In honor of Veteran’s Day, Bucket List Community Cafe asked Crystal Vigil of Denver to answer our 5 Questions. She told us about her father, Billy Vigil, and how the PTSD he brought home from fighting in Vietnam affected him and his family.
Crystal, Your dad, Billy Vigil, fought in the Vietnam War. Did he ever speak to you about his experience there and what did he tell you?
My dad was very private about his experience in the Vietnam War. I knew it was very traumatic. He was a very charismatic man with a wonderful sense of humor. Any time he mentioned serving in Vietnam it was masked in humor. An example of this is when I made a comment about him not being afraid to eat anything while he was enjoying food that was practically burnt. He mimicked a sort of British accent and replied. “This is a gourmet meal young lady, you should have seen what we had to dig up in the jungles of Vietnam.” He was full of whimsical voices and sound effects.
The only serious conversations were about before and after the war, never any stories about the actual time in Vietnam. He once mentioned that he was not drafted, he and his brother enlisted together but his brother had hearing loss and was not accepted. The story of his return was the only other story I heard from him directly, he told me how he and the other soldiers were headed home with relief and joy until they were greeted with protestors hurling trash and harsh words at them. As he entered the cab he told the driver he had just returned from Vietnam and the driver replied “ Who cares.” I cleaned the cab driver’s words up a little. He never really seemed proud to be a veteran until later in life when he became friends with other Vietnam Veterans and found joy socializing with them and would proudly wear his Veteran baseball cap. We did not realize the real horrors he survived until after his death when my mother received the transcripts from his therapist as proof of how severe the PTSD was. I think we were both honestly shocked.
He returned with PTSD. Can you describe what it was like when he was triggered?
While my father had severe PTSD he also suffered the effects of Agent Orange. My mother and I always knew when an episode was coming. He would break out in terrible hives, I remember him walking around the house scratching with a back scratcher, If he didn’t have it handy he would grab anything capable of scratching just to find relief. This was a time I knew he wasn’t capable of conversation, his mind was somewhere else. We would be in a period of time when I wouldn’t have my intelligent, funny, caring father. We would have a different person for some time. This person was distant, angry, and self destructive. My father was the real life Jekyll and Hyde, whatever chemical imbalances took over in his body it made him a different creature. All we could do was bide our time until this horrible potion wore off and we had the amazing Billy back. There were also flashbacks that were triggered visually, such as flashing lights and also loud banging sounds. These would usually end much quicker. Sometimes with tragic results.
How did his PTSD affect you and your family?
As a family we never knew what to expect. We just knew that vacant look in his eyes was our first sign of danger. Our family time was disrupted frequently. We could be having a wonderful family outing and he would suddenly change into Hyde. I remember he had a flashback while driving, the usual singing to oldies stopped and the car became a terror ride. He was speeding down the old 23rd Avenue bridge, my mom was screaming “BIlly Please Stop.” His eyes were blank. That moment is hard to talk about because it makes my father seem like a horrible person, but that wasn’t him. It was the PTSD taking over. We spent a lot of quality time as a family when he was feeling himself but many times I was left on my own because my mother was trying to help control his destructive behavior. I can honestly say I had a very good childhood and wonderful parents because when my father was himself I was loved and protected. Being left on my own was a protection my mother provided so I didn’t have to see most of the really awful moments. I am sure she has PTSD from those experiences. She understood what was happening. She knew her loving husband was still there. As usual I would hope by bedtime things would be back to normal. They would both be in bed reading their books. I would hear them call my name and my dad would ask me to turn off the lights and he would cuddle up to her. With that vision in my head, I would pray,“let us be normal again.
Did your dad and your family have the help you needed to deal with his PTSD?
I can say this with absolute certainty No. It was obvious to anyone who knew my father well that Agent Orange and PTSD kept him from living a normal life. The physical and mental turmoil disrupted work, activity and family life. Benefits were always denied and the true terror Agent Orange had caused was still being denied by the government. Fighting for any help had become another trigger for my father and he would crumble under the pressure.
Your dad died tragically because of his PTSD. Can you share anything about that and tell folks what you would like them to know about veterans with PTSD?
On the evening of July 2nd 1998 Billy went to sing karaoke. He was a regular at his favorite spot and was there frequently, the place was full of his friends. As I mentioned earlier certain sights and sounds can trigger a flashback. Not long after he arrived fireworks were set off in the neighborhood. His friends who witnessed the accident saw the same distant look in his eyes that we knew when an episode was coming. They told us that he ducked under the tables and started to crawl until he reached the back door. He then sprinted to a tree and quickly climbed. He fell from the tree. The fall caused a femur break as well as internal injuries. He succumbed to those injuries on the morning of the Fourth of July.
Veterans can be the toughest people we know but also the most sensitive to their surroundings. If you know a veteran, maybe family friends or neighbors,be vigilant if they seem aggravated or distant. I know my father would not ever ask anyone to stop enjoying a favorite pastime such as fireworks, but maybe if his friends were aware of his PTSD they could have intervened in some way.
Dealing with a loved one who suffers from PTSD is trauma in itself. It can cause anxiety, stress and anger. As I learned more about PTSD it helped the healing process. I realized these episodes my father went through were not something he could control. Learning this helped me let go of the anger I felt towards him and I developed empathy as I was informed of all the trauma he experienced.
Every Veteran and their families’ experience with PTSD is different. I only know ours. Some people might feel I had a terrible childhood but I didn’t. I had wonderful, loving parents who provided me with the best they could given the circumstances. I have beautiful memories of a whole man who went and fought for this country and came back divided in two. Despite the PTSD he loved God, he loved my mother, and he loved me. He had deep compassion for people. I never heard him say anything hateful about others. He would always say “We are all fighting our own demons. We are taught to have pride and respect for our veterans but I’ve never heard compassion mentioned. Compassion may be the most important perspective as we consider the trauma they may have experienced serving this country.