Last spring Bill Strusinski published a memoir about his tour in Vietnam.
Strusinski was a medic with A Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry regiment, 1st Infantry Division. He served in Vietnam from August 1967 to August 1968, and has probably seen as much combat as any living American veteran.
His book is pointed and approachable. He talks openly and genuinely about the vile nature of what he saw and did in Vietnam, and about the posttraumatic stress disorder that followed him home.
This summer The National Indie Excellence Awards recognized “Care Under Fire” as the Best Military nonfiction Book of the year in its 15th annual contest. In typical veteran fashion, Strusinski deflects praise onto Vietnam vets as a whole.
“It’s all of our awards, the people who suffer from PTSD. That award belongs to all of them as well,” he said. “And I’m glad I could be a spokesman at least for that little faction of military people.”
Strusinski’s book comes at a time when PTSD is more visible than ever before. When he came home from Vietnam, just like when the generation before came home from WWII, there was no outlet to cope with trauma.
“A lot of Vietnam veterans came back from Vietnam, were treated poorly by society, clammed up and didn’t talk about it,” he said. “They got jobs, raised families, spent their whole lives doing all of that stuff. Now they’re retired and they’re sitting at home thinking about their experience. They haven’t processed it for all these years, and now it comes to the forefront of their thoughts.”
Today, with a greater understanding of PTSD, Strusinski’s book can be a tool for other veterans, Vietnam or not, to begin the healing process.
“PTSD is now on the minds of a lot of people,” he said. “If you’ve been through combat and lived through that and maybe been wounded yourself or knew people who died, it’s pretty traumatic. Not that it isn’t traumatic for other people who witness these kinds of things in their regular life, but for soldiers, we didn’t talk about it — so now it’s time to process.”
Beyond the awards, feedback for “Care Under Fire” has exceeded the scope of what Strusinski had imagined. The Amazon reviews are numerous, and overwhelmingly positive.
“I had a couple of people (review the book) who were protestors back in the ‘60s, and I thought it was interesting how they responded,” he said. “They read the book and said ‘We’re so sorry. We took it out on the soldiers, and didn’t realize the impact the war had on you, who were just doing what you were asked to do by your country.’ So it had the right impact.”
Strusinski is proud his book can be a source of therapy for other veterans, but it’s just as much a source of therapy for him.
“Talking about your experience is good therapy,” he said. “But writing about it is particularly good therapy.”
It was over 50 years after Strusinski got home from Vietnam when he sat down to write about what happened. Reconciliation came slowly.
“Myself and many others, we all suffer from remorse,” he said. “You think about the situations, could I have done things differently? Could I have done them better, could I have saved this guy’s life? In the end you can’t undo what happened, but you learn to live with the consequences.”
“Care Under Fire” has changed the way Strusinski approaches those questions.
“It brought peace to me when I wrote about it,” he said. “It was good for me to bring it out of my heart and my mind and analyze it a little further, so it could be put in the proper compartment in my heart and my mind as I go forward in life.”