- Jeffrey Denning (WarriorSOS.com)
- I'm the author of four books: Warrior SOS, The Work of Death, Together Forever, and Leaders Wanted. I'm in the doc film Please Remove Your Shoes. I've blogged for The Washington Times, and I write for Guns.com. I've worked for the high-profile U.S.-led Roadmap to Mideast Peace in Israel and Palestine. I've also worked as a SWAT team leader, a Federal Air Marshal and a sole-source training instructor on a classified contract with a U.S. government customer. My master's degree is in Military Studies and terrorism. I'm a former noncommissioned and commissioned Army officer, with service in Iraq. I've been Scuba diving and skydiving; I have trained with members of the U.S. Olympic Ski Team, and I'm an FBI-trained crisis negotiator. My interests lie in helping others and in strengthening America through inspiring moral courage, government fiscal responsibility and accountability, and maintaining principles that have made--and will continue to make--the United States of America a blessed and prosperous country. I'm a father of six, a husband, and a police officer. I reside in Utah, and I'm a Mormon. See also www.WarriorSOS.com.
February 10, 2011
Vietnam Combat Photographer -- 8 pictures that have lasted a lifetime
Bill Dahl joined the Marines 2 days after turning 18 in 1967. Through luck, chutzpah and perhaps divine intervention he was later selected for Defense Information School journalism training prior to his first 18-month overseas tour with Armed Forces Radio & Television (AFRTS) based out of Okinawa. In late 1969 he attended Combat Correspondent’s School at Camp Pendleton, CA before shipping off to Vietnam for a voluntary 12-month tour extension. By now a Sergeant, Bill served as a Combat Correspondent/Photographer and NCO in charge of a small press unit based north of DaNang. His assignments took him throughout northern I Corps primarily covering small units.
His Marine training, leadership, and overseas experiences laid a foundation for a good life. Following his 4-year enlistment Bill completed college earning a BS degree from Arizona State University in Broadcast Journalism/Mass Communications. After progressing through news, programming and production roles with various TV network affiliates Bill was recruited into the corporate world where he managed global customer events, marketing and testimonial programs. He became a founder of a marketing communications agency later rising to President & CEO. Bill now runs a New England-based business and marketing consulting practice serving global corporations and startup ventures. You can view his public profile at: http://www.linkedin.com/in/billdahl
But when all is said and done, Bill considers helping nurture his two children to become socially responsible adults his greatest achievement.
And he is now finally addressing decades-old PTSD issues with the support of what he considers very caring, respectful VA personnel and resources.
Warrior SOS: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. It takes a lot of courage to open up and talk/write about your feelings, observations, impressions and experiences with others -- inevitably an entire virtual world. I will ask you a series of very personal questions. The hope is that that these questions help with healing, and not have the opposite affect. Let's begin...
You've had a lot of combat experiences in Vietnam that have shaped who you are today. Recently you were reminded about some pictures you took as a combat photographer on a mission that created memories for you that have lasted a lifetime. Will you tell us about it?
Dahl: This subject came up in a recent VA counseling session. It is my own personal "movie trailer" I now call "8 Frames" that is one of those "intrusive thoughts" associated with PTSD.
In a nutshell, as a combat correspondent I was on a self-assignment to one of the small CAP (Combined Action Platoons - a Marine squad that trains a platoon of PFs, South Vietnamese Popular Forces...sort of local militias - to defend their local hamlets. These are small units, with little backup, and generally very remote. Bunkers, fighting holes to call home, sometimes a small hootch.
Long story short...following a morning patrol we were back inside the perimeter when a loud but muffled explosion signaled a large, tripped booby-trap (now called IEDs).
Knowing that there were PFs supposed to be defending farmers in their fields we grabbed our 16's and ammo pouches. I also grabbed one of my cameras. Since we just got back from patrol I hadn't reloaded it (the camera) yet, and I knew I only had 8 frames remaining.
Our quick reaction broke up a VC attempt to set an ambush in place. The explosion was from a 155 round tripped by PFs in a gaggle as they goofed-off in a treeline (A real cluster-fu**, stringing hammocks, smoking, whatever)--an unfortunate pattern that the VC had noticed.
