Or how to respond to people who have gone crazy
By Nate Thayer
February 27, 2015
In April, 2003 communist Vietnamese soldiers attacked my farm in Maryland, near Washington, D.C.
Specifically, a three-man Vietnamese mortar team set up their 81 millimeter mortar position by my barn and they did what mortar teams do: they were calibrating the coordinates of the big gun and zeroing in on the nearby family owned Woolford General Store.
I was very fond of Woolford, Maryland and this concerned me very much. I wanted to do the right thing and defend my people.
This is all true. I know, because I was there. And I saw the Vietnamese soldiers. And I double checked and they were still there.
What is also true was I had lost my mind.
This is not the usual state of my mind.
I had just gotten back from Baghdad, Iraq nine days earlier.
Iraq was a very bad place in March, 2003.
In Iraq I saw bad guys and good guys doing very bad things who were actually there.
In Woolford, Maryland I saw bad guys who weren’t there and I heard bad guys talking about doing bad things who were not actually talking because they did not exist.
I am very fond of my mind. Plus, I really need it to work on all cylinders because I depend on it to make living. As a journalist, I would be the equivalent of a castrated porn star without it.
So the spring of 2003 was not a happy one for me. But, honestly and sincerely, there is no reason you should care about that. I am sure most readers have also had unpleasant springs.
I was reminded of this unpleasantness after the decision to sentence a U.S. marine to life in a cage after he came back from Iraq and shot and killed two other U.S. soldiers in Texas (including the fellow touted as the best killer in U.S. military history) while they were all playing with guns a couple of years back. A Texas jury said the marine who killed the two other soldiers knew right from wrong at the time and should spend the rest of his life in a cage.
There, but for the Grace of God, go I.
I really don’t know the details of that case, but I seriously question that the jury made the correct decision.
This is all quite difficult to write. I have been fiddling around with it for a long time, but I have never written about it, or talked about it–with anyone–ever. It has taken me more than a decade to write these words.
That is because it is embarrassing to go crazy. People don’t react well–or at least react in ways that serve one’s interests– to these sort of things. It is not helpful for one’s resume to include: “Between months XXX and months XXX in year XXX, I went insane.”
Parting ways with my mind was very, very frightening. In fact, it was the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to me.
And I, like many people, have lived a life where lots of stuff has frightened me.
I am not happy about how the sword of judgment and the scarlet letter of losing one’s mind is addressed.
So here goes with my story:
I was feeding my pigs and chickens on my farm in Maryland a few days after I had gotten back from Iraq, when I started to go into convulsions. I knew something was very wrong when electric jolts went through my brain and my body twitched uncontrollably and my leg shot up into the air. I was having a Grande Mal seizure. But at the time, I didn’t have any idea what was wrong with me.
My castrated bull, Oscar, thought I was playing with him. Oscar was 3000 pounds. I knew I had to get out of the fenced barnyard because Oscar might stomp me to death and I didn’t want that. So, with my brain twirling around my skull, I managed to stumble through the barnyard and flip myself over the fence.
At the time, I lived alone on a 70 acre farm 3/4 of a mile from the nearest human. I knew I needed to be in the presence of other humans, so I started stumbling down my long, dirt farm lane toward the village country store.
Within seconds, I was hit by another jolt of electricity through my brain. I remember my whole body flipping in the air and doing a somersault and a deep, black cloud enveloping my head.
And then it all went dark. Very dark. Then I woke up, sort of.
I don’t have any idea how long I was unconscious, but I woke up lying alone, face down in the dirt, on my farm.
I didn’t realize this at the time, but I was in a parallel universe.
My very concerned dog, Scoop, who was born in a fetid sewer in Bangkok and I brought to America three years earlier, was licking my face and whining. She was very upset.
I was upset, too, but for a different reason: Because there were heavily armed Vietnamese communist troops occupying my Maryland farm.
After spotting the Vietnamese mortar team setting up shop 30 meters from my house next to my barn, I did the only logical thing: I retreated to my house to regroup and come up with a plan to defend my loved ones–who were my dogs at the time–and my property.
Regular forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam ( PAVN)–I could tell by their uniforms, they were not Viet Cong or village militia–had set up a forward operating position next to my barn on April 29th, 2003 to attack Woolford in rural Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, in the United States of America, of which I am a loyal patriotic citizen.
The Communist army was intent on blowing up the only business establishment in the unincorporated village–the economic hub of Woolford (population 278)–the Woolford Country Store.
Of course, I was obligated to inform my fellow Woolford citizens of the imminent threat, so I called up the Woolford Country Store, and suggested strongly they evacuate ASAP. Cindy, who answered the phone, seemed quite concerned, as she well should have been. But, in retrospect, she was mostly concerned that I was making no fucking sense whatsoever.
