Talks with dad ease Vietnam scars
By Helena Oliviero
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Christal Presley bites her lower lip when she hears her father’s voice on the other end of the telephone.
She’s on edge. It doesn’t take much to set him off. And she’s about to ask about the one thing no one in her family can ever talk about: Vietnam.
The Atlanta woman still gets flashbacks of her father, Delmer Presley, locking himself in his bedroom for days at a time, curled up like a baby, his eyes big and wild.
On the phone, she can’t help but feel like the scared little girl who sometimes took refuge in a closet and wrote stories by the light of a flashlight.
But she’s 31 now. She can no longer hide from her father — or a war that ended before she was born.
“I want to know if you are still up for it,” says Christal. “It will just be some questions.”
“Questions about what?” grumbles her father, who lives in their rural Virginia hometown.
She holds her breath.
“Questions about the war,” she says.
“I don’t want to talk about the war,” he says. “I don’t know anything about a war.”
He hangs up.
Moments later, Christal’s mother calls back.
“He says he’ll do it,” Judy Presley says. “Did you hear me? He says he’ll do it.”
Dad was always on edge
An only child, Christal has long suffered from anxiety and depression. Two years ago, a psychiatrist suggested she might even suffer from the condition tormenting her father — Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
For Christal, it would be what is known as intergenerational PTSD, described as a psychiatric problem passed on to family members who didn’t experience the trauma themselves. While many experts believe children can be affected by a parent’s PTSD, some question whether the children themselves suffer from the condition. [See related story.]
What is clear is war can deeply affect the children of soldiers — whether the war raged in the 1960s or it’s taking place today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Christal and her father, a Vietnam vet drafted as a teenager, barely spoke while she was growing up. Struggling to deal with the relentless fear he experienced in Southeast Asia, Delmer was easily reminded of the horrors once he came home.
Eating at restaurants, Christal would pray no one would drop a spoon.
Her mother repeatedly told her, “It’s not his fault. It’s not his fault.” Then she’d whisper: “It’s Vietnam.”
As the years went on, Christal found she not only inherited her father’s deep brown eyes and wrinkled forehead, but also his nervous energy and anti-social behavior. She avoided getting to know people and making new friends.
As an adult, she knew that, to confront her own demons, she’d have to confront those of her father.
Christal decided to approach her father and ask about his past, his fears, the anxiety he carried with him. She persuaded him to talk to her every day for a month, and she created a Web site, United Children of Veterans, where she would blog daily about their conversations. The very name of her project conjures up images hellish and hopeful, depending on which avenue it would take: “30 Days with My Father.”
For Christal, an instructional mentor with Atlanta Public Schools who’s finishing up a Ph.D. in education, it would be part of a larger effort to conquer her fear and heal her relationship with her dad.
Advice to vets: Find help
Delmer, one of 10 children, grew up in Davenport, Va., a community of farmers and coal miners.
Apart from his one year in Vietnam, he’s never traveled more than 100 miles from his tiny town. After getting married, he settled in nearby Honaker.
Delmer received his draft letter in l968 — the year of the Tet offensive, a bloody campaign launched by the Viet Cong that helped turn the American public against the war. Only 18, he told officials he was flat-footed and colorblind, to no avail. He landed in Vietnam in April 1969, a radio telephone operator in charge of his platoon’s communications.
Morale was low when Delmer arrived, and the war was escalating.
In that initial conversation with his daughter, Delmer remembers underground tunnels covered in bamboo, teeming with snakes.
“We used to have to send men down there to check the tunnels out,” he says. “I never went down there. Just stuck my head in.
“I was too big,” he jokes, laughing. “Too big and ugly.”
Christal wants to know more.
“If you could give any advice to families of veterans, Dad, what would you tell them?”
“They need to find a group to get in and get counseling,” he says. “Either that, or they’ll jump off a cliff.”
“What should families of veterans expect?” she asks.
“War changes a person,” he says. “It changes people. I can’t explain it. ... It changes everything.”
It’s the first time Christal and her father have ever spoken about the war. As she hangs up the phone, Christal is thrilled with how it went. But hours later, she talks to her father again. He is seething mad.
Their talk has stirred emotions he wasn’t ready to deal with. He questions her motives and, inexplicably, accuses her of taking drugs.
Christal wants to end the project now, tell him that she can’t reason with a crazy person. Instead, she tells him that she loves him.
“I have a story to tell just like you do, and I need your help. It doesn’t mean you have to talk about the war. You can say whatever you want,” she says.
There’s a long silence.
“I just want to get to know you, for you to get to know me,” she says.
“You do this project,” he finally says, his voice shaking. “You do this project and write whatever you want.”
For years, Delmer dealt with inner turmoil by working 12 hours a day, six days a week, welding mining equipment.
Then, in the 1980s, his hands began to shake so much he couldn’t keep his grip on a welder’s torch.
He also had cysts removed from his fingers and a tumor removed from his lung — problems he believes were caused by wartime exposure to Agent Orange (a now-banned defoliant that’s been linked to leukemia, cancer and other health woes) though doctors say there’s no way to know for sure. His nightmares became more intense.
