By Kyle Lovern
Williamson native and Liberty High School graduate Herman Williams is a real war hero. The 68 year old Williams, known as “Jerry” growing up on Vinson Street, was awarded an unprecedented three Purple Hearts while serving as a Marine during the Vietnam War.
However, after coming back to the states from his courageous service during that conflict, Williams had trouble coping.
Eventually, in the late 1980s, he was diagnosed with PTSD, which is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
More on that subject later.
Williams, who now resides in Cleveland, Ohio, recently came back to West Virginia for his high school reunion held in Charleston, W.Va. He made a detour to Williamson for this interview with the Williamson Daily News.
The Early Years
Williams was raised by his grandparents, Mckinley and Estil Williams. He grew up on Levine Street and attended Liberty High School.
Williams was in the last graduating class for the all-black school in 1966. He was also a member of the school’s basketball team that went to the Class A state championship game that season. The Yellowjackets, coached by the late Ed Starling, lost in the finals, but never-the-less, were a sense of pride for the tight-knit community.
“I loved this small town of Williamson. We really didn’t know much about racism here,” Williams recalled. “We got along with most everyone. I remember going and watching games at Williamson and Belfry. We played teams like Crum. There wasn’t ever any trouble.”
After graduation, in the summer of 1966, the patriotic Williams joined the Marine Corp and after basic training soon found himself in the jungles of South Vietnam.
Many of his family members had also been in the military.
“My grandfather who raised me was a coal miner, but he was very patriotic,” Williams said. “Many of my uncles had been in the military.”
Soon Williams would become a distinguished veteran of one of the most controversial wars in the history of the United States.
The War Years
Herman Williams was thrown immediately into the fighting once he arrived “in country.”
The 18-year old recalls being “dropped out of helicopters on search and destroy missions.”
His unit was the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines. “They called us the Magnificent Bastards,” Williams said.
“We felt we won every battle we were in,” Williams recalls. However, he also remembers that his unit was basically “wiped out” and that he was one of only seven out of 200 from his unit who had originally flown over to the South Pacific that made it back. “Everybody either got killed or wounded,” Williams said. “The Viet Cong were tenacious fighters.”
“There were always new Marines rotating in and out,” he said. “Some of us had more experience than the new soldiers – and also some of the officers. Some of the officers even depended on me. We were a real disciplined unit.”
Williams participated in the Tet Offensive and another famous battle in the Ashau Valley region of Vietnam.
The Tet Offensive in 1968 was one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War. It was launched on January 30, 1968 by forces of the North Vietnamese People’s Army against the forces of South Vietnam, the United States, and their allies. The name of the offensive comes from the Tet holiday, the Vietnamese New Year, when the first major attacks took place.
Williams fought right near the border of South and North Vietnam. “We could use binoculars and look at the enemy right across the border,” Williams said. “We were in underground bunkers.”
“The first night I was there, they took me out on an all-night ambush,” he remembers.
“We only came to the rear about once a month,” Williams said. “We would drink a couple of cold beers and they would let us write a letter home.”
“We didn’t know that there was all this political unrest back home,” Williams said. “We thought we were stopping communism. We were proud of what we did. But when we got back they were calling us ‘baby killers.’ After we made it through the war and all that we had seen in Vietnam, we didn’t really know how bad it was here until we got back to California. If you had your uniform on, the protestors would give you a hard time.”
Williams was in another battle where he was the only one who walked out. The others were either killed or wounded.
His memories are still difficult for him to live with.
“I just wanted to come home. I wanted to walk through the school like the veterans had done before us,” he said. But times had changed and so had Williams. Many of his friends had gotten married, had jobs and had started families.
“I didn’t even know that Dr. Martin Luther King had been killed,” he said.
“When I came home, I was different,” Williams recalls. He actually reenlisted and went back into the military.
His treatment for PTSD
“When they first started treating PTSD, they didn’t have a clue,” Williams said. “It was in a VA Hospital near Cleveland – that is where they first started treating it. You had to stay in the hospital for 12 weeks.”
PTSD is a mental illness that is triggered by a disturbing outside event, unlike other psychiatric disorders such as clinical depression.
“You had all of these veterans coming in and we were having therapy sessions,” Williams recalls. “This was every day – twice a day back in 1989.”
So Williams, like many other former Vets, suffered from depression and nightmares because of the terrible memories of war.
Once he tried to start a regular life back in the United States, Williams bounced around from job to job. He was inescapably and irrevocably a changed man.
“I didn’t know I had PTSD,” he said. The scourge of war had altered him forever.
At times Williams couldn’t go to the store or other crowded places. There were triggers that would take him back to another time – when he was in Vietnam. He didn’t go to his high school reunions or family events.
“I felt guilty, useless and the PTSD caused me to act out,” Williams said.
One truly traumatic memory is when he had to carry the remains of a charred Vietnamese baby after it had been burned alive in a village hut. Williams still has an extremely tough time with that horrific image.
Even though he was only an 18-year old from southern West Virginia, he experienced tremendous guilt about losing friends who were fighting side by side with him.
“Eventually I went to work for the Veterans’ Administration in Cleveland for a while,” he recalls. “Then I started having nightmares and anger problems.”
“It got so bad that they told me I needed to be screened at the hospital,” Williams explained. “I went to a Vet Center – a safe environment for vets who suffer from the same thing.”
“When I was diagnosed with this in 1989, they said it was going to be rough, but that I should be able to make it,” he recalls. He had heard of other veterans who had committed suicide. He didn’t want to be one of those casualties.
“I didn’t open up at first during the group sessions,” Williams said. “It was two weeks to go in my 12 week session before I started opening up.”
“I am still in outpatient treatment,” he added.
Serving as a facilitator
Williams now serves as a Peer Support Facilitator for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Cleveland. Their motto is “Veterans Helping Veterans.”
He talks to many current veterans who have fought in the Middle East and now suffer from PTSD.
“When they come in, they ask the doctors and the therapists ‘how can you help me when you haven’t been through what I’ve been through?” Williams stressed.
That is where someone like Herman Williams comes in. Because he has been through it, he can relate to the veterans who have been in tumultuous war zones.
“I let them know that I felt the same way,” Williams added. “Although the doctors and staff haven’t been through it, they still care for us.”
“I have been through the group sessions and can help them open up,” Williams said.
“Now we have a lot of women coming back who suffer from the same thing,” he said. “We didn’t have that in Vietnam. But now they are also right there fighting alongside the men.”
“PTSD can’t be cured, but you can learn to live with it,” Williams emphasized. “They teach you tools to deal with it. As long as you use these tools and stay involved with your recovery – it helps you cope.”
Williams said that if there is anyone out there that suffers from PTSD, that they should seek treatment. “They can feel safe,” he said of the intensive therapy.
“You have to trust someone to talk about it,” Williams said of his vivid war memories. “Anytime I had a problem, I didn’t hesitate to go back in for treatment.”
Eventually he realized he should not feel the guilt about certain things that he witnessed or participated in during his time in Vietnam.
“The Veterans Administration has worked hard to provide treatment for the veterans who suffer from PTSD,” Williams concluded.
(Information used on the Vietnam War from Wikipedia)
(Kyle Lovern is the Editor for the Williamson Daily News. He can be contacted at [email protected] or at 304-235-4242, ext. 2277 or on Twitter @KyleLovern.)