But I couldn’t be bothered with that. I had done my job and alerted them to the imminent communist threat to the life, liberty, happiness, and freedom of my people and had strongly advised that they evacuate immediately. They ignored me.
I am pretty sure that the folks at the Country Store were not convinced I was telling them the full story.
Fortunately, the excellent Woolford Country Store didn’t do anything stupid like call the Maryland State Police. That might not have turned out well. I am pretty sure the cops, who had a more formidable arsenal than I, would have sided with the Vietnamese communists.
I am fully aware, now, that, at the time, in 2003, I was a few Fruit Loops short of a nutritious breakfast.
Most of the time, I sport a very balanced diet that feeds my brain.
My brain was not cooperating with reality that day in Maryland.
First I had a chat with my dog. I was very worried about her because I loved her very much and I was concerned the Vietnamese were going to shoot her. I asked her to be quiet for a change. Dogs are very smart. She knew something was very, very wrong, but, in retrospect, Scoop thought that what was wrong was something with me and not a nonexistent foreign army occupying our farm. She stayed remarkably quiet.
I locked her in a room, instructed her to keep very, very quiet, and then climbed a ladder into the attic and retreated to secure a defensive position, with lots of guns, to defend My People and the American Way of Life.
I brought binoculars and reassessed and double checked and those communist Vietnamese were still at my barn. They had radio communication equipment, AK-47’s, and a mortar gun set up on a tripod.
I had my motley arsenal of firearms, which included a 30 odd 6 rifle with an excellent scope attached; a shotgun; an AK-47 semi-automatic rifle; a 44 magnum pistol; a 45 automatic handgun; a wimpy 22 mm pistol, some weird 32 mm Czechoslovakian handgun with two rounds of ammo (which was a personal gift to me from a very close friend, the at-the-time departing CIA station chief in Cambodia a couple of years prior); a couple of machetes I brought back from Indochina; and a telephone.
Up in my attic, I was prepared to defend my property and my people from the communist advance.
I set up as reasonable defensive position as I was equipped to–my guns pointed at the Vietnamese and expecting that communist reinforcements would arrive any moment.
However I am, most of the time, no dummy. I said to myself: “This is quite unusual. This makes no sense. The Vietnamese do not have a beef with Woolford, Maryland. There is no reason they should have a mortar position set up by my barn targeting the Woolford Country Store. And Vietnam is a few thousand Klicks away, and they are not stupid. Under normal circumstances, they wouldn’t launch a sneak-attack war against the U.S. because they would lose.”
So I triple checked with my binoculars and those communists were still there and they meant business.
After reconfirming enemy soldiers were still there, less than 50 meters from my front door, I reassessed my strategy.
Knowing a little bit about war–and I emphasize a little bit–I quickly assessed that the Vietnamese communists had superior firepower, so I came up with a plan B, which I employed. I tried to escape by swimming across the river which abutted my farm–in April, in Maryland, where it is very cold and the water is even colder.
Carrying a 30 odd 6 big game rifle and a 44 magnum pistol tucked in my waistband, I waded into the river. But a brave, lone Vietnamese frogman in a full body black wetsuit emerged from the inky water and pointed his AK-47 at my head. So I threw my hands up and surrendered.
I still maintain this was the correct tactical decision on my part, at the time, and under the circumstances.
This is all true. I was an eyewitness. I saw the Vietnamese communist frogman in the river in Maryland in the United States in 2003. He was right in front of me. And I saw the three-man mortar team by my barn, and they were still there.
I was an eyewitness, so I know.
But what I didn’t know, then, was I had temporarily misplaced my sanity.
While I was standing in Church Creek, off the Choptank river, which abuts the Chesapeake Bay in Dorchester County, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., after I dropped my weapons, and while my hands were raised high in the air as the frogman yelled angry things at me in Vietnamese and pointing his AK-47 directly at my head less than a couple of meters away , two Woolford, Maryland villagers, who had been eating breakfast at the Woolford General Store, showed up walking towards me.
I was standing waist deep in the frigid waters of the river with my hands up talking to people who were not there.
They had been alerted by Cindy, who had answered the telephone while operating the cash register at the Woolford Country Store. She had told them that Nate, down the road on his farm, appeared to be having some issues and might be in need of community assistance. I was very glad to see these two people, who I viewed as allied reinforcements.
“Get back! The Vietnamese are here!” I whispered loudly at them. They didn’t react as I had expected. “What Vietnamese?” they asked with fear in their eyes, as they backed away.
I understood that because I was afraid of those Vietnamese, too.
“This is serious. Just listen to me and do as I say. I know about these things.”
“Nate, you aren’t making any sense,” said one of the two fellow residents of the village in Maryland. “There are no Vietnamese here.”
This annoyed me very much.
