Horrors of War
Horrors of War
What It's Like to Go to War: Horrors of War
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February 22nd, 2015
Lieutenant Alfred Serrato talks about his training and preparation for combat, discusses landing in a combat zone and seeing what war does to a soldier mentally and the physical injuries the men from his unit endured as well as how the experience affected his adjustment to civilian life dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Recorded for California Reads: War Comes Home, a program of Cal Humanities in partnership with the California Center for the Book.
My name's Al Serrato. I served in the U.S. Army, starting as a Private E-1 and went through also candidate school where I graduated as a Second Lieutenant, commissioned officer, infantry. From there I went to Panama Canal for specialized jungle warfare training then when I got into Vietnam, I led ambushes with the 25th infantry division... in Cu Chi. I did that for about six months and then thereafter I volunteered as an I-Corps advisor, a mac v advisor in I-Corps leading popular forces, which is like Vietnamese National Guard, in ambushes. DO YOU FEEL THE MILITARY PROPERLY PREPARED YOU FOR COMBAT? In my own opinion, I would say yes because coming from a civilian background where there was really nothing special, I was a low key student and then suddenly thrown into a war theater where there was a lot of bloodshed, you might ask yourself, How can you really be prepared? But I turned from a fairly mild mannered person into a real gung ho person and then I was sent to Panama Canal Jungle Warfare Training where I got this particular badge here, Jungle Warfare Expert. So I was trained to survive and to lead others into combat. Of course, the big issue is, though you may be adequately trained, you're not necessarily emotionally trained for the horror of war. WHAT WAS COMBAT LIKE? My first time in combat was similar to Apocalypse Now. As soon as the helicopter dropped me off, the area - the landing zone - had been heavily hit by the enemy and you saw a lot of burned brush. It looked like a forest fire. It was actually that they were taking a lot of morter rounds which turned all the brush on fire. So as I'm walking up the hill, which is looking like hell on earth, all the smoke rising, etcetera, etcetera, the first thing I saw was a young soldier, 19 or 20 years old in kind of a hypnotic state sharpening butcher knives. He had about six or seven butcher knives and I asked him what he was doing. He said, I'm getting ready for the next ambush. And I said, Why are you using butcher knives? Butcher knives is not something I was trained to fight with. He says, Oh, take a look at my necklace. So he showed me a necklace he made of Viet Cong ears and that's when I had my first taste of the horror of war. For people to descend spiritually, mentally, emotionally; where taking someone's ears, someone that you killed, it's not a big deal for them. So they have so desensitized their emotions that this is to them normal. For me, it was not normal. TELL US ABOUT YOUR NON-COMBAT DUTIES Part of my going out in the field as a combat infantry officer, I was executive officer for my unit, and part of my duties were to visit the wounded. So a dust off had just occurred and wounded were being brought into the infirmary which was a really large tent that had maybe twenty, thirty patients. And I was walking around looking for the people that were in our platoons so I could ask them if they might need assistance in my contacting their family, sending them letters, etcetera, etcetera. And so finally it got to the very end where one of the soldiers was from my unit and I looked at him laying in bed and his - the bed - was all sopped in blood and he'd lost two arms and a leg. And so it was - what do you tell somebody like that? You know, How are you doing? seems too inadequate, you know. So I said, Hello. He says, Hello, sir. Thank you for visiting me. And I said, Can you excuse me for one moment? So I ran outside and threw up and I didn't go back. So the next day, in the evening, I went to go visit him and walked up to the end and I talked to him for maybe a few more seconds, recognizing that with two arms and a leg missing, he'll never be the person that he was before. I felt so bad for him, his life, his future. And so I said, Can you excuse me for a moment? I ran outside and I threw up again. It wasn't until the third time, on three nights in a row, that I was finally able to go in there and do what I was supposed to do and that was ask him whatever assistance I could provide, contact his family, write letters on his behalf; which I did. But who can ever be prepared to see that type of injury to another human being, to your body, done by the acts of war? There's no training that will prepare you for it. HOW DID YOU ADJUST TO LIFE AFTER YOU CAME HOME? When I adjusted to life, as I was processing myself to adjusting towards life, the first place that I turned myself in to was the V.A. because at the end of eleven months of constant combat environments where I was no longer the person I was before, I changed from naive well-meaning good hearted person into a very tough desensitized person, which I needed to become in order to protect myself emotionally as well as to continue to lead people in combat. I went to the V.A. and I was in horrible shape and the V.A. responded with, Get over it. Everybody goes through this. There's nothing wrong with you. And so I left the V.A. absolutely outraged. I needed help, I needed assistance, medication, something because I just didn't feel well and this is how they treated a returning veteran, was just kicked to the curb. And shortly thereafter, I found myself in the hospital for three days because of the severity of the emotional trauma that I had experienced and the doctors said, we can't find anything wrong with you but we know there's something wrong with you. And this is before post-traumatic stress disorder became a coinage, you know, that people would use for people that had been traumatized by combat. Shortly after that, for approximately six months, I wasn't able to work. I was suffering from chronic fatigue. I'd get up in the morning tired. I'd go to bed tired, sleepy. I had no motivation to do anything except just lay in bed and just try to rest and recuperate and I felt lousy because I felt that I should be earning a living. I should be bringing home the bacon, taking care of my family and I couldn't do any of that. So it took me a couple of years until I was able to work myself out from that kind of a situation. I withdrew, I had almost no friends, I just pretty much stayed in my own house; which are the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder where you withdraw from a society that doesn't understand you anymore and you don't want to be with other soldier types because you don't want to be reminded of the episodes of chaos and trauma that you suffered.
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1960s to 1975
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Original file was named Horrors of War Alfred Serrato.m4v, which was renamed as corcl_000033_prsv.m4v. Original has a bitrate within the current limits of CAVPP's specs for access, so prsv file was copied for access state and named corcl_000033_access.HD.m4v.