Christal Presley is the founder of the United Children of Veterans. She has a PhD from Capella University, and works for the Atlanta Public Schools as an instructional mentor teacher. Thirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD (HCI, 264 pp., $14.95, paper) is her first book.
It includes a powerful introduction by the psychotherapist Edward Tick, the author of War and the Soul, and a blurb from the poet Nikki Giovanni, which communicates the thrust of this fine book perfectly. “An incredible memoir [it] is an important part of the still unhealed wounds of war. Christal has given much of her heart to this story as her father gave to his country.”
When Christal Presley’s father (Delmer Presley) was eighteen, he was drafted into the Army. He went on to serve in Vietnam in the Americal Division with the 1st Battalion, 6h Infantry, and was present when the bodies were dug up at My Lai. Delmer Presley carried a PRC-25 radio.
He returned home from the war with PTSD, and while the author was a child, her father spent much of his time locked in his room with his guitar as his companion. Christal Presley grew up “walking on eggshells,” she says, frightened of her father’s rage and depression. Periodically he would grab his rifle and tell his wife and only child that he couldn’t take it anymore and was going to go to a nearby river to kill himself.
Thirty Days is based on conversations the author had with her father over a thirty-day period, along with the childhood memories that those conversations provoked. Christal Presley called her father once a day for thirty days as an exercise in healing her emotional issues caused by growing up in a family with a wounded Vietnam veteran for a father. Her father accepted the telephone conversation project and agreed to answer his daughter’s questions honestly, telling what he actually did in Vietnam.
This opened a Pandora’s Box, and Christal Presley had to deal with what flew out–what she calls the “war he had brought home with him from Vietnam.”
These conversations dredge up memories of the war and also memories of his return. The topics of the father-daughter, far-ranging conversations included: punji stakes, My Lai, Agent Orange, VC tunnels and tunnel rats, firebases, a nurse being killed in her hospital, and Puff the Magic Dragon, the function of which gets somewhat garbled in the retelling.
The coming-home memories are dominated by Delmer Presley’s recounting of his airport greeting by anti-war protestors, where “people were lined up in the hundreds, holding signs that read “Baby Killers,” spitting all over the boys still in their uniforms.” The “Baby Killer” reference comes up again in the book, near the end, so the reader knows that it was an important memory for Delmer. His memory of this spitting also is a powerful one. I would love to see the news footage of such an event. Where has that footage gone?
The bulk of the book consists of the conversations, but at the very end Christal Presley goes the extra mile—actually much further than that—as she travels to Vietnam and stands on the ground that where her father had fought on decades before—Marble Mountain near Danang. She also visited treatment centers for disabled children and Agent Orange victims.
Delmer Presley is a survivor of shingles and Agent Orange-caused tumors on his lung and his guitar playing fingers, but he lets nothing stop him. He is a talented singer/songwriter/guitarist, who is in great demand to perform at funerals and other services, much of it related to the Vietnam War, and he proudly wears a hat, which proclaims: “I am a Vietnam veteran.” Christal also wears a hat that announces she is the daughter of a Vietnam vet.
The Presleys are a family of survivors. Christal Presley was happiest as a child when she was with her dogs. She admits that that is still true for her, and that “playing with Arthur and Duma” is one of her main pleasures.
I recommend this powerful book to anyone who wants to better understand the personal aspects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The author’s website is http://www.christalpresley.com