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Lance Johnson - U.S. Army

In 1989, I was at home babysitting Marsh when the big San Francisco earthquake struck.  Even in Marin County, I felt the strong tremors, so I snapped on the television to see what happened in the city.  News cameras showed panicked people scream and run for cover.  Rescue personnel loaded crushed and broken victims into waiting ambulances, firefighters battled block-wide blazes, and over it all, groomed and manicured announcers, hungry for more drama, warned of aftershocks. 

I sat on my couch, a cup of coffee in my hand watching those scenes of fire and destruction, and something happened inside me.  Someone tripped a switch in my head, and instantly, I was back in Vietnam.  In my mind, the concept of time suddenly meant nothing, and I traveled a wormhole in space from San Francisco to twenty years earlier in Southeast Asia.  Panic.  I didn’t know what to do.  Far more than a simple hallucination, I felt trapped between two realities, two dimensions and unsure which would win the tug of war for my consciousness.

  • Now, Lance experiences the most frightening of all PTSD symptoms – dissociative flashback. 

Physically paralyzed and helpless, I fly down the rabbit hole and stand in the dim light, the bag of money under my arm, while Mamasan forces a cup of tea into my hand.  Behind me, arms around each other’s shoulders, staring, grinning and bowing, Papasan and my translator block the only exit.  I hand Mamasan an envelope stuffed with bills.  Her eyes widen, she puts her face close to mine, looks deep into my eyes and smiles, her betel nut-stained teeth the color of old blood.  Then, grinning like fools, the three gather around me and point to the crumpled body in the corner of the hut.  What the hell do they want?  I know their child is dead.  I killed him, for Christ’s sake!  They aren’t telling me anything new.  I reach into my pocket and take out the script the army provided for me:  The American government and the government of the Republic of Vietnam deeply regret… 

Now, they laugh at me.  I don’t believe it.  What do those people think is so funny?  I try to read my canned speech, but consumed with laughter, they don’t listen to a word I say.  Mamasan laughs so hard, she doesn’t even bother to cover her mouth, a serious breech of etiquette for a Vietnamese woman.  Behind his mirrored glasses, tears run down the translator’s cheeks.  I’m suddenly furious.  I stop reading and shout, “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?  WHAT’S SO DAMMNED FUNNY?  I KILLED YOUR KID!  I’M A MURDERER, AND YOU’RE LAUGHING ABOUT IT! 

At the mention of their child, Mamasan and Papasan explode in a new fit of laughter, point to the body, bow and nod and indicate they want me to view the corpse.  Soon, the translator joins in, using both hands for emphasis.  Mamasan thinks this hysterical, clutches her ribs and horselaughs. 

No, I don’t want to do it!  I don’t want to look at your dead child!  The three move in, seize my elbows and march me across the room.  Reluctantly, I look down at the corpse, a boy in peasant garb.  A conical straw hat covers his face.  The translator bends over, slaps both knees and chokes on his own expressions of glee.  I look again at the body.  Papasan reaches down and removes the straw hat, and I see the pale, dead face of my son, Marsh, staring up at me, his cold, cadaverous blue eyes open wide, like staring through a hole in the clouds.  Sudden silence in the hut.  Grim-faced now, the three Vietnamese glare at me.  Mamasan’s lip curls in a hateful sneer.  I hear the scratch clucking of chickens just outside the hut, and I run.  I run as fast as I can, but the man and woman chase me.  I am much bigger and run much faster but can’t gain any ground.  I run until I think my heart will burst. 

Then nothing.


1. Ordinary
2. Dating the class secretary
3. Artillery training
4. Special Forces Camp
5. Firing at anything that moved
6. You're not going ot believe this
7. Asked to accomplish the impossible
8. Welcomed by war protesters
9. Anger
10. Like a trapped schoolboy
11. Dissociative flashback
12. Still in love