Gig Harbor, WA resident Steve Tice is grateful. He is grateful to the Army medics who treated his shrapnel wounds on a bloody hillside in Vietnam almost 50 years ago. He is thankful to the helicopter crew that risked their own lives to lower a basket to him on that desolate hillside to airlift him to safety.
Tice is beholden to the doctors at the field hospital who saved his life, indebted to the nurses who cared for him while he slipped in and out of a coma for almost half a year and obliged to the Veterans Administration that identified his nightmares and personal issues as something that became known as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS).
Looking back at his life since coming home from the war in Southeast Asia, Tice is grateful to the many people who put themselves in harm’s way to save his life, blessed by having two “beautiful” sons and his wife, Lisa, who he says has been his strongest source of support for more than 47 years.
“I’ve been blessed in so many ways to have people in my life that helped me deal with the pain that went far beyond my bodily injuries,” Tice said in a loud whisper. “I watched so many of my friends die on that hillside. There were apparently larger forces at work. It’s a mystery to me, but apparently God decided it was not my time to die. I had unfinished business.”
That unfinished business, he believes, led to Tice becoming one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on PTSD, what is now referred to as PTSS.
Tice served as a member of the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He was injured in the infamous fight to capture Hamburger Hill in May of 1969 that became a focal point for the anti-war movement across the United States.
The military decision to stage a frontal attack of a well-fortified hill defended by entrenched troops from North Vietnam came under scrutiny because of the high cost of American lives sacrificed to capture the small rise near the border with Laos that lacked any strategic advantage. The controversy erupted when the hill was abandoned almost immediately after it was seized.
The personal nightmare for Tice began on that spring day on Hamburger Hill when his right hand was blown off when he took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade. He arrived at the field hospital with multiple stomach wounds and shrapnel in his head that was similar to the injuries that had killed many of his fellow soldiers.
His wounds eventually led to the medical decision by his doctors to remove his right arm and most of his shoulder.
Beyond the injuries to his body, the impact of PTSD removed portions of his life. He was forced to deal with an American public that turned away from him because of his service in an unpopular war. The ex-soldier suffered from years of sleepless nights that brought on paranoia and depression, as well as an inability to maintain personal relationships.
There were times—many times—he said it was just too much for a 21-year-old with a wife and young child to deal with. His first marriage ended in 1977. It was at that point that Tice began to work with a counselor at the Veterans Administration. Professionals with the VA inspired him to deal with his grief in a way that would allow him to face his deepest fears, especially the guilt of not dying along with his friends on that forsaken hillside in Vietnam.
No more anger
Tice never envisioned himself as a counselor. He was thrust into the position as part of his training to help his fellow soldiers deal with the mental scars of war.
“My anger was used up,” said Tice. “Sadness was my primary emotion for many years. I was sad about the fact that people continued to suffer years after they had sacrificed so much for their country in rice paddies halfway around the world.”
The key, he said, was working with his therapist at the VA and reuniting with his wife.
“Being a counselor had never been part of the picture. I had always seen myself as in the role of a college professor,” Tice said with a smile. “I found it therapeutic to work with people who had suffered many of the same nightmares that haunted me since Nam.”
He was trained as part of the VA program to help soldiers with PTSD. His most rewarding experience has been working with veterans of World War II who suffered through decades of undiagnosed mental anguish. His compassion for veterans from the Greatest Generation can be traced to his own father, who survived the Bataan Death March when soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army forced 76,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war to trudge across mountainous terrain in the Philippines only to be imprisoned in forced labor camps that had been disguised as prison camps.
Tice believes the lessons of leadership his father brought back from his own ordeal in the Pacific gave him the tools to survive his own personal demons.
World War II veterans he worked with in the ‘80s were suffering from many of the same complaints Tice is dealing with today.
“These days, it is often difficult to determine if the gaps in my memory or the pain I feel in my bones are a result of my war wounds, or just part of natural aging,” he said. “Probably a combination of the two.”
Tice is now almost 70. He said many of his friends are dealing with symptoms that mirror PTSD brought on by a personal trauma in their lives, including the death of a parent or dealing with a terminal medical condition.
