New York/New Jersey VA Health Care Network
Good Damn Man
In 1966, when he was just 18 years old and still in High School in Wadesboro, North Carolina, Kenneth Williams enlisted in the Marine Corps. He went to fight in Vietnam, and it shaped his future. When Mr. Williams returned from Vietnam, he sought comfort from his pastor and was warned that his actions in Vietnam “would blow Hell wide open.” Grappling with guilt, fear, and persistent nightmares, Mr. Williams struggled to move forward and make a normal, respectable life with a wife, kids and a job.
Like so many of the young men who served in Vietnam, he bore the challenge of taking on these adult responsibilities while haunted by penetrating memories of war. Mr. Williams said, “you go there as a loving human being, but change to an animal trying to survive.” Dr. Sabrina Felson, Mr. William’s primary care doctor over the last 10 years, felt that Mr. Williams had a lot to teach us about confronting personal challenges, whether related to addiction, PTSD, raising children, relationships, or more specifically being a Vietnam Veteran.
The year following his 18-month tour in Vietnam, Mr. Williams married his high-school sweetheart, Marie, and over the next decade they had three daughters. During that time, he went to work for the phone company, where he installed pay phones throughout the city for over 20 years. During lunch, he would hang out at a club on Lenox and 133rd Street, where he shot pool and did drugs. He said he did anything he could, “except shooting-up heroin.“
When crack-cocaine became available, he did that too. When he tried to stop, he increased his alcohol. “I rode my motorcycle wide open,” fast, intoxicated, helmetless—hopelessly reckless. Once upon returning to his hometown in North Carolina, his mother lamented, “Kenny, you must not love me.” It was a plea from mother to son, to quit drinking and drugging and take care of himself and his family. And though it took him another 10 years to get sober, he lived with the sting of his mother’s words.
Mr. Williams drug use started while serving as a Marine in Chu Lai, Vietnam. He explained that the Vietnamese “weren’t all our enemies.” Civilian Vietnamese staffed the American base, doing laundry, cooking in the mess hall, cutting hair, and even shining shoes. And some of these Vietnamese civilians sold hashish and opium to susceptible soldiers, which, according to one study, comprised approximately 20% of American troops. Mr. Williams said, “We did drugs to survive. It was a way of life to get rid of boredness and seeing your friends killed. Most of the times on patrol you tried to stay straight, but when you got done fighting you got high then, cause you were scared to death.”
After a hospitalization for a nervous breakdown in the 1980s, Mr. Williams, moved into his car, before a friend, Annette, invited him into her home. Annette had three sons, whose father had been killed in Vietnam, and she “sort of knew what he was going through.” Mr. Williams teased that “it was love at first sight,…..for her.” But Annette explains, the “stuff I took on for Kenny, no one would have stuck by him. I saw good in Kenny.” When Mr. Williams was still using, he left his job and cared for Annette’s oldest son, Rodney, who was sick with leukemia.
Mr. Williams bathed Rodney and fed him, and sat with him all day until Annette returned home from her job as a Home Health Aide. Annette says that Rodney “died talking to Kenny.” He was saying how much he loved everybody, and then he just went quiet. Fifty years after Vietnam, Annette says “Kenny still fights a lot at night in his sleep. His legs and hands are jumping and he’s moaning,” but she says that now she teases him and they are able to even laugh about it together.
In 2009, Mr. Williams says he “bottomed out, but nobody could see it.” On another visit to the South, he took a swallow of whisky and retched blood. He lost more than ½ of his blood through a tear in his GI tract caused by violent vomiting. “My doctor was blunt. He didn’t sugar coat it.” Mr. Williams says that his ICU doctor warned, “You’re going to die a miserable death.” Instead, Mr. Williams got sober.
As part of his self-healing, Mr. Williams joined a PTSD group for Vietnam Veterans, initially facilitated by PTSD Program Director, Dr. Christie Jackson, and now run by Dr. Michael Kramer. He appreciates the comradery amongst his peers in the group, and rarely misses their Thursday meetings. Williams says, “You talk a lot about many things, but you still hold some things back. You were 18 years old. You had a rifle, a pistol and bullets. You used them. Guilt comes when you know you did things you didn’t have to do.”
Dr. Felson and Mr. Williams talked in the hallway about the stress test of war. “Most people don’t ever know how they will react in a split second under the threat of death” says Dr. Felson. “To me,” she continues, “Mr. Williams’ struggle reflects his strong moral code and goodness, which felt compromised by the demands of combat at an especially vulnerable age when he was just coming into his own manhood.”
“My grandkids sense how I feel. My six year old grandson says, ‘don’t bother Pop-Pop. He’s not feeling good” attuned to Mr. William’s funks. “They’re protecting you,” says Dr. Felson. His middle daughter, Theresa, when asked to describe her father said, “Isn’t he adorable? He is my heart.” She goes on to explain that despite his struggles during her childhood, she and her sisters felt loved and sheltered. All his girls completed college and are professionals. One is a VP at Wells Fargo, one is in corporate furniture sales, and one works for the DOH in medical billing.
Mr. Williams has nearly 10 years with ”no drugs, no alcohol, no smoking. Nothing. It took 33 years.” He should be proud of this accomplishment, and it is thrilling to see the loving relationships that surround him. His partner, Annette, shares, “No matter what I have to do for him…whatever. I would never let him go, never. He’s a good damn man.” Despite his past addiction, self-harm, and bad deeds, it’s clear that Mr. Williams is fundamentally an admired, generous, kind, funny, connected, and beloved father, grandfather, ex-husband, partner, and friend. You don’t have to be perfect to be a wonderful guy.