Steamboat veteran travels back to Vietnam to apologize
July 10, 2011
If you go
Out of the Shadows, a support group for veterans, meets at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays at the United Methodist Church of Steamboat Springs, 736 Oak St.
Steamboat Springs — Bob Mullen was lying on a street in Da Nang, Vietnam, last month, in pain and bleeding from his leg, elbow and nose. The Steamboat Springs resident had crashed his rented motorcycle and flung himself into a line of flowerpots in the bustling city.
Around him, a crowd of Vietnamese people gathered, concerned, and helped clean him up with whatever they had as they waited for an ambulance.
To Mullen, it was an overwhelming scene because 40 years ago those same people could have been the enemy he fought as a Marine Corps platoon commander in the Vietnam War.
"You can't fake caring in your eyes when your eyes are tearing up and these young girls were crying," Mullen said Saturday morning in his Steamboat home, remembering the incident. "I couldn't believe it. I was almost moved to tears. I didn't know how to act. I didn't know what to say. These were people that could have been our enemy."
Mullen served 13 straight months in the bush as a platoon commander, and since his return to the United States in 1968, he has suffered from varying degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychological affliction affecting many soldiers returning from combat.
But 40 years later, he's still finding ways to heal himself and other local veterans.
About six month ago, he founded Out of the Shadows, a weekly support group for veterans that he runs with therapist Sandy Papp. The group meets at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays at the United Methodist Church of Steamboat Springs.
But Mullen still is working through his own demons, and even after 40 years, he's seeing breakthroughs.
During his recent trip with Vietnam Battlefield Tours, he went back to the country in which he once fought and took it upon himself to offer an apology to the people of Vietnam for the actions of the U.S. government during the war.
And what he saw on the trip moved him.
"This country has, without our help, grown from war devastated, with thousands and thousands of tons of unexploded ordinances all over northern and southern parts, they've cleared it all," he said. "It's grown from 33 million people to 88 million, and it's the second leading rice exporter. The people are unbelievable. They are extraordinary."
He apologized to a high-ranking Buddhist monk about the war, and the monk smiled and told him the apology wasn't necessary.
But his travels weren't just about reassurance that the people of Vietnam had moved on. It was about facing his personal struggle with the nightmare of war that has haunted him for decades in his inability to trust those close to him.
"I had no clue," Mullen said about his decision to enlist. "I thought you could get killed or wounded. I didn't know they could steal your soul."
His wife, Marilyn, had known Mullen when they were young, but when she married him 25 years after the war, she said she had no idea what she was getting into.
"It's a terrible thing to address," she said about her husband's PTSD. "You come home, and you don't look wounded, and people expect you to buck up. Forty years later, Bob is still dealing with that, but he's still working to find what normal is for the person he's become after all these years."
As for the trip, she said it was a positive experience for her husband.
"I think it was healing. I think the camaraderie he found was just such a gift," she said.
And experts in the mental health field agreed.
Jane Bingham, a U.S. Navy veteran, therapist with Colorado West Regional Mental Health and a contractor for the Department of Defense who specializes in veterans, said Mullen's approach to working through his PTSD by traveling to Vietnam is an incredible undertaking.
"I think that's a wonderful way to deal with it," she said. "So many of them — all of our warriors — need this forgiveness piece," she said. "It takes sometimes longer than we would wish to find ways to help heal ourselves. Just because it's taken 40 years, it doesn't mean he can't be healed."
Today, Mullen's upstairs study is piled with books. The shelves are filled with titles explaining the war, the events that led up to U.S. involvement and the reasons why it never should have happened.
On the coffee tables are piled even more books about PTSD.
He hopes his research and his findings about healing from PTSD can help other veterans, many of whom have had a hard time accepting once they returned that they were psychologically wounded.
"I saw Charlie. And when I came back, I was so macho, you don't say there's something wrong with you," he said.
But he hopes that won't happen to the younger generation of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, two of whom already have joined his support group in search of healing.
"I call it the doorway," he said. "If you're in the doorway, you've changed. You can't kill somebody — you can't kill someone you see in combat — you can't be in that doorway and not change.
"But you can learn to operate in society, you can learn to be a useful valuable person, and you can help."
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