As the recent Las Vegas shooting unfolded on television sets across the country, Hawthorne resident John Johnson, a former Marine with the First Battalion during the Vietnam War years of 1966-1969, reflected upon his personal memories of experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
“A portion of me was thankful that I could emotionally feel for their losses, because there had been a time when PTSD stole all my emotions and left me empty, without any feelings inside,” Johnson relayed. “Now, I could feel the pain, the hurt and the compassion as I watched innocent people being terrorized by this senseless act.”
As a young man, anxious to fight for his country during the Vietnam conflicts, Johnson soon realized that his firsthand combat images would remain with him for a lifetime. His experiences of watching brutal casualties, or being injured in his right arm while helicoptered to safety beside a dying military brother, was the basis of an emotional lifetime spent with resurfacing dreams and unexplained emotions.
“It is hard to describe how I came back to the U.S. except to say that I had no coping skills. My marriage ended within six months of returning and the Veterans Administration and our country didn’t know how to treat us, so most doctors overmedicated combat Vets back then. There was no knowledge of PTSD, so we were to deal with what we saw and our own combat wounds in silence.”
During his time in Vietnam, Johnson stated that his unit was totally “drug-free” and stayed focused and vigilantly alert. In fact, Johnson didn’t become an addict to alcohol until after his discharge from the Marines.
“Once I realized that my alcoholism was destroying my ability to function, I first found acceptance at a black church, because they were sincere and caring in helping me heal my inside hurts first. I still celebrate 37 years clean and sober.”
Recovery assistance also came from the Veterans Center in Portland, Oregon, when Johnson realized there were emotional stages that his mind had not healed from, which were identified as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Through proper counseling, Johnson began to identify his behaviors and withdrawal from people as part of a solid diagnosis.
Johnson reflected on a time when he chose to live in the woods, alone like a hermit, to mentally balance out his daily coping skills with people while working full-time for the federal government. At 48 years old, he recognized that he still had difficulty trusting others.
“During the most stressful times in combat, we were taught not to concentrate on family or friends, but instead we were trained to focus on ignoring and remaining hard or strong just to survive. I had no idea this mindset would take over just to survive after combat, but emotional triggers honestly exist and PTSD can affect your health. It can rise up to cause high blood pressure, anger issues, addictions, depression, and aggravation toward the simplest situations,” Johnson shared.
Johnson once thought PTSD was only for the weaker soldiers to experience, but not a Marine. “It wasn’t until I received proper counseling that I realized stuffing it was the problem.”
Today, Johnson is hopeful that those caught in the horrendous Las Vegas shooting will use hotlines and counseling. “Families should be sensitive to listening or watching for any signs of possible PTSD within these survivors.” He hopes that loved ones will respect the way that each survivor deals with their own emotional and mental despair differently. He stated that encouraging survivors to talk and feel again, will help develop trust between people.
Johnson has locally headed-up the creation of a segregated, dog area to be cordoned-off at the Veterans Park, in honor of the memorials placed there. He also gives thanks for the staff at Maggie’s Once More, who feel like his family, as he eats there daily, “to be lifted up and to lift them up”.
Waitress Rachel Robbins shared, “John is so tender-hearted. He always asks us how we are doing and nicknamed us all. It is a privilege to serve such a kind soul as John.”