Editor’s note: This article contains graphic descriptions of war.
By the time Richard Thomas reached the peak of adulthood, he had seen the unimaginable and come so close to death that he had accepted his own mortality. Experiences like these frequently inhabit the minds of the 30 percent of veterans that the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Thomas is a Vietnam veteran and former Colorado State University Professor of Military Science who was diagnosed with PTSD in early 2015. PTSD is a mental health condition that causes someone to experience negative feelings when confronted with a reminder of a traumatic event they previously experienced, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Thomas shares his story in hopes that other veterans or people who may be suffering from PTSD will find comfort in knowing they are not alone and to encourage those people to seek help.
Richard Thomas during the Vietnam War. (Photo courtesy of Richard Thomas)
Thomas began his career in the military during the early stages of the Vietnam War. He was a recent graduate of West Point when he began his first tour with Special Forces in Laos in 1961.
When Thomas returned home from Laos, he completed some state assignments, but it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened.
“I eventually went on to Vietnam,” Thomas said. “I didn’t want to go to Vietnam, but I had to. … In Vietnam, I was sometimes a Battalion Executive Officer, sometimes I was an Operation Officer and sometimes a Battalion Commander. It just depended on the situation.”
It was in Vietnam that Thomas experienced the events that cause his PTSD. Thomas said one of these events happened on a day when his crew came across 40 bodies.
“It was a North Vietnamese unit that was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Thomas said. “They must have just walked under what you call a variable time fuse artillery barrage where all the shrapnel comes down from up above when the artillery explodes in the air. It just must have killed them all. I radioed in what we had found. We counted the bodies.”
Thomas said another event occurred when he was driving his Jeep and heard what sounded like a short firefight. Everyone was radioing in to see what had happened, and Thomas decided to go find out. Thomas said he came upon a pile of dead bodies in the back of a truck.
“I climbed up in there, and there was a Vietnamese guy, eyes wide open, smiling at me,” Thomas said. “I stepped over the bodies to get him, and I saw the top of his head had been cut off clean as a whistle. … It was as if you had cut a watermelon. Just off. There was his skull. His brain was red but not bleeding, just there, red. … I don’t know how that happened.”
Thomas recalls his worst experience in which he witnessed civilians being tortured by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam in an essay he wrote for one of his therapy sessions titled “My Vietnam War Experience.”
Thomas came to Colorado in 1976 where he was assigned to be a Professor of Military Science with the Army ROTC at Colorado State University. That was his occupation until he and his wife decided to retire in Fort Collins.
Although the events that cause his PTSD occurred long before, Thomas said he did not begin to experience the symptoms until his retirement. His main symptom is the feeling of heightened emotions.
“I’m pretty typical, I am told, of the Vietnam-era people,” Thomas said. “You deny it, and your mind is occupied with things until you retire. After you retire, then it all starts coming back to you, and you can only deny it for so long. I decided that I needed to go get some help, and I went to the VA, and a psychiatrist helped me understand what was going on.”
Thomas does not believe his PTSD will ever be cured, but he said working through it with a therapist has helped.
“For about a year, I went once a week for about an hour,” Thomas said. “We had a workbook with assignments that would help you think through your mental problems and why you thought you had them. It might help deal with anger, or blame or guilt.”
His wife, Fini Thomas, said providing support for a loved one coping with PTSD is essential to their healing process.
“As a family member, I don’t know if I helped, but I was always there,” his wife said. “He could always talk to me. I told him everything was fine. Whatever or however he wanted to deal with his problem, we would do it together. … We have three sons who have all been in the military, and they’ve been extremely helpful and loving, so there was a lot of family support.”
Richard and Fini Thomas. Photo credit: Randi Mattox
Thomas said his family’s support was immensely helpful.
“It’s kind of awkward to be that way in front of your sons, but that’s how it happens,” Thomas said. “Can you imagine how it would be if someone said, ‘What are you doing? Knock that off. Get yourself straightened out.’ That would be really hard to deal with.”
Since he has reached out for help, Thomas said the most helpful thing has been acquiring an understanding of what PTSD is and how it manifests itself.
“It’s just helped me understand what was happening to me,” Thomas said. “I just couldn’t understand why I would lose it, and now I know.”
CSU student Morgan Sneed can attest to the power of therapy as well. Sneed is a psychology major that served as a Staff Sergeant and Combat Cameraman in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Sneed also suffers from PTSD but has been working through it with the assistance of a therapist for over five years.
“The things that affected me six months ago, or a year ago or even longer, don’t anymore,” Sneed said. “They’re still there, but it’s different today because of all the tools that I’ve learned through treatment. With mental health services, you can learn, ‘Oh, this is what that is,’ and you can dismiss it, and move on.”
Sneed said the most apparent problem with veterans is they do not want to admit they need help.
“We are not a forthcoming people,” Sneed said. “A lot of these things are always going to be unspoken because veterans specifically don’t want to talk about their problems. You have the military culture, and then you have the patriarchal bullshit growing up of what it means to be a man. The same holds true for women too, and maybe even more so because they are already looked at as weaker and inferior by society.”
Thomas said asking for help it is the best way to cope with the symptoms of PTSD.
“It’s certainly not going to get worse, and it very well may get better if you understand what it’s all about and why you have these symptoms,” Thomas said. “I guess you could reach out to alcohol. You could reach out for drugs. But, it’s better to reach out to a VA counselor. … These people are very understanding. Very committed. I have absolutely nothing but the highest praise for these people.”
While it may be difficult to take that first step and make an appoint, Sneed said it is necessary if you want to learn about managing your symptoms.
“However you have to go about it, just do it,” Sneed said. “If you have to call the Adult Learner and Veteran Services office and ask for me, I’ll call and make you an appointment. Whatever it takes. People are worth it.”
Though getting medical assistance is crucial for people with PTSD, Thomas said ending wars would eliminate the problem entirely.
“Let’s knock off all these wars,” Thomas said. “…That’s up to our politicians, but I hope we can have less warfare and fewer veterans.”
Thomas recommends the Larimer County Veterans Services as the first stop for veterans seeking help. It is located at 200 West Oak St. on the fifth floor.
For CSU students, the best recourse on campus is the Adult Learner and Veteran Services office located in Room 195 of the Lory Student Center.