Suffering the Aftereffects of War

In 1966, Larry Williams was 17, and he signed on the dotted line to join the Army. Within months, Larry found himself in battle in the brutal Tet Offensive. Today, we continue our series on African Americans and military service, with a look at what America owes returning veterans — plus one man's harrowing story of the war abroad.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

In 1966, Larry Williams was 17 years old. He signed on the dotted line to join the Army. And within months, he found himself in a battle in a brutal Tet Offensive.

Today, we continue our series on African-Americans in the military with a look at what America owes returning veterans, and one man's harrowing story of the war abroad and the aftereffects back home.

Larry Williams, thank you for coming in.

Mr. LARRY WILLIAMS (Vietnam War Veteran; Program Manager, New Directions): Good morning.

CHIDEYA: So let's start out with the Tet Offensive. Tell us briefly how significant this was and what role you played in it.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, it was significant in the sense that when the Tet Offensive broke out, it was staged all over Vietnam at one time. Every major military installation, firebase, et cetera, was attacked all at once.

CHIDEYA: So it was unified fighting. And from what I understand, very brutal fighting…

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes.

CHIDEYA: …between the Viet Cong and the U.S. in dozens of cities.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, not just the Viet Cong, but even more so the NVA, the North Vietnamese regulars, which were the North Vietnam's elite troops.

CHIDEYA: How long was it between the time that you enlisted and the time that you set foot in Vietnam?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I was in the military for maybe a year. I had left Germany volunteering for Vietnam.

CHIDEYA: Why did you go into the military?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I came up in a very sheltered environment. I wanted to have adventure. I wanted to just get out of them all.

CHIDEYA: Now, you had an experience, not too long after you were in Vietnam, where you ended up losing a friend. Can you tell us about that - a mentor?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, actually, it was an older vet that had taken me upon his wing. He was a truck driver for our company. I was doing a minesweep operation in front of the vehicles, those following in the convoy itself. And a mine attack that I had was three of us that would cover what they call Highway 1, which was actually a dirt road, that part of it at that time.

And the man that took our head, which actually was defaulted. I was the newest guy in the company. And suddenly, I heard a great big woof behind me, which was explosion. I turned around, I saw that guy I'm talking about in question in the truck go up in there and come down in the fireball.

CHIDEYA: Did you feel responsible?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Not did I felt responsible, but because I was the newest one in the company and the youngest, they put a lot of responsibility on me, the blame on me.

CHIDEYA: When you went forward with your time in Vietnam, you ended up in a number of difficult positions, in terms of what substances you took into your body, in terms of family. Can you tell us about those things that you faced that were even beyond the fighting?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, besides beyond the fighting, I think the next incident that I encountered, we encountered affirmative possession of about six different people who had passed no (unintelligible) are Vietnamese. And we had to search those coffins. And unlike the U.S., which is the third - Vietnam is a third world country, they don't have the - at that time, they didn't have the procedures that we do for our (unintelligible) or anything else. It was quite gruesome, to say the least.

CHIDEYA: And you ended up getting into drug use.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes, I did.

CHIDEYA: What did you do?

Mr. WILLIAMS: First, it was just marijuana, as a lot of guys were doing at that time, marijuana and drinking a lot of beer. Then, it - I got wounded and I was on morphine for a while, and next thing I know I develop a distinctive taste for it, so I started using opium.

CHIDEYA: At the same time, you had a romantic relationship. What happened there?

Mr. WILLIAMS: A young lady at that I met while I was over there, we brought a child into this world. Initially after Vietnam, I was able to keep in contact with her all the way up until that time the North Vietnamese took the country over there. Since then, I haven't heard from either of them.

CHIDEYA: So somewhere out there, you may have a grown child.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: How did this affect you once you got back to the U.S.?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I'm really - at that time, I didn't have any affect or whatsoever because I was entrenched in my disease of drug addiction at that time.

CHIDEYA: So you're saying that you didn't feel much because you were doped up.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Right. I was doped up. I - not knowing at that time I had issues, major issues with Vietnam, which I wasn't facing as well.

CHIDEYA: So what we would call today PTSD was what you were going through?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes.

CHIDEYA: How low did your life get?

Mr. WILLIAMS: For a number of years in and out of drug treatment programs - not here in Los Angeles, but I'm from St. Louis - in and out of county jails, the state prison system in Missouri.

CHIDEYA: Was there a moment when you said, you know what, I can turn my life around?

Mr. WILLIAMS: At that time, the only time I really tried to turn around is because of something the courts ordered me to do or something some relative of mine and my family or some girlfriend.

CHIDEYA: But now, you run - or co-founded New Directions, which is a place that we hear at NEWS & NOTES have visited and it helps veterans who have been out on the streets. And it really uplifts people. There's a lot of drug treatment. You must have walked a real path from being so low yourself to being able to help other people. What made you do that?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I ended up homeless myself in 1986 while I was working for the Department of Veterans Affairs. And one more time I realized that I had a problem. But only this time, I realize that I needed help and I wanted to get help for myself, not because it was someone else's desire. And I ended up going to New Directions when there was a VA program.

CHIDEYA: Now, Iraq, you see images all the time. How has that affected you?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Within the last two years, because I have not taking care of myself other than being clean and sober, but issues that I have with PTSD. I had to start addressing them because everything I was seeing on television and reading in the news dealing with Iraq started bringing my nightmares and flashbacks up. And I had to deal with them. And so I'm now going for treatment for PTSD myself.

CHIDEYA: Larry, thank you for sharing your story with us.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Larry Williams is a Vietnam veteran. He also co-founded New Directions, an organization for once-homeless veterans.

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