I knew they just did not understand because they hadn’t been there and they didn’t understand how tricky the Vietnamese communists could be or the lengths this enemy would go to undermine Our Way of Life.
“Just listen to me! And follow my instructions!” I insisted.
They didn’t. Instead they fled.
In hindsight, this was the right thing for them to do, as I was a genuine threat to the life of anyone I encountered at that time.
But at least they didn’t call the cops. People in Woolford, Maryland have their own set of problems and aren’t prone to call the cops.
This was very good, because the cops had every good reason to shoot me dead, given I was heavily armed and insane at the time.
I retreated, alone, back to my house. I then remembered I had those Grande Mal seizures while feeding the pigs in my barn. And I said: “Oh, this is very bad. There are no Vietnamese here. This doesn’t make sense because it is not true. I am not currently able to make rational decisions on my own.”
So I called back the Woolford Country Store. “Call an ambulance!” I told Cindy. “I need help!”
But Cindy had not forgotten the earlier phone call and was still suspicious of whether I was sane. After waiting what seemed like forever, I walked down the 3/4 mile farm lane and walked into the Woolford Country Store and repeated myself: “Call an ambulance!”
They did. And the volunteer ambulance crew showed up pronto. They were very nice and professional. I knew them because they were my neighbors.
“Nate, have you been drinking or taking any drugs? Please be honest with us.”
I felt safe now, and I trusted them, as I should have, and I was honest.
“No. I haven’t had anything to drink or used any drugs for nine days. I think I went insane in Iraq.”
“Thank you for being honest,” they said. And they meant it and I was.
I was taken to the hospital but I had no health insurance so they told me I had to go home after a few hours. I had to call a taxi for the 30 minute ride back home, where my best pal, Scoop, was still waiting locked in the room many hours earlier.
Some months later, I was talking to the Doc about these events. Those doctors are, mainly, useless and have no idea what the fuck they are talking about. He asked a lot of questions, but didn’t have so many answers.
So I explained it to him: “This is what I think happened,” I said. “My brain imploded. There was just too much going on in it. I wasn’t letting any of it out because I didn’t know anybody who understood these things, so my brain short circuited. It was overloaded and the fuses blew.”
The Doctor thought this was an excellent analysis. “I think you are exactly correct,” he said. He then wrote me a prescription for some nasty, powerful, totally ineffective, and expensive medicine and I went home, again.
I paid him a few hundred dollars in cash in 100 dollar bills because I didn’t have medical insurance on account of, prior to the Vietnamese showing up in Maryland or going to Iraq to sit on the wrong end of George W Bush’s experiment with “Shock and Awe”, having been blown up in Cambodia and spending dozens of times in hospital for almost every tropical jungle disease known to man one gets when one hangs out in the jungle.
Since then, every insurance company had laughed at me and told me to fuck off because I have a “pre-existing condition.”
So that was that. And nothing much has changed on the health insurance front.
A friend of mine, the excellent journalist Frank Smyth, who knows of these things, recently wrote: “What those who have not been close enough to experience the pain, fear, guilt and grief of the loss of colleagues, strangers, enemies, friends and, at times, what seems like parts of one’s own soul from the lucklessness of combat do not know is that to speak of it in the first-person at all is to dishonor the dead, the survivors and humanity itself.”
What you have just read is not a funny story. If you are going to laugh (too much), please fuck off and go watch a John Wayne movie. Many good people who have taken temporary leave of their sanity deserve more respect. Maybe not me–but many, many other good people. If you don’t agree with this, in my opinion, you are part of the problem.
In Iraq, lots of people were trying to kill other people. One of those people who some people were trying to kill was me. My mind found this objectionable and difficult to process.
It is a long story. I didn’t do well in Iraq. I don’t like to think about it much.
But after I came home to America, I still had not retrieved my mind. But, to complicate matters, I didn’t know, at the time, I had misplaced it. I had left it, temporarily, in Baghdad.
I am not making this up and this is not a joke.
I am able to laugh about it now, sort of, but I wasn’t then. It is embarrassing.
Fast forward a bit, just for the record: I have since found my mind and it is doing just fine, thank you, now. This is corroborated by doctors who confirm I both lost my mind and confirm I have since retrieved it and it is now working pretty darn swimmingly, and most likely works just as good, although perhaps differently, as your mind.
They also agree there is no reason to put me in a cage.
I am lucky I didn’t kill people who didn’t deserve to be killed at that time in 2003.
And I am lucky I am not dead because, the truth is, in the spring of 2003 I was a genuine threat to the common good for a bit there and someone might well have made the correct decision and shot me dead.
I, risking speaking on behalf of many other people who have lost their minds, would be grateful if you didn’t dismiss us, make fun of us, or conclude these things were the result of some personal character flaw or weakness because you can’t wrap your head around it and it makes you uncomfortable. That is a big part of the problem.