Tice has been forced to face new adversaries since he has become the face of the VA program to help veterans dealing with the symptoms of PTSD. His message was often drowned out by people who take to the streets to oppose war of any kind.
One of the most memorable confrontations took place when anti-war activists protested his appearance on the campus of the University of Wisconsin. Tice went outside after delivering his prepared comments to confront the protesters and ended up in an extended conversation that covered topics from politics to war.
“The people who came to Madison that night to protest my appearance did not understand that we were on the same side,” said Tice. “Soldiers are as opposed to killing and hate war as much as the protestors on the street.
“The difference is that many of us did not have a choice. Others dealt with the situation by making the decision to serve our country with the hope that we could be part of the solution.”
The survivor of Hamburger Hill extended the lessons of his personal journey in 1991 when he helped found Camp Chaparral in the shadow of Mt. Adams on the Yakima Indian Reservation.
“The individual has to feel safe so they are able to share the deepest, darkest part of their struggle—dealing with the PTSD,” Tice explained.
The camp was originally established as a Healing Camp for Native American Veterans. Subsequent development of an all-cohort Indian Group at American Lake VAMC didn’t work out because of infighting among the various participating tribes.
The camp then assumed the name of the sacred ground on which it was held. Camp Chaparral was transformed to teach or sensitize VA and other practitioners who work with Indian veterans on the American Indian Traditional Methodology of Healing.
“To take that first step and find safety, for a combat veteran, is very difficult,” said Tice. “Making a person feel safe is, in part, about culture. You need to understand what they bring into treatment.”
The ideas presented at the camp, according to Tice, can be woven into many other realms of human communication, self-awareness and relations.
“Camp Chaparral has left a lasting impression on over 900 VA participants not simply as a place of beauty,” said Tice, “but as a way of life in the work that the VA does.”
Today, the camp is focused on providing a unique and positive experience to the VA staff. It includes hands-on interaction with Native American warriors, spiritual leaders, traditional healers, and tribal Elders and families from the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, Sioux, Makah, Lummi, Warm Springs, Karuk and Colville tribes.
Tice may not have become the college professor who disburses wisdom from a lectern at a university, but he did pass on his social values to his two sons, who both became teachers. One of his sons, he said, works with children with autism.
Tice’s personal nightmare came full circle in 1982 when he and 35 counselors from the VA traveled to Washington D.C. for the unveiling of the Vietnam War Memorial located on a 2-acre site located adjacent to the National Mall, northeast of the Lincoln Memorial.
“It was a healing experience,” said Tice. “VA counselors were brought a week before the official dedication so we could have a preview of the memorial and be prepared to help the thousands of vets who flew to D.C. to deal with the pain from their own past.”
He described the evening before the unveiling as “a gift” to be with people who understood the agony of fighting in Vietnam—then coming home to battle enemies from within.
Tice said there are no words to describe the emotions that a Vietnam vet feels when he comes face-to-face with the names of so many of their friends who never came home.
“You cannot help but be moved by the tragic loss of life that took place,” said Tice. “And for what?”
More than 3 million people visit the memorial every year, according to the U.S. Parks Service. Many of those people will rub the wall to take home an impression of the name of somebody they knew or had died in the conflict. Tice emphasized that the memorial was not built by the government. It was designed and paid for by contributions from veteran groups and individuals across the country.
“The monument is more than a memorial,” said Tice. “It is a symbol of the real pain that people continue to suffer from an unpopular war that took place in our lifetime.”
Never one to hide his feelings, Tice said he is “outraged” by the threat of war the current leadership in Washington D.C. “waves in the face of those who want to inflict harm on Americans.”
Lawmakers, he said, do not comprehend the impact they have on individuals when they communicate policy through racist tantrums or painful tweets.
He concluded by saying that the current president does not understand the full cost of war on the soldiers who are sent off to fight in the name of freedom, or on the loved ones who wait for them to come home.
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer based in Mukilteo, Washington. His work is dedicated to preserving the stories of our lifetime so they can be passed to future generations. Dan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.