Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Granbury Vietnam veteran diffuses trauma, PTSD with laughter

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Granbury resident Billy F. Wells may have encountered several traumatic situations during his three Vietnam tours — but the 74-year-old doesn’t let any of the negative memories from his service affect him today.

In fact, the Army veteran uses the emotion-focused coping strategy of humor to get through the dark times.

“As far as my experiences in Vietnam, I never really talked to anybody about any particular thing,” Wells told the HCN on Oct. 30. “I tell funny stories. That's the only way I'll talk about it.”

Wells grew up in northwest Florida and was attending junior college when he got his military draft notice.

“I didn’t want to be drafted, so, I went and joined the military,” he said, with a chuckle. “That way I could choose what I wanted to do.”

Wells enlisted in the Army in 1969 and became an aviation crew chief, where he was responsible for the maintenance and repair of aircrafts.

He explained how he didn’t have any qualms about joining the military, because his father served in World War II as a Marine.

"He fought in the Pacific, and he was on four major invasions in the Marines. How he survived that I have no clue, because I've seen the shows and what they had to go through, but (joining the military) didn’t seem too bad,” Wells said.

Although Wells didn’t feel comfortable relaying any of his traumatic experiences while serving in Vietnam, he did recount a couple of “funny times” that occurred during his time in service.

He remembers his friend Johnny, who always received care packages from his mother containing guava paste.

Guava paste, also known as guayabate or goiabada – is a very thick puree of guava fruit and sugar, often with added pectin. 

“I've never had guava paste, but it was really great. He'd let me have a little bit of it. I would sneak in and steal some from him,” he explained.

One day, Wells wanted to talk to Johnny’s sister, whom he described as being “beautiful.” She didn’t speak English though, so he asked a Spanish-speaking guy for guidance on what he could say to Johnny’s sister.

Unfortunately, what he was told to say to the sister was not a nice phrase in English, which resulted in a “big fight” between Johnny and Wells.

“I never got any more guava paste,” Wells said.

Another story he remembers well is a funny encounter that took place at an “orphanage mountain yard” in Vietnam.

"There were a couple of Australians that ran the orphanage, a couple of Australian priests, and we would fly over there every so often and give them blankets and milk and stuff,” he said. “I would always go and buy some chewing gum to give to the kids. There's one time we went over, we landed, and I was turned around, and I was unstrapping some stuff, and I could hear (the children) coming up from behind me.”

Wells turned around and was stunned to see the children carrying a large lizard. Understandably, Wells was startled and proceeded to kick at the lizard, telling the children to “get it away.”

"They didn't understand what I was saying, but one of the priests came out and said ‘Hey, mate, you hurt their feelings,’” he recalled. “I said ‘How's that?’ He said, ‘Man, they'd been working for like two weeks to catch one of these lizards to give to you,’ because that's a gift. I told him to go and tell them 'I'm sorry’ and that I didn't understand. They brought the lizard back, and I tied him up in the helicopter.”

When asked what happened to the lizard, Wells responded that it was a “bad story,” explaining how a mama-san (a woman in a position of authority) wanted the lizard — assumably for consumption.

"I'm sure they ate it,” he said. “That's what they gave it to me for was to eat. It was something."

Wells explained how he spent three tours in Vietnam — one for 12 months, and two for six months — so he experienced the coldness and hostility from people every time he came through the airports over the West Coast.

“It was bad,” he said. “And it got worse.”

It even got to a point where Wells didn’t even want to admit to anyone that he was a Vietnam veteran because of everyone’s “attitude” toward the soldiers.

"I'd go to activities, and they would ask all the veterans to stand up, (and I would just sit and clap for them),” he said. “That's the way it was because people didn't accept Vietnam.”

Wells said he is thankful he came back from the military unscathed — especially because many of his fellow soldiers weren’t as lucky.

"I was very fortunate,” he said. "I came back without a scratch. I had a lot of friends at home who went to the military and went to Vietnam and came back in pretty bad shape and even died not too long after they got back.”

He explained that there is a Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. that contains the names of more than 58,000 service members who passed while serving in the Vietnam War. However, it bothers Wells because “those are not the only ones who got killed.”

"This (one guy) got married, and we thought he was doing good, but he went out on the interstate one day, pulled over (and shot himself), and then there's others who had drug overdoses, and it was caused by what they experienced in Vietnam,” he said.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health problem that can occur after a traumatic event like war, assault, or disaster, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

Wells explained how having a strong support system from his family helped keep him on the right track mentally following his discharge from the military.

"Some people come back from being overseas and in places where you see a lot of death, and they can't get that out of their mind, and they don't have support, so consequently they go off in the wrong direction,” he explained. “So, I had a lot of support — not that I don't have some problems myself.”

Wells also explained how he witnessed PTSD in his father, who had “one of the worst cases he’s ever known.”

"The way he handled his PTSD was a lot different than some people,” he said. “He spent his whole time helping other people. My mother actually would fuss at him from time to time that he was spending more time helping other people than he was our family, but he did good. We never wanted for anything.”

Wells said he is glad that soldiers now get benefits like counseling to help combat PTSD. He said he also travels to the airport occasionally to greet young soldiers who are returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, so they are always greeted with a friendly face.

"I don't want anybody to have to ever experience that again,” he said. “American people should always support the military.”

Following Wells’ discharge from the Army, he joined an electrical apprenticeship program and eventually became an electrician, where he worked all over the country.

He then went into the nuclear business and started working at several different nuclear plants until he eventually found his way to the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant in Glen Rose, where he worked for 28 years.

Wells served for 15 years as the VFW Post 7835 Commander in Granbury before stepping down last year. He is the father of two sons, Robert, and his late son, Doug, who passed away from cancer last June.

“I did meet some good people in Vietnam,” he added. “I really did. Not just soldiers, but actually Vietnamese. There were some good people there.”