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Survival... in Vietnam and back home

Veteran who lost leg, struggled with PTSD; now assists other vets

Carlienne A. Frisch

Tom McLaughlin in Danang, Vietnam, in October 1967. Contributed photo

When Tom McLaughlin came home to Mankato in November 1968, after serving with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam, he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He also had an artificial limb that had replaced the portion of his left leg that doctors had to amputate after he sustained an injury in a skirmish with the North Vietnamese Army.

McLaughlin experienced the common results of psychological disorders, including divorce, a lack of focus on the future and dependence on alcohol, until he had a life-changing experience at the dedication of the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. in 1982. When he returned home, he founded Vietnam Veterans of Southern Minnesota and began a speakers’ bureau to familiarize people with veterans’ experiences.

In 1956, when McLaughlin was 10 years old, his family moved to Mankato. After graduating from Mankato High School, he didn’t wait to be drafted, but enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corp, reporting to basic training in San Diego, on Nov. 29, 1966. After infantry training and training to man an 81mm mortar, he was sent to the northern part of South Vietnam, near the borders of North Vietnam and Laos. After about 11 months in country, he was a corporal and squad leader. In an effort to rescue fellow Marines, he was seriously injured. Years later, he wrote an account of his time in Vietnam. Much of the following narrative is based on those notes.

“I had the ordinary life of an infantry grunt, out in the field in an area where every day you could be killed or wounded,” he said. “There might be three North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers at a time or 100. Our job was to go into the rice paddies, the jungles and the mountains to find the enemy. There were always civilian, guerrilla types who looked like common people, and there were NVA in uniform, well armed, with good equipment and good leadership. Most of our activities were hunting NVA.”

Fast forward to January 1968—“Our second night on the listening post about 500 meters up the side of a mountain, we could see a lot of tracers going in and out of the Marine Civil Action Village. I called the 81mm mortars for flares, but was unable to see well enough to call for fire support on the two-way radio. After about 11 months in country, I could see the uneasiness of most of the men about facing the NVA at night in this unfamiliar area. We did not know at that time that the city of Hue was in the hands of the NVA and that it was important for us (E Company) to reach the bridge as soon as possible to relieve H Company, which was to play a major role in retaking Hue.”

Today, Tom McLaughlin , is a mentor to veterans who are struggling. And he continues to cope with the injuries that he sustained in Vietnam. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

As E Company moved off the road in single file along the dikes, every time a flare went off in the area ahead by the bridge, the men would hit the deck and wait for it to burn out, then get up and start again. McLaughlin said, “We were all scared as hell. Somehow we made it to the village near the bridge without having a single shot fired at us. Now we had to make it through the village. When we were about 50 yards into the village, one of our own 81mm mortar rounds hit only about 15 yards from our column. Amazingly, not a man was hit.” Eventually, E Company moved onto the bridge, and McLaughlin’s squad was given “watch” for the night. The next morning, the other squad walked into an ambush. McLaughlin decided to leave his squad where they were, and to take two men with him to try to get a location on the ambush. He said, “We would go in the direction of the firing. I knew this decision could cost our lives, but in my judgment, it was the only way we could get to and break off the ambush.

“The firing was getting louder, so I knew we were getting close. I thought this would be a good place to stop and listen, so I left one man where we stopped and the second man at the mid point of the curve. I went on a little farther and stopped, so the three of us made a half circle on the curve. The man in the middle was to watch our rear, and I would listen to try to pinpoint the location of the squad in the ambush or the NVA. I gave the order that if we got hit, everybody was on their own.

“The firing was really loud now, and I was getting ready to move a little closer. I turned to signal the others, only to see the middle man looking forward, not to the rear. There were five NVAs coming out of a ditch in the trees to his rear, about 10 yards from him and 15 from me. They had not seen him yet, and I knew I had to act fast, even it if meant exposing myself. The NVA had AK-47s with 30 round clips. Even at this range, I knew I could not get them all with my 18 rounds. My man looking the wrong way would soon be dead. I had no choice. I flipped my M16 on full automatic and emptied it into the five NVA. They all fell. I don’t know how many I hit, but as I changed my magazine, they returned the fire and I was hit and fell. I could see my rifle lying on the ground near me with the empty magazine a few feet away. I couldn’t see the NVA or my two men. Even the shooting from the ambush had stopped. I had told the other men to find their own way back to the squad if I got hit. I was alone. The NVA were gone, too.

