March, 1966 - Amended excerpts from ‘Vietnam Sky Soldiers’ by Wayne English. “The Huey crashed nose first into the earth and you could see the door gunner bracing for impact. The engine was still running while the chopper seemed to wallow around before the rotor blades snapped off. Pieces of rotor blades were flying through the air. Then we started receiving small arms fire along with artillery and mortars all around 2nd Battalion’s perimeter. The noise was thunderous, the loudest of any battle we had fought so far. Lead was flying everywhere. I took cover behind the massive root system of this huge tree but rounds hit beside my legs and bark was flying off the trunk. I moved to the other side but continued to draw fire. Then I realized snipers were in the trees.”
Almost 50 years later: The new book kept Wayne so captivated he paid no attention to the heavy rain beating the roof nor the distant rumbling of things to come. His wife, Linda, slept quietly next to him, exhausted from the daily never-ending farm choirs of English Gap. Unexpectedly, a bolt of lightning exploded beside the farmhouse as if an NVA 122mm rocket had found its mark.
Wayne grabbed his wife with one hand; a shotgun with the other. “Get down! Get down!” he screamed, dragging his stunned spouse halfway down the stairs. Linda English had been through these episodes before, not knowing if her husband would recover, shoot up the farmhouse, or possibly shoot her.
Experience and empathy usually saved the day. Linda calmly said to her husband, “Wayne, I don’t know where you’re going but you may want to put on your clothes first.” Naked, on a staircase with a shotgun in one hand, his spouse in the other, smoothed his passage from flashback to reality. Linda understood: before they married, Wayne had insisted she attend his PTSD meetings so his future wife would comprehend what she was getting into.
Pick your war: The Civil War to WWI to WWII. Korea to Nam, the Gulf War to the sizzling sands of Iraq to the cold mountains of Afghanistan, all nothing more than valueless real estate of rocks or jungle or sand or snow. Acreage obtained by blood then abandoned, paid for with lives, body parts, psychological damage, and a lifetime of unpleasant visions. Politicians fail; swords are rattled; the young pay the price. Heroes are buried; the survivors come home. The affliction has been described in eerie if not droll axioms: trench disease, shell shock, battle or combat fatigue, nervous disease, Irritable Heart, exhaustion, nostalgia, stress response syndrome, estar roto (to be broken), and the now accepted catchphrase: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Pick your label, but the symptoms are the same: anger, depression, a survivor’s guilt, inability to cope with ‘normal’ life, fear of crowds, fear of commitment, a fear of living. The claim has been made if a person is not somewhat crazy after surviving continuous combat then sanity may have been an issue before entering the military.
Not so with Wayne English. He said, “I grew up hunting fox and coon, so I knew how to get around in the woods, reference points and such. The jungle is different, but my background as a woodsman did help so that’s how I got stuck with a radio on my back. My first 6 months was bad enough, but in my last 6 months l lost 4 FOs (Forward Observers) and 2 RTOs while serving as FO for recon.”
Excerpt from his book: ‘The last few months I spent with recon I served with Lt. Carnes and Sgt. Powell. I was left in the jungle on an operation 14 days past the date I was to go home. The Battalion Commander gave me papers to clear the post so I could catch the Freedom Bird home.’
Wayne English survived over 20 search and destroy operations with the 173rd, rocket and mortar attacks, booby traps, and choppers peppered with AK-47 rounds. He did his duty; that duty was over, now began the battle at home against a rigid governmental bureaucracy, an apathetic nation, and himself.
1966 – 1986: The Troubled Years: “I came home and worked for Dad, he was a contractor at the time,” Wayne recalled. “But I was having a lot of problems readjusting, getting my head straight. I got a janitorial job because it kept me occupied but away from people. I landed a big job with a big J.C. Penney store, $800.00 a week; that was great money back then. I was isolated, kept to myself, no altercations. Problem was my wife and 2 daughters fell victim to my isolation, too.”
Religion proved no cure. “I studied the Bible with religious groups, the Baptists, Jehovah Witnesses, trying to get my faith back. I was seeking an understanding of why God allowed certain things and needed to get in touch with Him. Things were falling apart. I left my wife and kids. I didn’t see them again for 10 years. A second marriage lasted 9 months. Then I chose to get away.”
1981 - The deep blue sea beckoned his isolation. “I acquired an off-shore Captain’s license and worked the off-shore oil fields, did some crabbing and shrimping….it was good work and I was by myself. God makes you look real small on the ocean; you are only the thickness of the hull from extinction.”