The air was thick with a greasy, metallic-smelling mist representing several vaporized PFs. Another half-dozen or so were in pretty bad shape.
I won't complete this story now, but I'm attaching the '8 frames' I shot over the next 15-20 minutes in between trying to help patch up some of these idiots while 'fellow' PFs were trying to steal their boots & valuables.
Unfortunately I see this 'movie trailer' play out frequently in nightmares through the perspective of my camera's viewfinder. It is not a 'play-on-demand' sequence I willingly call up.
Just 8 frames, but long enough to last a lifetime.
Warrior SOS: I know I'd love to hear the entire story, and I'm sure others would too. The entire event sounds fascinating, and it surely left some lasting impressions on your mind and psyche...as well as some amazing photos. Perhaps you'd be up to writing out the whole story of 8 Frames for a future article?
Dahl: Yes, I will, but it is difficult to deal with the whole thing now.
Warrior SOS: Let's switch gears a little. There's a social stigma with getting help after suffering emotionally. Why do you think that is?
Dahl: Old school was to simply "suck it up" and move on. I think until recently there was a stigma attached to having emotional issues about past events.
Warrior SOS: Denial seems to be a driving factor behind those not getting help. Is it because warriors don't recognize they have problems or is it something deeper?
Dahl: There is certainly a denial factor that's coupled to the old school stigma. And if you are around a bunch of other Alpha-type individuals you don't want to appear "weak"-there can be a substantial peer pressure effect.
I think warriors--especially OEF/OIF vets--are increasingly more aware that they may have issues. Society, family and friends are all more aware and informed today.
Warrior SOS: Obviously there has been several years of memories etched in veteran's minds. What happens when Veteran's try to tough it out alone? Are there deeper problems that would help be alleviated with professional help?
Dahl: Toughing it out is still the perceived way to go. Traumatic memories can get pushed back but can lurk through years of denial vs. healing. I was"old school" and got on with my life rushing ahead while trying not to deal with the past. It eventually caught up. I was so embarrassed to admit I was having more unsolicited flashbacks that were causing sleepless nights. Especially as the economy took a toll on my finances and career. Nights turned into days.
Confronting old demons--actually talking through not just the cause but the effect of what was going on--is making a difference.
Warrior SOS: Many Veterans come back from war much different than when they left. People change. How can friends and family members help Veteran's adjust after their war experience—initially after deployment and long term, several years after war?
Dahl: First, friends and family should read informative articles or talk to other vets or specialists in advance. Being able to offer discreet support without calling much attention or creating additional drama will allow the Vet to eventually open up and seek help or just vent without fear of being judged.
Warrior SOS: How can supportive people help? Naturally, Veteran's may choose to hold in their experiences. This is especially true between men, who've been in combat, and their wives. Why is there such an imbalance and how can someone overcome this, or should he?
Dahl: It goes back to being informed and a steady, non-judgemental source of support. Spouses
have to understand that they simply will not be able to fully appreciate the tremendous strain of months of boredom punctuated by intense life and death scenarios where sometimes even good decisions will cost lives, but perhaps just fewer lives or serious injuries. Then the second-guessing of those decisions with the rear-view mirror of time.
Recently I was talking with an OIF vet and his wife blamed everything on his PTSD--when they really had other broader issues common to most marriages. Frankly I don't know if spouses could absorb total honesty about darker moments and not have that affect their relationship. I guess there is a delicate balance and perhaps this subject is best left up to professional counselors.
Warrior SOS: When you and many others came home from Vietnam the socio-political greeting was much different than it is today. What were the ramifications? Do you believe that hindered the healing process?
Dahl: From other Vietnam vets and speaking from my own experience, we had a very different homecoming experience. Being called a baby-killer in airports and public places was no urban myth. It happened often to me personally. Once I had a beautiful woman first smile at a distance and then spit on me in my dress blues as she got closer to me on the street. From what seemed to be a budding interest to absolute humiliation happened in just 10 seconds or so.
The overall result of our "welcome back" was that our pride in honorable service was tarnished by a sense of worthless sacrifice when it seemed that the country we served judged us, not the political decisions. It hurts so much because we cared so much.
