November 30, 2008 – Just about anywhere Ben Tapia goes between now and Dec. 25, he can expect to hear Christmas carols.
“To this day, my wife and daughter get on my case,” said Tapia, a 61-year-old Ceres resident. “I can’t stand Christmas music. It irritates the hell out of me.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, he said. But spending Christmas under attack by the North Vietnamese 41 years ago gutted his holiday spirit.
“My son was a Christmas baby (born while Tapia was in Vietnam),” he said. “The chances of ever seeing him were not the best. We were getting (shelled) all the time. Now, I don’t want to deal with the occasion. I don’t see the joy in it. It just pushes buttons.”
Tapia isn’t alone in his feelings. It’s a common sentiment among combat veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and it doesn’t matter whether they fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan or either of the wars in Iraq. Being in combat during the holidays creates a life-changing void, said John Middlesworth, a readjustment counseling specialist at the Vet Center in Modesto.
“Thanksgiving and Christmas — that month in between,” said Middlesworth, a former Marine. “Young men and women getting shot at and shooting. These are the two times out of the calendar year when we think about being home and they’re thinking about us. If you’re going to get depressed, those are the days, and it stays with you. It’s the most emotional time of the year. Vets can go literally into a six-week lockdown. I start counseling them in October for the holidays.”
It doesn’t matter that Tapia and Bobby O’Neal, a 76-year-old Korean War veteran, are active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars Ceres Post 10293 and work to help other veterans.
O’Neal said he accepts the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ as Christmas.
“I never heard a man who was wounded or dying call out, ‘Oh, President Bush,’ ” O’Neal said. “Or, ‘Oh, mom.’ But ‘Oh, God!’ Religion, yes.”
It’s the frivolity and commercial aspects of the holidays that bother many of these veterans.
The emotions remain, and both men turned to Jack Daniels No. 7 at some point for comfort.
“I spent 30 years wondering how I got through the other 30 years,” said O’Neal, a former Marine.
He recalls spending one Christmas on the eastern side of South Korea, preparing for battle.
“We were scheduled to go to the (front) line, but they held us back for Christmas dinner,” O’Neal said.
One young soldier had worn out his boots, and size 13s were hard to replace. O’Neal felt bad that this soldier would be sent into battle shoeless and at such a horrible disadvantage.
“They were going to send him to the line with his feet wrapped in rags,” O’Neal said. “At the last minute, they got him some shoes, but only because we’d been held back. It was the happiest moment of my life. (After the war) I had about 30 pair of shoes and never wore out a pair. All through life, things stick with you.”
Rod Whaley, a 59-year-old former Marine, tries to get in the holiday spirit by driving his vintage firetruck to elementary schools and playing Santa Claus for the children. But the wounds of the Vietnam War run deep for the one-time field medic.
“Why is (Christmas) such a downer? Because it’s never been an upper,” Whaley said.
His father was a field medic during World War II, he said, and he followed in dad’s footsteps. Both were affected the same way because of what they experienced in battle.
“I’m a poster child for PTSD,” he said. “My dad had PTSD and I have PTSD. Nineteen days after I was in the jungle, I was in San Francisco and in a mental ward because I couldn’t adjust to being a citizen. I have a real problem with authority.”
Which is why the Vet Center, which opened in July, has become so important to these and other veterans dealing with PTSD. Help is available. And how will Middlesworth assist them in overcoming their PTSD-driven dislike for the holidays?
By confronting those demons head-on. The Vet Center will hold a Christmas party — the very kind of thing many vets detest — for the vets and their families Dec. 11. They are asking for donations of toys and other gifts, turkeys, food and other basic items. Center Director Stephen Lawson is hoping people in the community, along with churches and service clubs, will help out.
Middlesworth will take them to visit other veterans in hospitals and nursing homes — “to get these vets back out into the world,” he said.
He also plans to take some of these vets to the mall — a place many avoid even though their wives, children and grandchildren love the crowds. It’s an atmosphere the vets distrust and detest — particularly the Vietnam vets, who fought in a war in which it was hard to differentiate between their allies and enemies. Crowds can make them edgy and on alert.
And Lawson hopes that by recruiting some vets to begin working — now — on next year’s Veterans Day parade, the tasks of making arrangements, finding sponsors and promoting the event will provide a positive distraction from the holidays that can otherwise affect them so negatively.
Still, Christmas will arrive, as will that moment when their grandkids gleefully tear open packages. How will these vets handle it?
As if working off of a script, Tapia, Middlesworth and O’Neal replied in unison:
“You fake it.”