 1982, he knew he finally had to get help. “I couldn’t handle the potential for things that could happen,” he said. “I was depressed, anxious and having flashbacks. I had all the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and I wanted to talk to somebody, but PTSD wasn’t something that was really recognized or understood then.”
Michael Novotny, a team leader at the Bellingham Vet Center, said it’s common for people returning from war to experience the same type of response that Fosberg felt. “No one comes through our doors because they are having a good day,” he said. “They’re usually in crisis, and we have to help them find the source of that crisis and the best treatment for it.”
The first step in that process is identifying the trauma. “There’s always a traumatic event that precipitates the response,” said John Perini, a licensed psychologist who works with the Bellingham Vet Center. “It’s an extraordinary stress or strain event outside of what normally occurs in your everyday life. Basically, it’s a shock to the system. It’s not a character flaw.”
That shock can have long-lasting effects, resulting in “a dollar’s worth of reaction to a nickel’s worth of problems,” that, if left unaddressed, can wear at the mind.
Perini said the initial trauma induces a physiological response, such as the release of stress hormones or a “flight or fight
reaction,” which in turn propagates a psychological shock with feelings of things being overwhelming, out of your control or impossible to escape from, which, when left unchecked, can lead to profound anxiety disorders.
“Witnessing, participating or even learning about a trauma can be enough to cause psychological shock,” Perini said. “And when you churn that stuff over and over in your mind over the years, it can become too much.”
For some people, such as soldiers, who are placed in the extreme environment of war, the lines of right and wrong can become blurred, furthering the attack on the psyche. “You’re taught to do the right thing out there, and you’re raised with the philosophy of ‘thou shalt not kill,’ but then you’re put in a situation where killing is suddenly a good thing – and expected,” said Novotny. “It’s an extreme place in human activity, a dark place and an artificial place, and soldiers’ world views get turned upside down, if not shattered. They wonder if it makes them a monster, too, since they are killing people.”
But being a soldier does not make you a sociopath. “The litmus test is if when you come back, do you try to be a good person,” Novotny said.
Perini and Novotny said it’s part of their job to help veterans understand that what happened in war is not what identifies them. “They aren’t sociopathic killers. It’s not who they are, but it’s who they can be under the necessary circumstances,” Perini said. “We educate them on understanding the difference, and then help them figure out a way to manage the issues that result from their trauma.”
Once they reach that step, they can move forward with treatment, which often involves medication, therapy and learning to cope with their situation. “We live in an interesting society,” Novotny said. “If you get help for mental health illness, there’s a pall on you, but it shouldn’t be that way. I’m not afraid of the people taking medications, I’m afraid of the people who aren’t.”
While medication isn’t a cure-all, it can ease the symptoms of anxiety and help PTSD sufferers cope with life, Novtony said. “There’s no cure, but we can help them manage the effects of the disorder and help them identify their triggers,” Perini said. But, he says, the medicine works best with therapy as part of the healing process.
“It’s like having a tack in your foot,” Novtony said. “The medicines will help with the pain, but the therapy sessions try to pull the tack out – to find the source and deal with it.”
It’s this approach Fosberg said has worked for him. He had shoved so many memories away, like those of infantryman dying while on patrol, that it had become overwhelming.
“You had to just forget,” he said. “Or try to. It was too much to think about it.”
But it was that repression that kept coming back to haunt him in his dreams.
It took until 2000 for him to find a medicine that worked to ease the intensity of the nightmares and anxiety attacks he felt, and even though he still startles easily, he’s moving forward with life. “Part of my problem was the shame,” he said. “I was ashamed that I had fought in Vietnam until about 10 years ago, but counseling gets you to the point where you can talk about things and understand what happened. I’m not ashamed anymore.”
He urges veterans to get help if they are having trouble readjusting or are dealing with the symptoms of PTSD. “Go to a vet center and talk to people who know about PTSD,” Fosberg said. “Don’t just live inside yourself.”
For more information on counseling services or about the Bellingham Vet Center call 360/733-9226.