Too many men have the boy ripped out of them by the experience of war. Gary Loyd is a Los Angeles-based artist whose sometimes searing, always provocative artwork is profoundly connected with the trauma of his experience as a medic in Viet Nam. Here's his memory:
By Gary Lloyd
December 1967, one month before the TET Offensive, Vietnam in 1968.
I was a 24-year-old art student at Art Center College of Design in midtown LA when the offensive began. I was drafted in December of 1966 and chose the US Navy while transferring to the Otis Art Institute of LA County. I went to core school that same year and became a Hospital Medical Corpsman. My active duty date arrived while I was a student at Otis in 1967. In December of 1967 I sat on the tarmac in San Diego with 320 drafted and commissioned men between the ages of 18 and 29, waiting to board a very large troop carrier.
About 22 hours later I woke up in a sweat from a strange dream to the nightmare of reality, and the last ten minutes of a 23-hour flight from San Diego to Da Nang Naval Air base in Vietnam, with four companies of recon medical teams, SEAL teams and Intel spooks. We were on the glide path over the South China Sea at 4 a.m. in 104 degree, 100% humidity weather, and I was astonished I could breathe this overheated wet air.
We had been prepared for this at Camp Pendleton during hot box training. I'm claustrophobic and this killing heat had me beat immediately. As the C 5 Galaxy landed perfectly we emerged into the waves of wet jet fuel odor and a scented light mist. I felt as though I was drinking in the chemical air, not breathing it. All 320 of us, mostly boys or very naive young men, were now pitted against a population engaged in a civil war that we had nothing and everything to do with!
For the first time in my life I felt a sense of raw fear that kept me strangely alert and incredibly sad! I could see the hate and mistrust in the eyes of every Vietnamese citizen I looked at! I had no real map or blueprint to fall back on for support. I was now responsible for the lives of 69 other soldiers who, like me, were fodder for the foreign policy choices I had no part in forming.
I was naked in hell! Peaceful existence was only a memory. I learned to nap standing or sitting in a pool of sweat. I shed 23 pounds of weight in the first month. I couldn't hold down much food for several months due to the strange, ready-to-eat MRE's, the iodine infused drinking water and the random mess calls in Da Nang. Sleep deprivation kept me from applying reason to my triage duty. Letters I wrote to my parents and friends were sent out, and responses to them occasionally received months later. There was no Internet or telephone access of course.
I did have drawing to fall back on. My only contacts with culture were other educated soldiers. There were two in my company. Both of them had lost their exempt draft status as I had. My birth date was drawn the third week after the draft was instituted. Luck of the draw had a new meaning.
I began to identify with Vietnamese men my age in the small villages we passed through on our way to Pleiku near the Cambodian border. I drew their portraits in pencil and often in blood, when I had no pencils or ink. My social idealism was a stain in my heart. We had no business being in this terrible civil war. There were few anti-war protests in the states in 1968. Most of U.S. soldiers drafted during the Vietnam War were men from poor and working-class families. As a matter of fact, American forces in Vietnam included twenty-five percent poor, fifty-five percent working-class, twenty percent middle-class men, but very few came from upper-class families. Many soldiers came from rural towns and farming communities.
My best friend, Jimmy Jo Pennington, had four complete changes of clothes and two pairs of shoes for the first time in his life. He was a high school drop out from Dothan, Alabama. His daddy was a "dirt farmer". He could hardly read but could shoot better than anyone in our company by far. A childhood of shooting squirrels to eat had prepared him to become a sniper. It was Jimmy who fed us in the bush. He could forage so well that we actually ate better in the bush away from the Da Nang Naval Air base.
In December of 1968 we were sent on into Cambodia with a SEAL team to recon a supply center near the border and suddenly were neck deep in leech-infested water, with foliage bundles floating above and around our heads allowing us to breathe until the Vietcong passed by our nearly discovered position. Our leech encircled necks were bleeding when we dragged ourselves into a vine forest to pry hundreds of the suckers from our necks and ankles.
I had survived 73 Ops and hoped I'd make it through number 74, this one, so I could apply to muster out. Twenty clicks out from Da Nang we encountered a friendly unmarked mine field and Jimmy stepped on a Claymore mine, killing him instantly and spraying 7 of our company with shrapnel, including me. Two weeks later I woke up in Saigon on my way back to the San Diego Naval hospital. I had 718 fragments of shrapnel removed from my back and legs during the next 18 years.
I never fully recovered from the internal scars that led to PTSD. I met other hospital corpsman with similar psychological instability. The most common experiences were nightmares with auditory and olfactory features. I woke frequently in a pool of sweat, thinking I was hearing ordinance, smelling burning flesh and hearing screams, and usually freaking out my sleeping partner. I stopped dating after several attempts to form relationships with women. The two most common feelings that overwhelmed me were extreme guilt and anger.
In December of 1969 and for about the next seven years I spent 8 hours a week with a group of other combat docs at the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, California, where the term PTSD was originally named. To recover, I used my art as a way out or back to some stability. I began painting flesh hurtling through space in the shape of a fireman's axe, and modified pages from Jane’s Fighting Ships, reworking them with black and white photos of myself wrapped in bandages and cursive text written over the printed pages. My mustering-out duty involved removing the contents of body bags and washing the bodies for burial. Many bags had gruesome messages in them or parts of Cambodian and Vietnamese children and parts of cows and pigs. There were some twisted angry minds in the bush who wanted to make their feelings known by placing these horrors in the bags.
These horrors entered my art work. I tried to take photographs of the body bags’ contents but I was discovered by my commanding officer and endured a captain’s mast legal hearing for my efforts! Upon arriving home I burned my uniforms and destroyed my field awards! I continued at Otis and graduated with a BFA and an MFA. The meat paintings grew in scale and I made an fireman's axe out of beef, had it photographed on a field of paint and electronic resistors and condensers, then had it freeze dried and cobalt irradiated. It will be safe to view in 2020 when the radiation half-life burns off.
I still have occasional nightmares but they are brief because I've learned to wake up before the explosions and screaming arrive.