Undercover work: “I went undercover with the DEA, fighting cocaine, pot…I liked getting the bad guys. I worked in Europe for a while, but the people had no drive, no initiative, I couldn’t take it. Belgian NATO proved interesting, along with their Secret Service counterparts, trying to stop a Basque Terrorist counterfeit operation. Did that for eighteen months. I fit in well with the ‘hate America’ crowd because of my Nam experience and was doing great undercover work until word got out the Basque Terrorists had caught on and put me on a hit list. It was time to come home.”
1986, a day of reckoning: Wayne enters the VA Hospital suffering from acute severe delayed PTSD. “I went in with anger issues but the more I saw the angrier I got. What I saw at the VA and the way veterans were being treated made me gnash my teeth. I was diagnosed and placed on disability, signed the papers and thought that was it. Well, the $42,000 back pay was refused because they said I forgot to sign one paper. We enter for help, not to become proficient at paperwork. This went on for 2 years. Then I met Linda.”
Linda Garrard was teaching American History at Jackson High School when Wayne English entered her life. She recalled, “I instructed my students to write one paragraph about Vietnam and asked if anyone knew a Vietnam veteran that could talk to us. Well, I’d seen this guy escort his daughter at homecoming court and on the sidelines during games. I thought he was good-looking. Lo and behold, I get a call from this guy Wayne English. He loved history also, so we talked for hours, and I don’t even like to talk much.”
Wayne interrupted, “Let me say this, she does love to talk, so much so people think I’m shy.” With about 10 people surrounding the kitchen table during the interview and even more in the living room, Wayne’s comment caused an unscheduled five-minute break to recover from the hilarity.
Linda continued, “We could sit here for hours discussing the problems at the VA, but I think it’s important to focus on English Gap.”
Wayne picked up the story, “Of course Linda and I married. I found this piece of bottom land, flat, high grass and woods, and took Linda to see it. We sat on a big rock and decided this piece of God’s green earth had to be the right place to help veterans get a fresh start.”
The veterans of English Gap: Even before construction commenced on the farmhouse in 1991, Wayne and Linda English resolved to dedicate their lives to combat veterans in need of a helping hand. They met a veteran at the VA in need of a ride home, they called the brown water Navy Vietnam vet, ‘Swabbie.’ Wayne recalled, “The guy’s ‘home’ was a cardboard box on the streets of Atlanta. Swabbie was a civil engineer, living in the streets. We brought him to our home, been bringing them home ever since.”
With the farmhouse completed in 1992, Wayne got in touch with an old buddy from Texas. “He came to live with us,” Wayne said. “We worked non-stop until he received his social security and 100 percent disability. Linda and I thought he would be the last one. We missed that assumption by a wide margin.”
Army veteran Mark Rutledge and his lovely daughter Jamie Marie live in a cabin at English Gap. Mark said during an interview, “We love English Gap; they saved my life. It’s peaceful. Strangely, I would go back doing what I did in the Army in a heartbeat.”
Josh (not his real name) lives with his girlfriend at English Gap. Josh had over 50 confirmed kills as a Marine sniper while serving tours in Bosnia and Afghanistan. His spotter was wounded in Bosnia. A NATO ally left them behind to fend for themselves. Josh carried the wounded spotter on his back for six miles, all the while feeling the life slowly drain from his buddy. Attending church regularly has helped, somewhat.
Another brown water Navy veteran lives in one of the cabins and is a certified medicine man of the Sioux Nation. He has endured the Sun Dance 4 times. A sweat lodge is nearby.
Norm (not his real name) is the builder. Give him a hammer and nails and a few supplies: presto, instant cabin. Norm served in the Navy on the destroyer USS Frank D. Evans. On June 3, 1969, the Evans was off the coast of Vietnam with an allied contingent when wrong turns and inexperience caused a night collision with the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne. The Evans was sliced in half. Her bow drifted off and sank in less than 5 minutes, taking 74 men with her, including all the sailors in Norm’s gun crew.
Another veteran at English Gap was diagnosed with PTSD after his first tour in Iraq. He served 4 more tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, all on anti-depressants. A neighbor’s son served 2 tours as a sniper. Once home, still suffering from brain bleeds, he lived in the woods in a tent behind his father’s house for over 4 years. The father visited his son often just to hold him. Two of Linda English’s former students from Jackson High School live at English Gap.
Donations to keep the farm operable are always appreciated, but more than anything else English Gap needs materials: The timber, hardware of all types, windows and doors, electrical supplies, cabinets, insulation, even a sink or two. They have the labor: hard-working honest veterans, they just need the support.
Security is not a problem. Wayne said with a grin, “A security company called with a sales pitch. I told them our farm was inhabited by combat veterans; why the heck would we need any security.”
Visit their website: englishgapga.com Phone: 770-775-1732
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.