PLACITAS — The reflection of a man can be seen in the glass of an about-50-years-old photograph of a platoon of soldiers standing in a freshly cleared field in Da Nang, Vietnam.
Placitas resident Carl Longley, 70, looks at the photo solemnly, pointing at each soldier who died, remembering how and when each one met his end.
“Out of almost 17 men in my platoon, I am one of only eight or so left,” he said.
The year was 1969 when a 19-year-old Longley volunteered to fight in Vietnam.
“I thought I could beat the draft because I could pick what I was going to do when I got over there,” he said.
Longley ended up getting orders to join the Army’s 687th Land Clearing Division, because he had a little experience handling the tractors being used after getting out of high school.
“All of us came from various backgrounds, cooks, clerks, whatever,” he said laughing. “You don’t need much skill to push down a tree.”
His theory for the formation of the land-clearing company he was assigned to is that it was the government’s alternative to using the dangerous defoliant Agent Orange, he said.
The convoy Longley was in consisted of several brush-clearing tractors, or “dozers,” protected by someone at the front or back of the line with a machine gun.
Depending on his company’s orders, many times his platoon would meet other branches of service for cover during their clearing assignments.
Recollection of combat
Longley spent a few minutes looking around the house for his sunglasses before sharing a word of his first traumatic experience in the field.
“It was our first move out from a base camp when I remember being caught in our first firefight,” Longley said.
“We were in convoy…We were moving 10 out of 30 tractors at a time through this mountainous pass,” he said. “We got hit in this narrow pass. Fortunately for me, I was in the middle of the convoy and the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) hit the end of the convoy.”
Longley said the road was too narrow to turn around, so they had to push forward.
“At the end of the convoy, we had a kid on a Jeep who was on a 60-caliber machine gun and he took a round to the jaw,” he said while trying to hold back the tears.
Longley said they found a little clearing down the hill where he and his platoon restaged when his lieutenant asked him and two other men to go and fight to get their equipment back.
Soon, two Huey helicopters had been called in and a spotter plane laid down fire in the area the NVA was attacking from, he said.
“I got back up there and I saw this kid who got shot in the face and amazingly he survived,” Longley said after a long pause to gain his composure. “I don’t know how, but he did survive.”
It wasn’t until 2005 that Longley said he began to really think about the possibility that he might have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I was talking to a group of my buddies at a reunion, and they kept asking me if I had received any treatment or compensation from the government for PTSD,” he said. “I told them I was doing alright, that somebody else needed that money more than me.”
Longley at this point in his life had a successful business and focused most of his attention on keeping it running.
“But I looked back at myself and realized how quickly I was given to bouts of rage, and for a time, I was drinking and smoking pretty heavily,” he said.
Never a religious person, Longley said until recently, he prayed only three times in his life.
“I prayed twice in Vietnam and once when I heard my parents fighting as a 9-year-old child,” he said. “But if it wasn’t for family support and prayer, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Longley said reuniting with fellow Vietnam veterans has helped him tremendously.
“I have come to terms with my trauma,” he said. “When I get together with my buddies once a year, we can share our pain and experiences and understand each other on a different level.”
To date, there is no cure for PTSD. Although many treatments exist, many people have unseen scars.