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Fred Tomasello Jr.: Flashbacks intrude on daily life

A friend asked if fireworks bothered me and what caused flashbacks for combat veterans. Artillery-like booms at fireworks shows make my stomach flutter with fear.

Artillery kills by sending shrapnel spinning in every direction like red-hot lawn mower blades powerful enough to pierce steel and dismember bodies. During a show, those burning pieces of paper shooting right at us make me want to dive for cover. Children, animals and veterans flinch, cry or try to run away. Some do all three.

My mind goes back to Cam Lo, where human beings were blown into pieces and the captain wanted a body count. Arms, legs and torsos were so scattered the only way to get an accurate number was to count heads.

Stay in the present, I tell myself. These civilians can’t see what I’ve seen and haven’t experienced what I have.

Anything that triggers a memory causes flashbacks. Think about loved ones you’ve lost. How often are you reminded of them? Or an auto accident you were in. How long did you flinch or put on the brakes when you faced a similar situation? Were you mugged, beaten or raped? How long do those memories intrude into your daily life and rob you of happiness? Forever?

My most recent flashback was when Chuck, our 82-year-old neighbor, retired firefighter and poker-playing buddy, fell down one Monday morning screaming for help. Kathy and I tried to get him to his feet but his hip pain was too great. It was still dark and I hadn’t notice how badly bruised his elbow was and how much blood he had shed. When the porch light came on, my white t-shirt was soaked with blood. I could smell it. My fingers were sticking together. I was picking up bodies again. I used my handkerchief to bandage his elbow, talking to Chuck and even joking with him until his fire department friends arrived. Then rain started to pour and I was back in ’Nam, monsoon season, where all the water in the world can’t wash away the blood. A week later, Chuck died like many wounded did in war. I spoke about Chuck many times in group therapy. Over time, using prayer, mindfulness and breath awareness, the images recede but never go away.

My radioman’s sister, Delores, and her husband, Richard, visited us from Mobile, Ala. Her eyes, face and Southern accent brought Billy Joe back to life again. We slept in the same foxhole, shared our ponchos and ate many C ration meals together. Billy Joe was an outstanding Marine. On May 27, 1968, a mortar blew off half his face. Four days before, his wife gave birth to a baby girl. When Casualty Assistance notified his family, his father had a heart attack. His body came home to a closed casket funeral. That daughter is now a grandmother. Billy Joe would have been a 68-year-old great-grandfather to a family who misses him greatly.

I enjoyed our time with Delores and Richard, but deep down inside I was relishing my reunion with Billy Joe, cheating death with the closest thing I had to him, his sister. I hated to see them go. Again, I stuffed the pain, wiped the tears, breathed deeply and fought to stay in the present.

Thank God for compassionate friends like my wife, Kathy, and everyone who asks veterans how they are doing and listens to their answers.