SRB - Tell us about yourself
Gary - I served with the Army in the Tet Offensive in 1968 as a Water Purification Specialist attached to the Infantry. I suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and have received over ten years of therapy regarding war traumas. My perception of the war is drawn from mid-level combat, and prepares the reader to reflect on the psychological and spiritual aspects regarding the fragmentation of self relative to veterans from any war – especially relevant to the wars fought in Iraq and Afghanistan where soldiers have faced IEDs daily.
SRB - Tell us a little about your book.
Gary - “Good for One Ride” describes the 1968 Tet Offensive experienced by a Combat Engineer Water Purification Specialist. The first person point of view chronicles the gradual psychological fragmentation of self endured by the protagonist, Theo Garrett. The work provides insight into the thoughts and feelings of a soldier whose perception of the war is drawn from mid-level combat exposure, and depicts several warfare traumas without emphasizing the usual gore that often brutalizes the reader. The novel provides interactions between the American combatants who exist in contrasting life styles. There is a balance between narrative and dialogue, sprinkled with humor in this fast-paced work, written intentionally in a direct but sometimes lyrical manner that provides action accompanied by soldiers’ feelings and thoughts, as they face a constant existential surrealism teetering between their longing for survival and their fear of oblivion.
SRB - What's the significance of the book's title?
Gary - Not intending to dispel the reincarnation theory, I have often thought of my life in terms of good for one ride. Irony and sarcasm included. There is nothing good about war. Since I am aware that my life and the lives of my Vietnam veteran friends have been severely affected by trauma, I thought the title would provide the reader a sense that war continues without mercy in the minds and spirits of the combat veterans who do return. I thought of the title in 1989 after receiving a two months supply of bus tokens to go to and from a Veterans Administration’s outpatient post-traumatic-stress-disorder program. Instead of the inscription “good for one ride” the bus tokens read “one adult fare.” Most of the young soldiers, myself included, who were drafted into the war were emotionally undeveloped and basically we were children headed for a death ride in an American foreign policy circus.
SRB - What would you want your readers to take away from your book?
Gary - I intended to show the insanity and surrealism of the Vietnam War by what the protagonist Theo Garrett endured during his mid-level combat tour. The protagonist’s traumatic experience and his thoughts and reactions to those traumas provided a clear message that war dehumanizes man, and depicted how a person gets post-traumatic-stress-disorder. The work showed how suffering from terror possessed the protagonist and rendered him unable to determine reality. Conveying his thoughts and emotions risked sounding melodramatic, so I handled that carefully. Merely reporting events could have easily turned the characters into caricatures, and I definitely wanted to avoid that stigma. American soldiers are human beings whose psychological and biological natures are not meant to withstand the constant onslaught of terror and the threat of death.
SRB - What role does the psychology of survival play in the story?
Gary - Some threats faced by my protagonist originate from unlikely sources. At a young age, he needs to be able to evaluate the intelligence and combat experience of his superiors. Some of their decisions will thrust him into unnecessary combat; his awareness may not be enough to alleviate the threats, but it demands he trust his instincts. In one particular incident, he is ordered by an inexperienced sergeant to drive through a mined road that he would have avoided had he been alone. In another situation, he is under attack in a small American firebase located near a city. The frontal assault takes place on the farthest side of the base away from his position. When the action subsides, there are 20 or more American GIs–including officers–standing and facing the city, completely exposed by the light of flares. Garrett stays in a bunker “feeling” something is wrong, but his best friend in the war badgers him into coming out into the light. There again, he does not trust his instincts. His training has taught him to seek cover, but under social pressure he concedes, and he is immediately faced with a sniper’s round. From “Good for One Ride” the following is the protagonist’s reaction to the sniper’s shot:
“God and war were at opposite poles like pleasure and torture, like prostitutes and the Virgin Mary. Now, they have become one. It happened with a flash of light that I saw. A sniper’s round missed my face and dug into the bunker wall. I felt dread tear my heart with cold scissors. Will it ever mend this unapparent wound? Perhaps it keeps tearing as I go along. Finally, the heart falls from its place and takes a turn down inside my right leg or my left. The skin at the anklebone is strung so tightly there. The blood bursts forth. It fills my boot and sloshes around with every step. I hear it in my sleep and there is no resting place.”
In another trauma, he hears a rocket launched directly upon his position and, instead of staying down, he stands up in terror, seeking another place for cover, as the missile lands not far from him. This example introduces other aspects regarding psychological impediments to survival in a war zone. A few months into the war, huge emotional pressure attacks Garrett’s nervous system and it provokes further his illogical decisions. At some point, training and experience aren’t enough to defuse his reaction to terror, and from that space I emphasize how terror, the fear of future terror, sleep deprivation and the experiencing of many surrealistic traumatic events deconstruct my protagonist’s self. There is a tipping-point in this survival test when Garrett reaches the space where he can no longer try to survive. He’s like an old man who can’t fight and can’t run; he can only continue numb and so devoid of strength that he is unable to see the war. In response to this challenge, his training and his will to live need to kick in, At this crossroad, survival in warfare depends on what is left of his will, the grace given to him and his hope that grace exists.
