The resigned stare on the face that fills the back cover of The Other Side of Me: Memoirs of a Vietnam Marine (CreateSpace, 169 pp., $12.25, paper) pretty much tells the book’s entire story. The stare belonged to ammunition technician D.L. “Tex” Swafford, who served three tours in Vietnam, from 1966-70, and who died last year. Swafford called the book “my story in random narrative and prose, essays, awkward and sometimes dark poetry, thoughts and words of a man with a broken mind.”
The long duration and intensity of Swafford’s combat experience affected him to an extraordinary degree. Consequently, his post-war behavior went the way it did for many of those with PTSD: Swafford surrendered to “the potent power of alcohol” and drugs.
His book overflows with anxiety, tension, regret, guilt for surviving, shame for what he “had or had not done in the war,” and rage “unlike anything [he] had ever experienced.” His emotions form foundations for vignettes of a strained relationship with his father, a repugnant aftermath to a friend’s combat death, a trip to a “Jesus Saves” rescue shelter, and a love affair that he destroyed, along with other disillusioning events.
Perhaps to counterbalance his feelings, Swafford included a story by his brother Jim Bob describing their father’s dedication to family and work. Swafford also wrote poems and tributes of love and appreciation for his mother.
But Swafford’s poems mostly are cynical and sorrowful, with titles such as “Old Desperados,” “The House of Broken Minds,” and “Knuckles and Skulls.” He distinctly captureed the moods of outcasts and wastrels in “The Devil’s Carousel.”
Eight years of correspondence with a psychiatrist provided partial relief for Swafford’s delusions, flashbacks, and nightmares. The book includes samples of his letters to Dr. Carol at The Happiness Hotel, her safe haven construct for PTSD patients.
Swafford offers definitive insights to war and to what follows. As I see it, the conclusion that most concisely describes his mental condition applies to all young man who experienced combat that induced PTSD. Speaking from within a barricade of loneliness, he wrote:
“Madness is when the weight of the world is on your shoulders and your only escape is not to care; not to give a fuck. I could say this again and again, but at war there is no other choice but to stomach the inevitable. And the terrible reality of the whole thing is that deep down you do care.”
Donald Laverne Swafford died at age 69 in 2014. More of his Vietnam War writings and photographs are available at the Texas Tech University Visual Vietnam Archive Center.