When I came home from Vietnam I was done with Vietnam, but Vietnam was not done with me.
I had been an officer on a Navy ship that went up the rivers in I Corps, in charge of 35 men and responsible for keeping the ship moving. We didn’t lose any men and the ship was not blown up, like some others.
There was little time to think over there, which made it easier. At some point I realized, as did many, that the war was not going well, and the generals weren’t telling Washington the truth.
Coming home was harder than being over there. While attending an anti-war rally in San Francisco, others found out I had been in the Navy in Vietnam. They spat in my face and called me a war criminal. So I stopped talking about Vietnam to anyone, but that doesn’t work. Although functioning on the outside, I slipped into alcoholism and drug addiction, with severe anger management issues.
Twelve years later, more dead than alive, I re-started my life and stopped taking drugs and alcohol. That is when the Vietnam dreams started. It was always the same dream, with different outcomes. I am harnessed to my ship like an ox, connected by a long tow line, pulling my ship through the swamps to avoid being blown up. All my men are up on the bow cheering me on. Sometimes I would succeed. The ship would burst through the jungle and suddenly it was a float in my hometown’s Memorial Day Parade. All the townspeople lined the street waving flags giving us the welcome home we never got in real life. Other times, the enemy overtook us and I knew we were all going to die.
These dreams went on for five years. I don’t have them anymore.
There is no real way to talk about war after you are in it. As my friend Ord Elliott, who served in the worst of it, says: “When someone asks me about the Vietnam War, I feel the silence envelope me. The silence replaces something lost, that didn’t have to be lost, but was lost, that’s been replaced by the silence. The silence bears witness.”
That’s right. The silence and the dreams.
With a Perspective, I’m Dennis Holahan
Dennis Holahan is an attorney at a major law firm in San Francisco.