“If there was a storm and I was sleeping, I would wake up and not know if I was home in my bed or in the jungles of Vietnam,” he says. “I thought I was losing my mind.”
In 1985, he was diagnosed with PTSD — a condition he had never heard of. Six years later, his symptoms worsening, he went on disability.
Despite counseling and medication, Delmer finds his mind is never far from the battlefield.
Recently, while grocery shopping, Delmer heard a balloon pop and he went berserk.
“I almost tore a tomato stand down,” the 60-year-old says. “It’s embarrassing but you just can’t help it.”
Memories torment him
Almost a month into the conversations with his daughter, Delmer tells of the death of one young soldier that haunts him to this day.
The two were walking about 20 yards apart when the other man stepped on an explosive booby trap.
“He had only been in Vietnam a week,” he says. “He showed me a picture a day or two earlier of his baby girl. She was just 3 months old. ... I’ve had dreams over and over about him never getting to hold that baby.”
He’s also tormented by “search and destroy missions.”
“That was the order — to burn whole villages. ... These houses were made of straw and they would burn easily. You could see the people with their clothes burning. ... You couldn’t understand what they were saying, but everyone cries in the same language.
“I know I did some things I shouldn’t have done. I knew better. I did. I just didn’t consider those people human. I never saw a Vietnamese before in my life, and I hated them. ... I was trained not to see them as human.”
Getting to know dad
Thirty days into the conversations — which have now continued beyond the month originally planned — Christal isn’t nervous anymore. The talks aren’t forced. Her dad is not defensive. He really wants to talk.
Delmer tells her about how he washed his socks in streams in Vietnam and stored his canned food inside them after they dried. He talks about the pet monkey, JoJo, he had in Vietnam.
Delmer has questions, too, for his daughter, who lives in the big city. What does it mean to be a mentor to teachers? Does she see homeless people in Atlanta? Are any of them Vietnam vets?
Christal talks to her dad about relationships and why he doesn’t get close to anyone.
“Well, you didn’t get attached to anybody, because they died,” he says, reverting to his wartime mentality. “They got killed. And you didn’t want to get hurt.”
Christal is also learning more about who her dad is and discovering his sense of humor.
“You like talking to me?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says.
“Wait till you get my bill. You’ll change your mind.”
‘It was all my fault’
“What could Mom and I have done?” Christal asks tentatively. “What could we have done to make things better — to have better supported you back then?”
“You could have took me out back and shot me,” he says. “That would have solved your problems. Put a little poison in my coffee.”
“Nothing,” he says. “It was all my fault. My problems. I just tried to keep it balled up inside of me.”
“A lot of people think when you come home, the war is over, but that’s when it really starts,” he says.
What’s helped Delmer over the years is his guitar, he says. He plays at churches, funerals and schools.
Christal thinks about what could have helped her and her conclusion is basic. She wishes she’d had other children of veterans to talk to.
It’s something she’s created now.
Christal’s blog and Web site, which started in November, has received more than 10,000 visitors. She gets dozens of e-mails and comments from children of veterans across the country. One woman begs for advice because her father, a Vietnam veteran, is scaring her kids. A Vietnam vet tells her he has not spoken to his own children in 23 years. Christal asks her father about the current battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I wish they weren’t going on,” he says. “I can’t understand going into Iraq, losing all those people. But I didn’t understand the Vietnam War either.”
Today, about 2 million U.S. children have a parent in either the active or reserve component of the military, according to a 2009 RAND Corporation study. The study found children in military families are more likely to miss school activities and feel that people don’t understand their problems.
She has changed, too
Since she began the dialogue with her father, Christal has seen changes in herself. She no longer makes excuses to avoid social get-togethers. And Delmer also sees himself changing. He said the project has helped him open up and relax.
When Christal went home for Christmas, she braced herself for flashbacks as she curved up the mountain to her childhood home.
The flashbacks never came.
Her father lit candles and played “Silent Night” on his guitar. He gave her money for Christmas. She used the money to buy a guitar.
“Dad, tell me some things you like about me,” she says.
“Christal, I just like that you’re smart and stuff,” he says. “You’re witty. You got my sense of humor. You are headstrong like me. You don’t let anyone push anything over on you. You are a whole lot smarter than me.”
He’s proud Christal just completed her Ph.D.
“Tell me what I mean to you,” she says.
“You mean the world to me, buddy,” he says. “Why? Didn’t you know it? Didn’t you know that Christal?”
She closes her eyes.
Deep in her heart, she knew it. She just needed to hear it.
The project reached the 30-day mark during her Christmas visit home. Christal and her father have decided to continue to talk every day, going far beyond the original 30 days.
Tom Howe, president of Veterans and Military Families for Progress, a Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit , has asked Christal to be part of a team that will make recommendations to the White House on how the government can better help soldiers returning from war - and their families.
Christal also is going to Vietnam in March for about three weeks. She will be one of 12 people from across the country going on a trip organized by a group called “Soldier’s Heart.”
Delmer continues to play guitar every day. A song he wrote and performs about Vietnam was recently played over the loudspeaker at an elementary school near his home. He got a standing ovation.