“I began to feel a dull but growing pain in my left leg,” McLaughlin wrote. “I went to raise myself up on my elbows, but couldn’t do it. I couldn’t feel my arms. I saw a hole on the inside of my left elbow the size of a cue ball, and my right shoulder had a hole the size of a walnut. I looked down at my left leg and saw blood oozing out from the area where my knee cap had been. My foot was lying on its side even though my leg was straight.”

Thinking the NVA might still come his way, McLaughlin decided his only hope was to look dead while somehow slowing the flow of blood from his leg wound. After managing to make several painful movements, he pushed his left knee against a tree with his right leg. He said, “The pain almost made me yell out, but it would be all over for me if I did. A figure came into my line of sight, came very slowly. My chest tightened as I forced myself not to breathe. With my eyes open, fixed into a dead stare looking into the sky, I saw the NVA soldier stop and point his AK-47 at my nose. He just looked me over for what seemed like hours as I tried not to breathe or blink. This happened two more times. The fear of being shot in the head or dragged off gave me the ability to endure the pain and play a very convincing dead man.”

After it was quiet and no NVA had come by for about five minutes, McLaughlin began to push and drag himself in the direction of his squad for what seemed like hours.

“I was starting to face the fact that I would die on this trail, but I would die trying to keep moving,” he said.

Then a figure appeared—a Marine. Eventually, a corpsman brought a tourniquet, an IV and a shot of morphine. Men cut a stretcher of bamboo. McLaughlin was loaded in a Medivac CH-46.

Tom McLaughlin in June 1967 at An Hoa Combat base in Vietnam. Contributed photo

Eleven months had passed of his 13-month tour of Vietnam, but a new ordeal was beginning. His left leg was removed above the knee at a hospital in the Philippines. He spent the next eight months in several other hospitals, including in Japan, and was eventually fitted with a prosthetic leg at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia.

“When I came home to my parents, I was still convalescing, still pretty weak,” he said. “The experience was more than losing a leg, there was blood loss and infections. It took more than a month to drain my leg, and I’d had malaria eight months before I was shot. It was kind of confusing coming home to a country that was at war with itself. A lot of things had changed with my friends and community. I had been in an environment where there was a routine, but here there was nobody to sit down and talk with about my experiences. I could have gone to school with the GI Bill, but I fell into the habit of using alcohol. I had several jobs, and I got married in the middle of that. In those situations, marriages don’t last. There’s nobody but me to blame for that. I was getting disability compensation from the military that covered food, clothing and transportation, and I had miscellaneous jobs. As time went on, I knew that I wasn’t going anywhere, but it took me a long time to get ready to change that.”

In 1978, McLaughlin went to alcohol treatment in a VA hospital and stopped using alcohol as a solution to his problems, but he said, “I knew something wasn’t right.” A trip four years later led to a major change. He was one of the local Vietnam veterans who went by bus to Washington, D.C., to the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in 1982.

“That dedication opened my eyes. I saw what a tragedy the whole war was—over 58,000 dead,” he said. “There was an area for wounded veterans, so I sat with them. By the time the program started, I had tears in my eyes. I was overwhelmed by the number of people we were honoring.”

By the time McLaughlin returned home, it had become evident to him that he had PTSD. He met with a psychiatrist who was seeing veterans who were possibly suffering from PTSD and gained understanding of his condition.

McLaughlin’s experience at the Vietnam Memorial had a significant effect on his life. He has been married for 38 years and has served on the Mankato City Council and the Blue Earth County Board. He retired two years ago from a 25-year sales career in the refuse and recycling industry. He’s a mentor to veterans who attend Veterans Court (offered in Blue Earth County as an alternative to a jail sentence). McLaughlin also has served on the National Legislative Committee for Veterans of Foreign Wars and he meets with congressional representatives twice a year to lobby them about veterans issues. He is certified by the Veterans’ Hospital in Minneapolis to meet with amputees who are veterans.

Over the past 52 years, McLaughlin has had complications from his wounds, resulting in additional surgery. He said, “I’m still recovering from the most recent surgery. I had a knee that had a hinge, and now I have a new knee with new technology and mechanics.”

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