I like to think that I am a genuinely good person. I have tried my best to make the world a little better place than since I arrived 56 years ago. I submit I have had a modicum of success.
Whatever, I don’t think it is in societies interest that I should be dead or in a cage. I feel quite strongly about that.
But many people like me are. And it upsets me because they don’t need to be and they shouldn’t be.
Unlike me, many of them are genuine heroes. They lost their minds because you asked them to go fix problems you had and they volunteered to do that.
I am very fond of my mind. Plus, I depend on it to make a living. If I lose it for any significant period of time, I am really fucked.
I don’t blame anyone else for my going crazy, because that would be wrong and goofy and not do much good, to boot. It just means that stuff happens in life, sometimes not very good stuff, and sometimes people don’t handle it well.
I wish I was John Wayne and, like in Hollywood, handled everything perfectly, but I am not. Nor is anyone else in your family, your community, your workplace, or your country, whoever or wherever they or that might be.
There is a very strong argument that the people who handle mental illness worst are societies in general. Mental Illness is a taboo. But it is also normal. It is pretty routine. I know it makes people nervous.
But please cut it out.
I am convinced that I will go to my (legitimate, via natural causes) grave before society figures out that it is quite normal to lose one’s mind.
In general, I have handled bad stuff happening quite well. Actually, I would submit, most all the time. A couple of times over the years, I have not. Believe me, during those few times, I wish I had.
I will not even suggest that my experience have been in the same league as soldiers–whose job description, by definition, is doing that for a living. It doesn’t matter which team they are on. It is a very, very complicated job, and it fucks with your mind.
I can only speak for myself. I am a reporter. I like my job, a lot. But, in order to do my job right, it is quite common that some people won’t like me. Sometimes they have wanted to kill me. A few times they have tried. As a rule, I am opposed to that. And it is always very unpleasant.
Part of my job has been to go where people are doing bad things to other people. I have seen this happen more than a few times. A lot of that time has been in Asia, specifically Cambodia.
I also have wandered around the world to see people doing bad things in other places, including places like the former Yugoslavia, North Korea, Burma, Cuba, Israel, Iraq, China, and New York City, among numerous other places.
I have seen lots of bad things happen to people who didn’t deserve it. This has upset me. It still upsets me, a lot. Sometimes I find myself, alone, crying when I think of some memories and I don’t understand it.
There is no blueprint on how to best deal with these things. This makes me sort of average for those who have lived and experienced these necks of the woods.
The important point is lots of people who live or work in places like these have very frightening things happen to them.
Some of us take a temporary absence of our sanity. And we can be a threat to the common good.
That doesn’t mean, for most people, they fucked up. Often it means you fucked up. They volunteered to fix your problems. In the case of soldiers, tried to subdue the people who are causing problems who want to kill them for doing that. Or, in my case, as a reporter, try to explain what those problems are.
The American Sniper
I was reminded of this Vietnamese military sneak assault on my farm in rural Maryland by a top news story of a fellow who was on trial in Texas who shot and killed a soldier who was the most effective trained killer in U.S. military history–Kyle something (I forget his name). He is depicted as the hero in the Hollywood flick “American Sniper”.
Kyle is dead, and so is his friend. Another military comrade of theirs is not dead because he is the one who made the other two dead and he went on trial for murder. His future is not bright.He is likely to spend the rest of his life in a cage.
There, but for the grace of God, go I.
Eddie Routh, the guy who killed Kyle was having relationship issues with his girlfriend and “threatened her with a Ninja sword and called her a demon,” according to the Texas court.
Eddie also had been having some family issues. “The person who came to my house was not who I knew as my brother. He killed two guys and sold his soul for a pickup truck,” said his sister. “I love you but I hate your demons,” she told him.
I don’t like to get involved in family squabbles, but, for me, what clinched it that Eddie really had lost his mind was when his sister said “He said he wanted to escape to Oklahoma.”
Nobody in their right mind wants to escape to Oklahoma. Escaping from Oklahoma, OK, I get that. But escaping to Oklahoma is pretty good evidence you have lost your mind.
Apparently, the jury in Texas disagreed.
They said Eddie knew the difference from right and wrong when he shot Kyle and that Eddie was not insane. They told Eddie he will spend the rest of his life in a cage.
Sometimes I think Texas should spend the rest of their collective lives in a cage, but the jury is still out on that one.
My point is that people who have lost their minds deserve more than they are getting. They deserve your respect. And they deserve proper treatment. And they deserve not to be made fun of because some people don’t understand it.
Especially those who have served their country to defend the rest of us from not having to care about these things just because it is too complicated to easily process.
They aren’t getting what they deserve now, because society is afraid that, really, at the end of the day, we are pretty normal.
Just like you.
I think Eddie deserves better than he got.
There, but for the Grace of God, go I.