my military life - paul martin, vietnam veteran

My Military Life

Paul Martin, Vietnam Veteran, New Hampshire, USA

Before joining the US Army, I was a high school dropout who lived in the ghettos of Nashua, New Hampshire. I was the oldest of ten children, and my dad was a laborer who earned approximately forty or fifty dollars per week to support his large family. He was a proud WW2 veteran who had been involved in the liberation of the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. Because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, no direction, I thought it might be a good idea to join the military. After all, I wasn't getting anywhere as a civilian. And, to be honest, I was heading for trouble.

So, in April of 1968, my parents signed the paperwork for me to join the Army just after I turned 17. On April 28 of that year, I shipped off for boot camp at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Immediately upon arriving I knew this was not what I had expected. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect, but this was not it.

I stayed in basic training for about 6 weeks, got a weekend pass, headed home, and did not return on time. I was AWOL (absent without leave) for about 30 days before I was picked up and sent to the stockade at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. There I received a special court-martial (a military trial) and was sentenced to 6 months labor and forfeiture of 2/3 pay. After approximately 65 days I was sent back to Fort Dix to finish my boot camp training.

After basic training I got a two-week leave. Again, I didn’t return on time, and again I was picked up and sent to the Fort Devens stockade, where I was court-martialed again. I was sentenced to another 6 months hard labor and forfeiture of 2/3 my pay. I served about another 90 days of that and was sent to Fort Polk in Louisiana, to a place called Tiger Land.

Little did I know that this was the environment that trained you for service in Vietnam. I did three months of Jungle Training there and was given another leave, along with orders for Southeast Asia. I took the leave, and again I didn't return to my duty station on time. I was picked up once again and sent back to Fort Devens to the stockade and there I was given another court-martial. I was again sentenced to 6 months hard labor and forfeit 2/3 my pay.

At that time I decided to pursue an undesirable discharge (a release from military service in “other than honorable conditions”). I thought for sure I would be getting out. While I was serving my time and waiting to be released from the Army, my dad used to visit me on Sundays at the stockade. One Sunday, he had gone to see the base commander before he visited me and asked the commander to make me finish my term of enlistment (though he never told me he did this).

Within two days I was called over the intercom to the front office of the stockade with my bags. I thought for sure my discharge had come through, and I was getting out. But this was not the case. I was packed up with two MP guards and shipped off to Fort Lewis, Washington, for processing to Southeast Asia. I waited in the stockade for my processing to be finished, and in October of 1969 I was on my way to Vietnam. They were not worried about me going AWOL over there.

We flew into Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, and I was processed for the 4th Infantry Division, Pleiku, Vietnam. Within four days I found myself in the jungles of Vietnam in some of the worst conditions I had ever been in. Death was all around. Firefights were a daily thing, if not several times a day. I watched in horror as men I served beside were blown apart and killed. I even came away from that tour feeling guilty and responsible for the death of a good friend.

Needless to say, I built up a lot of hate and anger, and I became a daily user of drugs and alcohol by the time I was 19. During that first tour I hit a landmine with a personnel carrier I was driving. I was medevacked out with several others to a field hospital where it was determined I had a broken left foot, cuts, scratches, and a little shrapnel. They bandaged me up, kept me on base camp for about two weeks, then shipped me back to the field.

Monsoon season was upon us, and it did not take long for my foot cast to fall off (about two days). I continued to serve in the field until it was time to rotate, then I headed home for leave and to Germany after my leave.

After my first tour in Vietnam there was no doubt I had a substance abuse problem, but I never did anything about it. I headed to Germany where I was stationed with the 4th Armored Division, where I was not a model soldier. The company commander and first sergeant did not like my attitude, so they gave me an Article 15 (a punishment without a military trial), and they put my name in on a levy for Vietnam.

My name came down on a list one day for shipping out to Vietnam, and I was sent home on leave before I would have to go back to Vietnam. When I got home, I tried everything I could to get out of going, but there was no one listening. Because I only had a short time left in the service, I decided to just do the rest of my time and get it over with.

When I shipped out the second time to Vietnam, I was assigned to a helicopter assault unit with the 101st Airborne Division, 2/17th Air Cav. My drug and alcohol use were even worse during my second tour. I became a heroin addict and came very close to shooting a North Vietnamese scout over drugs. It was a crazy scene, and the combat was just as bad.

I was released from active service early because my dad had gotten hurt in a work-related accident. When I came back home, I was just interested in getting out, did not accept any help that was offered to me, and I suffered for it for the next 40+ years. I went through jobs like water before I finally settled down and realized I had a family to support. But drugs and alcohol were the main focus in my life. Nightmares of the past were constant, and I needed the sedatives to function.

At that time the Veterans Administration system was terrible, and when I did try to get help there was none there. So, I continued the lifestyle I was used to: drugs and alcohol to get me through. I think they call it “self-medicating.” I settled down some to help raise a family–well, I brought in the money, I was never home to help raise them. I ruined a perfectly good marriage and several of my children turned out to be alcoholics and drug addicted.

In 2009, when my middle son went into recovery, I went also. That is when I started trying to come to grips with my past, with who I was and what I had become. It has not been an easy task because it took so long to get here.

If I had to give advice about one obstacle, it's to seek out help and counseling. The sooner it is sought out, the less fear, anger, and resentment you will carry. I have a lot of work to do, and presently I have felt like I've taken a step back in my recovery. But I continue to reach out for the help that is offered. Do I do it perfectly? No. But today I do know that drugs and alcohol will not make things any better–something that I never believed was true before.