It’s been 50 years since Army Specialist 4 Gary Colletti finished his tour in Vietnam as one of the early U.S. military advisors in the rapidly escalating conflict.
Today he’s back in “service,” helping veterans of all wars receive the benefits they earned from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
And like many of those he advises, the 70-year-old Colletti suffers from war-related illnesses, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
Even today, he said, “I get up in the middle of the night and look out the window to make sure there’s no one out there.”
The Vietnam War never will leave Colletti but neither will the bonds that tie him to all men and women who served the nation, in every war, declared and undeclared.
Eight years ago he became a “service officer,” with training at the National Veterans Legal Council in Silver Springs, Md., and through the Veterans Administration in San Diego.
Now, Colletti, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 5384 in Brea, meets each Wednesday with Orange County veterans and helps them through the process of obtaining their benefits. He is joined by former Brea Mayor Ron Garcia, 68, a U.S. Navy veteran who also served in Vietnam.
“We’re giving back,” said Colletti, who, along with Garcia, is unpaid for the work, which helps as many as 200 area veterans annually.
At Garcia’s urging, the city of Brea, which already allotted space in its Community Center for family counseling and debt counseling, provided space one day a week for Colletti and Garcia to do their work.
“Veterans, by nature, when they get out of the service, they want to go home” and many don’t immediately follow up on available benefits, said Garcia. In addition, he said, some who do apply through the federal Veterans Administration offices “get frustrated and just don’t go back.”
So Colletti, aided by Garcia, talk to veterans about the types of benefits they might receive and their injuries and help them get started on a benefits package.
The veterans they serve can include those who fought in World War II to those just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bound Together Through Their Injuries
Binding the generations together are common injuries, obvious ones like loss of limbs and other physical damage and the less visible, like PTSD.
At the time of the Vietnam War, PTSD had yet to be diagnosed as a medical condition.
In earlier combat, it was called “battle fatigue” or “shell shock.” Later in the Vietnam War, savvy commanders knew to watch out for the “thousand yard stare,” a blank, disassociated expression that meant the usually still teenaged soldier, sailor, airman or Marine, had experienced or seen something so horrific he emotionally shut down.
But in recent decades it has been widely accepted in both military and civilian medicine as a diagnosis for anyone who has experienced an horrific event and suffers flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety or a combination of those reactions.
And not just one event may cause PTSD. A series of emotional traumas can have the same result.
Colletti knows. In 1964, at age 19, he was a recent graduate of Anaheim’s Savannah High School but didn’t know what career he wanted to pursue. So, like many young adults, he enlisted in the Army.
This was just months ahead of the massive build-up in U.S. forces in South Vietnam and, said Colletti, ”at the time, I’d never heard of Vietnam and most of the guys (in his unit) never had heard of Vietnam.”
After training, he found himself with a “top secret crypto final” security clearance at Phu Bai, a then-just developing base on the edge of the jungle seven miles south of the old Vietnamese imperial capital of Hue and 24 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam.
He and the roughly 130 other soldiers in his unit–cryptographers, linguists, de-coders, military police or MPs–lived in tents, built bunkers and trailers for protection and to improve work space and daily monitored North Vietnamese and Viet Cong radio and coded signal transmissions.
The arm patches on their uniforms identified them as Military Assistance Command Vietnam and to the North Vietnamese, they were spies.
“We could pinpoint within a few hundred yards where the enemy was from their transmissions,” he said. The intelligence they gathered and translated was forwarded to higher authorities for “our guys, so they didn’t get ambushed.”
A Cruel Agent
Land mines surrounded the base to protect them from attack but there was the problem of heavy jungle underbrush potentially hiding North Vietnamese or Viet Cong troops as they moved in on the base. The answer? Agent Orange.
“Every couple of weeks they (U.S. aircraft) would drop Agent Orange” on the surrounding jungle brush.
“You could smell it. You breathed it. We didn’t think anything about it. It smelled like weed killer.”
A few weeks later, military aircraft would again use Agent Orange to burn off the foliage, sending the smoke onto the base. The chemical also ran off into the stream used by the troops for drinking water. They purified the water with chlorine to kill bacteria but that had no effect on the chemical.
At the time, no one knew the health impacts of Agent Orange but today, it is linked to a wide range of lung, cancer and other illnesses.
Colletti has breathing difficulties the Veterans Administration determined were caused by his ongoing exposure to Agent Orange. He also suffered hearing loss as a result of the daily use of noisy ear phones used to monitor North Vietnamese and Viet Cong transmissions. Again, the military at the time didn’t know the injuries such equipment could incur.
But Colletti still has trouble talking about the cause of his PTSD.
His job and the job of his unit was to save lives. But the military also had a rule.
“The rule was, ‘don’t fire until you’re fired on,’” said Colletti. The goal was to avoid mistakenly firing on “friendlies.”
As a result, Colletti said, the intelligence he and his unit gathered often wasn’t relayed by higher-ups or troops weren’t allowed to act on it. North Vietnamese or Viet Cong units attacked unsuspecting U.S. units, killing troops.
“The troops were not aware they were going to be in harm’s way,” he said.
And he and the other young intelligence officers would then listen to coded transmissions talking about the success of North Vietnamese or Viet Cong attacks that Colletti and his colleagues knew about in advance but were powerless to warn others to combat.
“That was probably the worst part of it, when you heard the transmissions from the small units of Viet Cong or North Vietnamese that they’d made a strike. That was the hardest thing for us to overcome.
“Why didn’t the command use our intelligence before they were attacked?” Colletti still asks.
PTSD has many causes, and a year of emotional reactions to the failure to save lives still lives with Colletti who refers to his “guilt complex” for not being able to save troops he knew were in danger.
The highly unpopular Vietnam War had its repercussions on returning troops as well.
“We were all tagged as baby killers,” recalled Colletti.
After Vietnam, war opponents learned not to target the country’s young fighters. In fact, at several airports greeters now welcome home returning troops and thank them for their service.
But in the heat of the 1960s opposition to the Vietnam War, returning soldiers, literally just hours away from Vietnam, often were greeted by epithets and accusations from demonstrators.
“I was accosted at the (LA) airport by a group of demonstrators and actually got into a fight,” he said. Airport security broke it up and took the demonstrators away
“Now, of course,” he said, “people are thanking us for our service.”
You can contact Tracy Wood at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.