Harrowing returns from the front
ALBANY — The Vietnam veteran stood in a hospital lobby on Wednesday, reflecting on his military service and his years of drinking as dozens of wounded warriors read his story that was posted on large signs.
At age 70, former Army Capt. Mike McMahon has, figuratively speaking, laid his life on the line, and far more reluctantly than when he volunteered for duty in the jungles of Vietnam 45 years ago.
The man from Menands is one of six Vietnam veterans who shared their sometimes rocky paths to recovery for an exhibit called "The Second Front: Vietnam." The series of text panels and artifacts debuts with a ceremony at 10 a.m. Thursday at Albany Stratton VA Medical Center. It shows individual wartime portraits of the men, who opened up to discuss their struggles with combat trauma and alcohol abuse.
"Most of us, we don't talk about this stuff," McMahon said, motioning to his postwar stories of nightmares, flashbacks and drinking to oblivion. "It's in the past."
But it's the past that the exhibit seeks to untangle so other veterans can have better futures, said Denis Foley of Delmar, curator of The Lewis Henry Morgan Institute, SUNYIT Utica. He interviewed the men, created the panels and built a display case.
Foley and VA officials hope the stories and images convince Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan veterans to seek professional treatment for post-traumatic stress. Only about a third of veterans in the Vietnam age group use the VA system due to trust issues, lack of knowledge about services and other factors, according to the VA.
On Wednesday, the veterans' narratives captured the attention of nearly who entered the facility. Curious visitors read intimate details shared by Army Airborne Pvt. Charles Hicks of Hudson Falls, Army Spc. George Story of North Carolina, Marine Cpl. Willy Wilson of Utica, Marine Cpl. Jack Michel of the Buffalo area, McMahon and a soldier from Delmar who asked that his name not be used. At least two of them are expected to attend Thursday's event.
McMahon retrieved pictures from his attic that he hadn't seen since 1968 for exhibit. He hasn't had a drink in 26 years. But getting to that point was a challenge, he said.
McMahon entered the Army after graduating from Siena College in 1965 on a Reserve Officers' Training Corps scholarship. He spent two years guarding the Korean demilitarized zone before asking to go to Vietnam.
"At the time, I wanted to see if I was a man," McMahon said. He was sent to the Central Highlands in southwest Vietnam, where he trained South Vietnamese troops and was an adviser to several rifle companies and platoons. He spent 13 months in-country, keeping a diary with vital military intelligence that he coded by writing in English, French and German.
"There weren't any front lines," McMahon said. "The guy behind you could put a bullet in you."
McMahon said he saw horrific things while in Vietnam. The exhibit refers to mutilated ears and bamboo sticks used as torture devices. He wasn't physically injured, but stress took a heavy toll.
McMahon started drinking heavily to kill flashbacks and drown out nightmares when he returned from the war. His drinking interfered with his military career, and the Army gave him an honorable discharge in 1972.
"The biggest issue besides drinking is flashbacks," McMahon said. "Initially, drinking helps you get rid of them. But then it turns on you."
Foley said untreated combat stress can lead to divorce, crime and reckless driving, a subject that is featured in the exhibit. The nation's jails are filled with veterans whose bad choices could have been averted with proper treatment, Foley said. VA programs help address the root causes of specific issues, he said.
McMahon credited Father Peter Young of Albany, the VA and Alcoholics Anonymous for his recovery. He went on to work as a substance abuse counselor at the VA from 1993 to 2006.
He heard many stories like his own. But standing in a bright-green sweatshirt in front of old pictures of himself, McMahon said Wednesday that he's thankful for all he went through.
"God protects fools and Irishmen," he said, shaking his head.