Iraq to Vietnam

For more than 35 years Michael Ellison stuck to himself. He did his job, moved around a lot and never spoke of his experiences in Vietnam. As a driver in the motor transport system, he was often the first one to see returning troops.

Like his father, a decorated World War II vet whose ship was torpedoed off Cuba, Ellison enlisted at 18 because it was the right thing to do. He chose the Marine Corps because of the tradition, the toughness, the pride. He never considered ducking out of service, though if the country hadn’t been involved in a war he would have gone to college.

In public, Ellison’s demeanor is pleasant, confident, at ease. He and his wife Sharon have been married for 30 years. For years Ellison has been an amateur photographer, more comfortable behind the lens of a camera than in front.

For the past couple of decades he’s worked in four locations for the Government Services Administration as a property manager. His job is to lease and maintain more than one million square feet of property. It’s a stressful job. He’s had his fair share of difficulty with supervisors. But the independence suited him.

Then, last March, he went to Washington, D.C. for a training session on customs and border protection. During the meeting, a helicopter flew overhead. It was a sound Ellison knew well.

After that everything started to unravel. He had flashbacks to Vietnam, nightmares, cognitive memory loss. He started sleeping three hours a night.

He’d had two earlier bouts with depression, the latest after 9/11. But with medication, he always managed to hold it together. This time was different.

With the Marines taking heavy losses in Falluja and the realization that Bush had no exit plan, no clear objective, insufficient troops and an irritating way of hiding the truth, Ellison could not shake the depression. Everything was beginning to feel a little too familiar.

He’d come home from work, suck down three beers before dinner and shut down for the rest of the night. He couldn’t talk to Sharon.

In the nightmares, he’d find himself in a firefight, at night, without a weapon. It was black. He was in a ditch. He could hear the rats. He was sure he’d be buried alive with the rats eating his face.

At someone’s suggestion, he started going to the VA Center on Commercial Drive. It wasn’t the first time. He’d tried earlier but never stayed. After each visit, Sharon said, “He would insist, ‘I don’t need this stuff.’”

Last October he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS). But he still wasn’t buying it.

By this time, Ellison had begged his employer for a less strenuous position or to be placed on sick leave. In 20 years he had 900 hours of sick leave built up, plus 250 hours of annual leave. They kept stalling. In January, he was placed on administrative leave.

Desperate, he e-mailed Max Cleland, who was diagnosed with PTSS three years ago. Cleland called with advice.

“I was really moved by the call, by how he reached out,” Ellison said. “But you’d have thought he’d talk about it before then, with all the action he saw, wouldn’t you?”

In July, Ellison got admitted to a seven-week program in a psychiatric hospital in Big Pine, Fla. Three weeks in, he conceded to PTSS.

“For 36 years I didn’t think I had a problem. I just thought I was an oddball. That I was unlucky, that it was always me who got the bad supervisor.”

Yet, in all that time, he never mentioned the war, wore memorabilia, marched in the annual veteran’s parade, watched films on Vietnam.

None of this bubbled up during the first Gulf War, Ellison said, “because then we were following the Powell doctrine to go in with overwhelming strength. We had an exit strategy. This time Rumsfeld sends in 150,000 troops when Tommy Franks wants 400,000.”

Unlike World War II, where there was collective action, this war -- as the one in Vietnam -- is being fought in a vacuum.

“I was doing what I thought was right but no one anywhere had any clue. The whole thing was out of control,” he said. “No one knew what we were supposed to do except suck it up like a true warrior and move on, which I’ve been doing ever since. We had no time to grieve, to process what happened. I never even talked to Sharon about it. At 18 you can’t deal with those emotions.”

It doesn’t help Ellison’s cause to drive down the street, see “Support the Troops” on bumper stickers and know no one is supporting him.

“Just because there’s no visual wound doesn’t mean I’m not wounded. But the doctors at Big Pine know. They also know we’re about five years out from a major eruption of PTSS with the returning troops,” he said. “They’re already gearing up.”

E-mail Jane at

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