March 22, 2008
My Tour in Hell: A Marine’s Battle with Combat Trauma
Although a history buff, the Vietnam War is one area I have avoided studying simply because I felt it could only be depressing. I was surprised and re-educated about that simple belief by David Powell’s autobiography of his tour in Vietnam and how Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affected his life after he returned home. “My Tour in Hell: A Marine’s Battle with Combat Trauma” retells one marine’s experiences on a personal and honest level that makes the reader understand the decisions made by American soldiers, often against their better wishes, and how their time serving their country was both unappreciated and misunderstood.
Most of “My Tour in Hell” is Powell detailing his tour of duty in Vietnam. I was instantly surprised that he only spent thirteen months in Vietnam—the typical length for a marine’s tour of duty. I had expected the average Vietnam Veteran had spent several years as a soldier. Nevertheless, the time Powell spent and the experiences he had were enough to make anyone have PTSD. Powell faithfully and truthfully exposes his personality flaws and strengths as he recounts his experiences. The book opens with his first day in the field and the fear he felt. He then discusses various patrols and operations in which he was involved. His memory of events is excellent, and I was fascinated by his experiences several times of seeing events in slow-motion when something traumatic happened such as his watching an atrocity or realizing he was being shot. I had not known that slow-motion, so often depicted in films, was an actual human experience. I realize better now how the constant stress of potentially being attacked can cause disorientation, fear and even the sense of time nearly stopping.
Powell’s experiences are all the stronger because he questioned his Christian faith during his tour. He asks himself how he can kill people, especially those not directly attacking him, and he comes to reconcile himself to shooting the enemy because they would kill him or his comrades if given the chance. At the same time, he is disgusted by his fellow soldiers’ behavior, such as sharing a Viet Cong nurse whom they take turns raping before killing her. Powell discusses how difficult he found it to befriend his comrades because he feared being distracted by worrying about them, thereby putting himself at greater risk. When he breaks his own rule, he hurts all the more when his friend is killed. Powell discusses all these events without being overly emotional in his descriptions, but the pain he felt comes through perhaps stronger because of the scarcity of words.
PTSD became part of Powell’s life almost from his first day in Vietnam. When he was on leave, he could not function normally in an airport from fear of the people around him. When he returns home, he finds himself unable to confront people from fear and distrust, resulting in failed marriages and frequent career changes.
The purpose of Powell’s book is not only to detail his war experiences but also to explain how he was diagnosed with PTSD and how the use of Traumatic Incident Reduction (TIR) helped him deal with his emotions and reactions to other people. While he gives us details about his treatment, I felt the book ended a bit too quickly, and I would have liked to hear his overall conclusions about his experiences and why he decided to write his story, but I don’t think any reader will doubt the importance of Powell’s story and how it adds to our knowledge of what it is to suffer from PTSD.
“My Tour in Hell” also provides several useful appendices, beginning with a study guide of questions for each chapter of the book to help people reflect on Powell’s experiences. In addition, the appendices include Frequently Asked Questions about PTSD (including definitions and statistics relevant not only to veterans but civilians who have undergone traumas such as natural disasters or being raped) and a glossary of Vietnam War terminology.
“My Tour in Hell” is an extremely readable and informative memoir about a Vietnam soldier’s experience. I appreciate that Powell was honest and straightforward without sensationalizing the Vietnam War. Squeamish readers will not find it gory or difficult to read, and they will come away with greater understanding and appreciation of the military men and women who serve this country. When Powell returned from his tour of duty, he told his wife, “I want to have someone, anyone, hug me and say ‘welcome: all is forgiven.’” With “My Tour in Hell” Powell has found that forgiveness and been able to tell a story the American public has waited too long to understand.
- Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D., author of The Marquette Trilogy
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