Newton County resident George Siders is involved in a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. military, related to post-traumatic stress disorder, but the Vietnam veteran is equally troubled by the horrors he saw in the war and the way the military treated him afterward.
Siders is part of a nationwide lawsuit seeking to get his "other than honorable discharge" from the U.S. Marine Corps upgraded, arguing post-traumatic stress disorder wasn't widely recognized until years after the Vietnam War ended and that the military offered no support for returning veterans and even tried to force them out to avoid paying benefits.
The News covered the lawsuit in its March 5 edition, but brought Siders in for a more in-depth interview to discuss his experiences during and after the war.
Because he didn't have a honorable discharge, Siders has caught his share of criticism - a fellow, senior veteran called The News after the initial article and called Siders' actions despicable - but, he believes he's due the upgrade he thought he was promised back in 1971.
Siders was raised on a farm in Columbus, Ohio and joined the military at 18, just after graduating high school.
"I wanted to do my part and fight for my country," Siders said.
And with that one uplifting sentence spoken, Siders quickly transitions into thoughts jaded by the experiences that followed his enlistment.
"After we got over there, (we) found out the way to war is faulty. (Our leaders) didn't care if they won or lost. You find out they give all the draft dodgers amnesty, and they wouldn't give us nothing when we came back. It's like a slap in the face."
Siders served with the 3rd battalion, 9th Marine Corps, 1st platoon, for 13 months and 20 days during 1968 and 1969. Out of the 40 major combat operations the 3rd battalion, 9th Marine Corps performed during the Vietnam War, Siders was involved in 26, including a major operation into the A Shau Valley.
"There's no way you could really explain to anybody or tell them (what it was like)," Siders said. "Man, you couldn't imagine the way the body can be destroyed. What's the most shocking thought is ‘Why didn't I get killed?' I've had friends beside me be shot, and you don't stop because your adrenaline is pumped up so bad, you keep going.
"You feel sorry as hell for the guy who got killed, but you're glad it's not you.
"They made me a fire team leader. All these guys come over and you had to pick one of your crew to go on listening post at night. You know you're probably sending this guy off to get killed. They made me a squad leader of an 11-man machine gun team. Then you have to pick out guys you know won't be coming back. You have to live with that. The government didn't even try to help us when we came back.
"I can see these guys'
faces now. A smell, or somebody will say a certain word, it's like an instant replay of Vietnam. Sometimes you don't have any control whatsoever."
"I can see these guys' faces now. A smell, or somebody will say a certain word, it's like an instant replay of Vietnam. Sometimes you don't have any control whatsoever."
Siders recalls his first kill - how the only though after it was, "I didn't know the brain was gray" - having to collect bodies of fallen enemies for body counts, pits that dug bamboo fishhooks into legs and had explosives to boot and being air lifted out of zones on top of dead bodies - when the helicopter reaches a certain altitude, "it sucks the air out of the bodies and you hear them gurgling.
"Being a farm kid, there was no way you could express the feelings you had. It's hopeless."
Long after Siders was discharged from the military - he left base at Camp Lejeune, N.C. without permission twice and took a discharge to avoid a court martial - he found a civilian doctor who had been in the Air Force and was knowledgeable about PTSD.
Siders said he avoids going into crowded stores like Walmart - "there's too many people and I always have my back to the wall. It's a habit. In the store, you can't do that."
He said his uncontrolled bouts of anger took a toll on his wife and children. He still worries about the effects Agent Orange - an herbicide used during the Vietnam War to remove the dense foliage from trees and plants to remove cover and destroy food sources - on his children and grandchildren. He said the military told him he wasn't anywhere near areas where they sprayed Agent Orange, even though Siders said he participated in operations in North Vietnam where the chemicals were most used.
"The government would lie to us knowing they were lying. We just had to shut up and go on," Siders said.
Siders said he went missing, AWOL, the first time because his dad had suffered a heart attack and the Marine Corps wouldn't let him use the 60 days of leave he said he had upon returning to the states.
He left for 26 days, only returning after he had settled things at the house. When he returned, he received 30 days hard labor and forfeited six months of pay.
His dad suffered another heart attack, and Siders again tried to get permission to leave, but was denied multiple times. So he left again, this time for 15 days.
"I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing jumping through hoops?'" Siders said. "Normally, I wouldn't disobey an order, but I was going to show them I was going to go. When it comes to your family (it's different). The Marine Corps, I was already fighting for them, but when I tried to fight for my family, they wouldn't let me, so I just went AWOL."
The lawsuit being pursued by Yale University students working through the academic program Veterans Legal Services Clinic argues that Siders, and others, undiagnosed PTSD led to their behaviors, difficulty readjusting to routine military life and eventual "other than honorable" discharges.
Siders, who is one of five veterans specifically named in the suit, argues the military turned its back on its veterans. He admits he made mistakes, but he believes he made them for the right reasons.
"This lawsuit now, (the military) should start paying for what they done. They treated Vietnam veterans like garbage, dumped us out at the garbage dump and left us to fend for ourselves," Siders said.
"What I'd like to see happen is to get more Vietnam veterans who have been done like this to come in (to the lawsuit). Maybe even get something to help these veterans on the street. They fought the ultimate fight all these years on the street. It's a shame this country could do them that way and watch a man live out in the street in a box. What the hell is wrong with this country?"