Vietnam vet shares his dark history, one peck at a time

By Donald Bradley
The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — At the very worst of times, John W. Nash came clean.

“If I tell you what I did over there, you won’t love me anymore,” he told his wife.

He was a big, tough Marine, and he cried that day. Since coming home from Vietnam five years earlier or so, his life had sunk to a blur of drinking, drugs, lashing out, and bad dreams.

Dinah had been his high school sweetheart. She needed to know about the children. How they came into the Marine compound for food and to play one day, but later that night set booby traps and opened fire on the Americans.

What happened after that is what kept coming to him in dreams. Later, as his own children grew, they would become the youngsters past the smoke in his nightly horror.

Nash, a 1966 graduate of Raymore-Peculiar High School, finally sought help. This was long before “post-traumatic stress disorder” made its way onto a page in Webster’s Dictionary.

“I can’t make the dreams stop,” a counselor told him. “But it might help to write things down.”

From that point on, spiral notebooks with scribbled pages lay scattered about the family’s Raymore home. But some things got left out. He feared returning to the darkest memories.

But fate eventually gave him no where else to go.

For the past two years, Nash, paralyzed by two strokes, sat in a wheelchair and wrote his book on a computer with the use of only the pointer finger on his left hand.

One peck at a time.

John Nash, 63, sits near the fireplace in the living room, a plaid blanket across his lap and flannel-lined slippers snuggled on his feet.

Not exactly the image of the hell-raiser who came back from Vietnam cocksure that he couldn’t party too much or drive too fast.

But this recent day, he smiles big. Not because his book, “Whispers of Death — The Nightmare That Lasted a Lifetime,” is going to be a best-seller or made into a Spielberg movie. It’s self-published.

But the story is finally out of him. A cathartic liberation. For that, he thanks Dinah, who sits nearby on a couch.

She kept all his letters he wrote her from Vietnam. Photos, too, and letters to his mother.

Everything dated. When John decided to write a book instead of just writing things down, they took the whole bunch and established a chronology of his year “in country” in parts of 1968 and 1969.

“Essentially, we had a diary for John to tell his story,” Dinah said.

The two have been together since they were teens, or as she puts it, “Pretty much as long as we could stand each other.”

Married 41 years, they have four children and eight grandchildren, two more on the way.

Dinah shakes her head when remembering the bad years. The yelling, cussing, and fighting. Awakening in the middle of the night to find John sitting on the floor, smoking a cigarette, photos scattered about, despair on his face, and anger in his voice.

They separated three times.

“He would coach youth sports, but he couldn’t get close to our own kids,” Dinah said.

“They’re all proud of him now. But for years, it was shameful what went on.”

She pushed him to get help, something war veterans didn’t do back then.

“People would say to get over it, to move on. Nobody knew about PTSD, and John couldn’t just get over it,” she said.

He and his fellow Marines shot back at those Vietnamese children that night, killing some.

“It’s just a horrible part of John’s story,” Dinah said. “That’s why he came back the way he did. How do you get over that?”

She desperately hoped the counselor’s advice to “write things down” would make things better, but there were plenty of rough years to come. John, who worked mostly in sales, continued to struggle with substance abuse and nightmares.

Then, in August 1999, a stroke paralyzed his left side. Three months later, a second stroke did the same to his right side. He struggles now to speak and swallow.

But over time, he got used to his physical disability. His mind, though, kept returning to the past as before.

That’s when he, with Dinah’s urging, decided to write a book. But with only one working finger, writing a single page took forever. How was he to ever write a whole book? He also had to deal with dyslexia.

At one point, they tried voice-to-text software.

“But he can’t speak well enough for the machine to understand him,” Dinah said.

So John kept at it, every day wheeling himself down a hall and into a study to his computer. Six or seven hours.

Peck.peck.peck.

In 1968, with America deep into its countercultural revolution, John Nash dropped out of college.

“The administration and I could never agree on a schedule we could both live with,” he writes early in his book.

He promptly got drafted. But prior to boarding a bus for Fort Leonard Wood from Kansas City’s Union Station, a Marine sergeant came into the room and asked if any of the soon-to-be soldiers would please consider the Marine Corps. Seemed he had a quota, and if he got one more that day, he could go home.

Nash raised his hand. He figured either way he was headed to Vietnam, a prospect he discovered he did not dread.

His dad, who ran a butcher shop at 95th and Elmwood, had fought and was wounded in World War II. His girlfriend, Dinah, came from a military family, too. Her dad was career Air Force, and her uncle was found at the tail end of World War II walking down a road in Germany in just his underwear.

So instead of south Missouri, Nash headed to San Diego for boot camp, then to a Marine base south of Da Nang.

By then, he and three buddies had formed a close alliance. They had hoped to spend their tour together, but were split into different units.

Nash writes that one of his first missions was a patrol to look for a four-man listening post that hadn’t returned or answered the radio the next morning, They found the missing,

with throats slit and bodies hoisted into a tree and, as a message to those who found them, their private parts stuffed into their mouths.

Nash, a kid from Cass County, knew soldiers killed each other in war, but this…

“I was having a hard time believing someone could do this to another human being,” he wrote in his book.

Nash said he quickly grew adept at taking “point” for his squad. But on one patrol, when he didn’t take the lead, an explosion sent him running to the front, where he found a buddy ripped apart by a “bouncing betty” mine.

“I stood there and watched, there was nothing I could do, just look into his eyes as he died,” Nash said.

He writes of a day when Americans discovered a village sympathetic to the Viet Cong. A commander ordered tanks to destroy it. After the shelling, he picked up what appeared on the ground to be some kind of carving. But he realized he held the front portion of a baby’s skull.

“I turned sick to my stomach and wanted to throw down my weapon and go home,” he wrote. “I felt like that ‘baby killer’ they were calling us back home. I hadn’t shot a round, but I would live with those memories forever.”

Nash, who spent his 21st birthday in a foxhole, received promotions to sergeant and the Bronze Star during his yearlong tour.

Nine months into it, his commanders asked if he wanted to go home to attend officer candidate school.

As much as he wanted out of the bush, he declined.

“I didn’t see an end to the war, none of us did,” Nash said. “So I figured if I became an officer, I would be right back here, and I didn’t want to do that.”

Dinah said she knew exactly why the Marine Corps wanted to make him an officer.
“His men would follow him anywhere,” she said.

As for those three close friends, Nash’s chapters explain what happened to them. Chapter IV is called: “Then There Were Three.” Chapter VIII: “And Then There Were Two.”

Lastly, Chapter X: “Now, I’m Alone.”

Jenny King never knew what happened to her father in Vietnam until recently, when she read a rough draft of his book.

“This was my dad,” she said one recent day with a hand over her mouth. “And to know what he went through over there.

“We always wondered what was in those spiral notebooks, but he never talked about any of it.”

Her father watched her cry from his wheelchair. If eyes could hug. The strokes took so much from him, but not his regrets.

He wants the book to heal his family.

As Dinah says, “We needed this. That’s why I wouldn’t let him quit.”

An English major in college, she helped with the editing and writes in the introduction, “This is his story. It’s funny and it’s tragic and it’s his. He will always be my hero.”

As for John, he says that even though he was proud and honored to be a Marine, “I was scared to death from the first day until I was discharged and beyond.

“This is not a heroic story, it’s just mine.”

One peck at a time. (end)

For more information from The Kansas City Star, visit www.kcstar.com.

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