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When Jim McGarrity graduated from Garfield High School in 1965, he didn’t have many options. He could either go to college to defer the draft, go to prison for avoiding it, wait until they called his name or join on his own. On what he says was a beautiful May morning in 1966, broke and unemployed, McGarrity walked into the Marine recruiter’s office at Main and Market streets and enlisted for three years — three years, he now knows, that would change his life forever.
In his most recent book, “Well After War: Mending the Invisible Wound,” McGarrity opens up about his experiences in Vietnam and the tragedies he saw that led to his development of posttraumatic stress disorder.
“My life was so full of great adventures and experiences that people always said, ‘You should write that stuff down,’” McGarrity says. “I had tried many times to face it since as far back as the ‘70s but I could never come to terms with it.”
Unlike an earlier autobiography of his time in Vietnam, “Well After War” leaves nothing to the imagination. One of McGarrity’s main duties in Vietnam was to drive into potential land mine areas before his fellow troops passed through to ensure their safety. It wasn’t long before he began to blame himself when things went wrong.
“I was a 19-year-old kid who could have cared less for helping a nation fight Communism after being there two weeks and seeing other 19-year-olds chewed up in the most horrific manners,” he says. “Within two months after arriving in Vietnam in March 1967, I saw people blown to pieces and wondered, ‘Why not me?’ In June, I overreacted to an attack ahead of us, and a Master Sergeant that everyone loved died, and I’ve always felt it was my fault. In November, it started raining and never stopped until the following year.”
Though the weight of McGarrity’s horrific experiences overseas was slowly eating away at his sanity, he can pinpoint exactly the moment everything changed. He was standing on the edge of a road with a fellow Marine in his arms; the man had been severed in half during battle. As he stood there, helpless to save his friend, something inside him snapped.
“It was that very moment that I began to feel the insanity seeping into me,” he says. “I dropped him, and everything around me went blank until later when I was at a Marine combat camp washing the blood off me.”
Despite his fragile mental state, McGarrity continued to serve for the rest of his term. On a 30-day leave a year before his release, his home felt cold and foreign.
“Everyone knew where we had just come from,” he says. “Friends you had all your life wouldn’t talk to you — even family members shied away. Mostly those 30 days, I drove around by myself with a bottle of wine and drank.”
When McGarrity ended his tour in Vietnam, the term “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” was more of a diagnosis coined by antiwar activists than an accepted anxiety disorder. He enrolled in college upon his return to the United States, hoping to start a normal life, but he quickly felt alone next to fellow classmates and friends who already had established careers. Over 30 years later, McGarrity began to receive the help he desperately needed.
“I was officially diagnosed at the VA Medical Center in Brecksville in December 2004,” he says. “Medications and awareness through therapy help a lot, but PTSD is an emotional attachment to a traumatic event. During those moments of great fear, the mind changes — there is an actual biochemical change to the way it stores memories and the way we relate to the world and react to it.
“A simple example would be an out-of-the-ordinary reaction to a dog based on a frightening experience from your past. Magnify that a thousand times, and you begin to see the reaction people with PTSD can have based on numerous ‘triggers,’ say a smell or look or innocent comment.”
With his wife Dorothy by his side (the couple celebrated their 42nd anniversary in August), McGarrity has tried to live his life as normally as possible. He spends a great deal of time trying to bring awareness to the devastating effects of PTSD on war veterans, but that doesn’t mean he’s trying to be some kind of hero.
“Ask any person who’s been to war, and almost exclusively, we don’t see what we experienced personally as deserving of any kind of special recognition because so many others did so much more,” he says. “In the Marines, you do what you’re told.”
Despite all he’s been through, McGarrity doesn’t regret going to Vietnam, but the current wars overseas make his blood boil.
“What pisses me off is why old bald guys send young men and women to fight for causes that don’t make sense or to just line fat cats’ wallets,” he says. “Would I encourage my son to go to war for oil or lies or whatever? The answer would be, ‘Hell no!’”
McGarrity, who recently moved to South Carolina with his wife, plans to continue writing so current veterans and the next generation of veterans can learn from his story.
“Don’t wait until you’re in your 50s to realize that life is worth living and there’s very little time to achieve it,” he says.
/ Writer Leighann McGivern is an editorial intern with akronlife. She is a senior at KSU working on her bachelor’s in journalism.