Vietnam Vet Pens Book to Rewire the Post-Traumatic Stress Mentality
Article by David Heitz
There is probably just one thing that sets Vietnam veteran Terrence Heintz apart from the youngest of our service men and women – his age.
Like many members of our military returning from Afghanistan, Iraq and no doubt the war zones of the future, Heintz came back with post-traumatic stress, or PTS. And he consumed large amounts of alcohol, used drugs and floundered for a long while upon his return. Like so many people with PTS, Heintz thought the drugs and alcohol would numb the anxiety, the rage, the painful memories. Instead, alcohol in particular was like trying to put a fire out with gasoline. Then, at age 33, a severe car accident left him pretty banged up. After he and a friend had been doing shots of Chivas Regal all night, he wound up with 10 broken ribs. He had to move back in with his parents to recuperate. “Then, only through what can be described as the last in a series of miracles, the manuscript Words, commenced,” he writes in the foreword of his book. The book, Words, is subtitled: “Life Tutelage: A Secular Bible for the New Millennium.” Heintz, 69, completed it 33 years ago, but it is a fitting and helpful guide today for everyone who suffers from PTS and a substance use disorder, particularly our men and women returning home from service to country.
Book a Daily Devotional for Attaining Inner Peace
When Heintz became laid up at his parents’ house, he had lots of time on his hands. To pass it, he read the entire New Testament of the Holy Bible. “It didn’t do [anything] for me,” he said in this exclusive interview with Rehab International. Make no mistake: Heintz is a very spiritual person, and referenced God more than once in our 90-minute telephone interview. But he’s not a fan of organized religion. That’s not a terribly unusual point of view among veterans, who, after all, find themselves in the middle of violent conflicts rooted not only in politics and ideology, but ultimately, religion, too. Yet with spirituality, meditation and mindfulness – the practice of being present – comes peace, and Heintz’s book offers all those things rolled into one. Indeed, the book in many ways reads like the monthly daily devotionals that many people pick up at church, such as “Our Daily Bread” or “Christ in Our Home.” But instead of short stories followed by a Bible verse that make you reflect on how to live a life of peace, kindness and serenity, the quotes are from secular thinkers throughout history – from Homer to Plato to Shakespeare to Nathaniel Cotton to Samuel Rogers. It also includes wisdom from presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and poets such as Walt Whitman and Henry Longfellow. “I didn’t know, for 25 years, that help was available,” he said of his PTS. In fact, he didn’t even know he had PTS for several decades. In 1996, he received a 50 percent PTS disability benefit from the federal government after going to his Congressman for help. “I’m glad, in retrospect, for going through hard times, and living the blues,” he said. “If you don’t kill yourself, it makes you better.”
Heintz doesn’t mince words about how he feels about the reality that many veterans with PTS are killing themselves. Far too many. “At 22 suicides a day, something is out of whack,” he told Rehab International. “These 20-year-olds [service men and women] are treated like bags of meat. Then they come back, and our government, to save a few grand, just [doesn’t give them the mental health treatment they need].”
Rockets ‘Sounded Like a Freight Train Coming Down the Tracks’
Ask Heintz about his experience in Vietnam and he will respond the way people with PTS respond when recalling the events that left them with the diagnosis – on edge, angry and with difficulty concentrating while sharing the story. Because this writer also lives with PTS, I steered the conversation away from that pretty quickly. I understand that recounting those memories is painful. Heintz told of rocket attacks and the impact they had on his brain – not only in terms of memory and trauma, but also the concussions he endured while sleeping in bunkers as the explosions would rattle the ground. Concussions also known to worsen symptoms of PTS. “The big rockets coming over sounded like a freight train coming down the tracks,” he explained. He said not only was the American carnage difficult to see, but also “what really makes me mad” is that nobody ever talks about how “a million of [the Vietnamese] people were slaughtered.” Many soldiers and Marines come back with co-occurring conditions of PTS and “moral injury,” which is additional trauma that comes from doing things that go against their personal beliefs – such as taking a life – even if it is considered part of their military duty. “When you’re trying to get your [life] together, there is a spiritual nebulous aspect that everybody on earth is trying to work with and explain,” Heintz said. “The reality is…I plan to live to be 100,” he said, explaining he never has felt more physically and emotionally healthy in his life. “But I paid for it with 35 years of just darkness, depression and rage.” For him, substance abuse trickled to an end as he aged and became wiser about life in general. But the PTS always is there. “Even now, as good as I am, if I encounter someone on the road who let’s say has no idea what they’re doing…I just keep the windows closed and just scream and get back home and de-stress,” he explained.
Like the Quotes You Hear in 12-Step Meetings, but New
It’s difficult for Heintz to tick off which quotes are his favorites. The book contains about 700 quotes, including the following: “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” – Shakespeare
“Life is a struggle, but not a warfare.”
“To wipe off the froth of falsehood from the foaming lips of inebriated virtue, when fresh from the sexless orgies of morality and reeling from the delirious riot of religion, may doubtless be a charitable office.” – Algernon Charles Swinburne
“Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
In fact, many of the quotes may sounds as inspirational and affirming to an alcohol or a drug addict as those you hear in 12-Steps rooms. Difference being, you probably never have heard many of them before. When all is said and done, Heintz says his favorite quotes in the book are about dogs. He notes that he was born in 1946, “The Year of the Dog” in Chinese folklore. He connected with this writer when we found out we share several favorite quotes – and that I was born in 1970, also “The Year of the Dog.” Ironically, trained dogs increasingly are being prescribed for therapy and assistance to veterans with PTSD. So, which dog quote is among Heintz’s favorites? “There are times when only a dog will do for a friend…when you’re beaten sick and blue and the world’s all wrong, for he won’t care if you break and cry, or grouch and swear, for he’ll let you know as he licks your hands that he’s downright sorry…and understands.” – Don Blandings
Heintz, T. (2016). Words. Life Tutelage: A Secular Bible for the New Millennium. Eugene, Ore.: Luminare Press.
Written by David Heitz