The country was polarized and associated individuals with the political conduct of the war. The vast majority of us in Vietnam conducted ourselves honorably and saved lives as well. But that was seldom considered. I see a huge difference in how today's returning warriors are publicly treated--thank God for that.
But even with a better, more supportive social environment that doesn't mean combat vets can shake off their traumatic experiences. They are seared into your mind and you are forever changed. That doesn't mean you can't be highly successful, a good spouse and citizen--it just means that you have to find ways to cope with what is now almost an alter ego.
Warrior SOS: Today PTSD has a greater emphasis than it did in decades ago. In fact, Veteran's are now required to see a counselor briefly for a post-deployment screening. Although one OIF veteran recently told me that he felt like he was being herded like cattle in that process. Others are not comfortable with a complete stranger and are unwilling or unlikely to "open up." Do you think this process would have helped in your time and situation?
Dahl: A good process would have been a huge help. But a "cattle chute" approach could do more harm than good in that the Vet may be reluctant to seek future help. However, I've found that the VA Medical Centers and Vet Centers are really taking a very respectful, supportive approach. Perhaps that approach needs to be embraced more by the services. The very private, individual approach builds trust. A "required" rushed screening doesn't build the trust and rapport needed to actually guage the level of need.
Warrior SOS: Will you explain flashbacks?
Dahl: They are intrusive, unsolicited thoughts that immediately put you back among the sights, sounds and smells of traumatic moments you've tried to forget. I personally find times of other stress as in the family or with finances can be a trigger. Or a movie, image, phrase or even a look can drag you back decades even though you haven't been bothered previously by the same exposure. Sounds weird but the mind operates on many levels and sometimes it makes a new connection to an old demon.
Warrior SOS: Tears and emotional discomfort is something many warriors experience. Surely, at times this distress is worse than others. Is there ever a numbing period? Can you give us some insight, either way?
Dahl: It's difficult to bundle in a tidy package. I've learned to recognize some possible triggers and just mentally steel myself to ride it out. Works most of the time. It isn't denial at that point, just recognition and sometimes I can deal with it at a better time later or just get beyond the trigger. Maybe that's my numbing process--trigger recognition = better coping...at least for me.
Warrior SOS: Alcohol, anger, fights, high risk or even illegal activities, difficulty in relationships is commonplace with returning veterans. Generally speaking, how can warriors do things that will benefit and help them in the long run?
Dahl: Perhaps treat their return to mainstream society as they did with issues or missions in the service. Confront the reality, recognize the potential risks, seek support and/or map out strategies and tactics that have you focusing on positive outcomes, not living destructive moments. Perhaps even write down potential or real issues and map out steps...like a "shortimers calendar" to keep focus on making it happen.
Warrior SOS: How do wholesome and worthwhile goals help in the healing process?
Dahl: Goals drove my post-service success in getting my college degree, career track, starting and raising a family. Did pretty well in all of the above...but probably stayed too long in denial until some Vietnam-related intrusions became undeniable. Positive goals, from my perspective, are the best way to move ahead...along with embracing an early healing process.
Warrior SOS: What other advice or insight would you be willing to share that would help bless the lives of other veterans?
Dahl: Drop "Old School" stigmas about sucking it up. If you are a decent, caring human you can't help but be affected by your experiences. That is especially true if you have physical scars as well. Set and keep goals. The quicker you move from denial to healing offers the best future for you and everyone around you.
Warrior SOS: Bill Dahl, thank you so very much for sharing your heartfelt pains and helpful advice. I am absolutely confident your courage in doing this interview will help many, many others in reexamining their lives and enabling others to speak up, speak out and get much needed help where help and healing is greatly needed. Thank you for helping Warrior SOS further accomplish its mission.
Collectively with others, we hope that you will find great success in all your pursuits and livelihood and that peace and comfort from painful memories will soon be a part of your history and not your present or future thoughts.
To read this and other amazing interviews, check out Warrior SOS, the book on Amazon.com. http://www.amazon.com/Warrior-SOS-Military-Veterans-Emotional/dp/1462117341/
NOTE: The 8 pictures are in the book!
For Warrior SOS book endorsements from Glenn Beck, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and others, check out the author's link: http://www.jeffrey-denning.com/books/warrior-sos/