SRB - You’ve mentioned that you suffer from post-traumatic-stress disorder. Would you describe how you have dealt with your traumas since the war?
Gary - Dealing with the after effects from the war required a strong will to survive, and this statement is unfortunately supported by the fact that many Vietnam veterans have committed suicide since the war. To some extent, the American culture restricted me from seeking medical help until I consistently could no longer operate in a work environment without incident. Americans see themselves as strong and independent and able to endure suffering without help, especially help that is psychiatric in nature. The mental, physical and emotional pain emanating from nightmares, flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, anxiety attacks, suicidal ideation and the huge loss of sleep–to name a few side effects–forced me, in 1984, to seek a psychologist outside of the Veterans Administration (VA). I took a Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory Test and scored negatively off the charts in every component. The psychologist sent me to a psychiatrist who misdiagnosed me as manic depressive and prescribed Lithium and Elavil, the effects of which increased my weight from 170 pounds to 230 pounds. In 1989, I endured a VA post-traumatic-stress program where the head of the program, a counseling psychologist “flooded” me. Just prior to the flooding, I wrote a narrative describing a trauma, after which the psychologist took me into a small room, applied bio-feedback tabs to the outside of my head and chest, and then slowly recounted the trauma audibly until either the grief and terror energy trapped inside me got released or became further impacted. In my case, trapped energy pumped out of my mouth in nine chugs which I heard inside me like an air compressor recharging. I continued to work full-time a couple years later, and in 1995 I suffered heart pain which drove me into therapy, fortunately with a competent PhD therapist contracted by the VA. The first two years of that therapy threw me into terror night and day. I had quit Lithium and Elavil by myself, and the VA put me on benzodiazepine tranquilizers and hypnotics to help me sleep. But after taking four tranquilizers and two 10-milligram pills of Zolpidem each night, I would awake within an hour or so, completely dominated by terror and unable to fall sleep again. Also, during that period of time I suffered from colitis. It’s amazing how much endurance I needed to survive that onslaught, and the amount of self awareness I needed to protect myself further from countless psychiatrists and their prescriptions, to include the likes of Haldol, Thorazine, Remeron, and Loxapine. I calibrated each medication and never took the full amount prescribed until I knew precisely how I would react to the lower doses. The real therapy lasted for over 10 years, and it gave me clear insight regarding the reenactments often triggered. Anyone facing similar combat reactions would benefit from working in counseling therapy, but one should expect a few trials before finding a real effective professional therapist.
SRB - Based on your experience, what advice would you give our readers on how to mentally prepare for a survival or a dangerous situation?
Gary - I have answered most of this question throughout the interview, but I will summarize some of it. Realize that my approach to this interview involves survival responses faced by a mid-level combat survivor. In other words, I did not pursue the enemy like Infantrymen, but dealt with the war that pursued me. I’ve mentioned that a soldier at this level needs to trust his instincts and never take anything for granted. I would watch everything and everybody connected to the Vietnamese. There was no telling who was who, and no exact determination ever existed. When I worked alone two miles from the Infantry, I feared the enemy would sneak up on me while I slept, so I put soda pop cans under tarps and under grass that I had spread around my point, and I slept in different places every night. I made friends with Vietnamese children who often supplied me with more information than Army intelligence. Granted, Army intelligence never communicated with me, so I took the matter into my own hands. The kids would come to me after an attack on my position and they would tell me, “VC come tonight, you stay at my house.” So, I’d pack up my weapon and rounds and head over to see the family, and depending on where they existed, they might have risked retaliation from the enemy. During attacks on small firebases, I handled the situations apart from the other American combatants connected to other units, and I was often alone. I did not expect any different scenario and I understood this GI sociology. It was imperative that I clean my weapon often. Too many soldiers faced the enemy with rounds jammed inside their weapons. I’ve mentioned that officers sometimes made judgments that were not sound, and there existed an element of revenge in their decisions. This also applied to non- commissioned officers–sergeants, who for one reason or another sent me to field positions where I was accompanied by the weakest and most unstable platoon member. Survival depended upon recognizing and sizing up anyone sent to accompany me. I had to run people off my point whom I had seen frozen during other attacks. I mean they were unable to respond and they became dangerous to those of us preparing. Oddly enough, sometimes, if I were facing attack, a platoon sergeant who resented me would actually look for me to side with him, and I looked for him as well. It paid dividends to make friends with my superiors, especially the First Sergeant, and to avoid conversation or interaction with officers who could expose me to traumatic situations. There is nothing glamorous about war, and the only time I thought I showed courage was when I responded to an attack while others stayed inside bunkers. But shortly after that, another incident would occur and I would have a cowardly reaction. Survival depended on my flexibility to erase self-condemnation and to continue facing the unknown.