Editor’s note: The Journal’s Unsung Heroes series spotlights a local veteran each week from Memorial Day to Veterans Day. If you would like to nominate an Unsung Hero, email [email protected]
By TIM COOK
BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. — For nearly 50 years, the same questions resurface over and over in his mind.
Why did our country really have to get involved? Why were our patriotic military service members disrespected and sacrificed so casually? If we had to fight, why did our political leaders hamstring our military so much during the war? Why didn’t we learn from history?
Perhaps most deeply confounding and unsettling of all, why did so many other good men lose their lives, when he did not?
Howard C. Prevost Jr., is a 70-year-old man quietly haunted by his past.
“I’m a proud American veteran, I am that,” Prevost said sitting in his Berkeley Springs home one recent luminous summer day. “I am somewhat disgruntled, and I think I’ll have PTSD for the rest of my life because,” he continued before pausing to catch his emotions, “of Vietnam.”
In a conversational refrain, he added, “Once you got into Vietnam and got into the country and around the area, things that happened really weren’t normal.”
While talking about his Vietnam War experience, Prevost, a stocky but trimly muscular man with a dark mustache, wept and apologized repeatedly for it. Different thoughts, different memories mixed together when he talked, forming a blended stream of insights, emotions, doubts and confessions.
The PTSD that Prevost mentioned is post-traumatic stress disorder, a potentially debilitating condition of recurring stress, fear or depression sometimes developed by people exposed to dangerous or traumatic events. Although estimates vary, as many as 30 percent of the 2.7 million people who served in uniform in Vietnam could have the condition (half of whom are considered undiagnosed, however), according to the U.S. Veterans Department and the U.S. Defense Department.
Today, about 883,000 people receive Veterans Administration benefits for having PTSD.
“It’s kind of rough,” Prevost said of his PTSD, commonly called an invisible wound of war. “A lot of different things happens, and it’s kind of hard to sit here and talk about it.”
Nevertheless, Prevost, who takes 12 daily pills and attends weekly group therapy with other veterans as part of his PTSD treatment, said he wanted to talk to a reporter about his condition. It would be good for him, he said.
Military life begins
Except for his 12 years of Air Force military service starting after high school, Prevost is a lifelong resident of Berkeley County. When he turned 18, he signed up for selective service, Vietnam War was escalating — “going crazy,” he said.
Prevost didn’t want to get drafted into the war, preferring instead to enlist and fulfill his duty. He always liked the Air Force, especially the helicopters the service flew.
“Really, it’s kind of a crazy statement,” he said with a chuckle at his affinity for whirlybirds.
So one day in the spring of 1968, Prevost and two other friends from Berkeley Springs met at the Air Force recruiting office in Hagerstown, Maryland, to sign up for military service. By strange coincidence and circumstances, after military aptitude testing showed he had innate abilities with mechanics, he would later be assigned and trained for Air Force helicopter maintenance.
With the war in the foreground, Prevost signed up anyway, following the example of his father who served as an infantryman in World War II and participated in the Normandy invasion on Omaha Beach.
“It’s my duty. It’s my duty as a citizen, as a man, as a person, you know,” Prevost said of enlisting. “It’s your civic duty to do that.”
After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas, he went on for mechanical training at Sheppard Air Force Base near Wichita Falls, Texas.
“It was exciting, but as things began to approach Vietnam, things got real, real serious,” he recalled.
In February of 1970, Prevost was sent to Vietnam to serve as a helicopter mechanic for the 21st Special Operations Squadron “Death Devils” in Southeast Asia. As a maintenance officer, his duty was to ride with the birds on missions to make necessary repairs. That put him in the middle of many flights, so-called in-fields and ex-fields in Air Force lingo, to pick up or drop off special forces on the front lines in the jungle. Strapped in a seat with no way to flee or fight back, he was shot at many times.
“It’s not a good feeling. You’re there,” he said. “It’s an act of God.”
It was a matter of luck and happenstance where reinforced plating was in the helicopter and where bullets and shrapnel might enter the helicopter, Prevost said. Some places were protected on the helicopters, many others were not.
He distinctly recalled witnessing one helicopter pilot’s fingers get shot off one hand.
“But why? That’s what I want to know — why?” he asked. “Nobody can answer that.”
Prevost recalled the war deaths of five Air Force friends and comrades — “really, really, really top-notch guys.” One died 11 days before he would have finished his tour in Vietnam. “Those men served their country with honor — every damn one of them,” he said. “Everybody’s life matters — everybody’s.”
A jumble of descriptions of images and events in Vietnam flow out from Prevost. He talked about the relentless pressure of those missions piling up, with one inevitably following the other.
“But the things that are there… with the way it was, it didn’t really jive,” he said. “As things progressed, I got more and more pissed off because of the things that just happened. You know, why?”
At home in Berkeley Springs, Prevost shuffled through several black-and-while pictures of those same helicopters riddled with bullet and fist-size shrapnel holes. One picture includes Prevost next to a helicopter pointing to the shrapnel holes, and he’s smiling.
“At that time, I think I come pretty close to becoming an alcoholic,” he said.
Leaving the military
After his tour of Vietnam, Prevost was assigned to Thule Air Base, located about 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle — “at the top of the world,” he said — to provide helicopter maintenance for air rescue and recovery missions for military personnel working radar systems positioned to detect any potential Russian missile attacks.
He spent a short time supporting helicopters at missile silos in the Midwest. He went on to Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, where he supervised and taught a helicopter maintenance crew assisting the Coast Guard with search and rescue operations at the biggest Air Force base in the county consisting of 900 square miles of land.
Prevost then served helicopter search-and-rescue crew at Eglin Air Force Base until he decided to leave the service in 1979. He said he had intended to make military service a full career, but something inexplicable to him prompted a change of mind. At age 32, he left his military service behind.
“I had 12 years, six months and two days or so in, and for some reason it just kind of like, I don’t know how to say it, it caught up with you where you wanted a change,” he said. “I just got out. I don’t know why. I mean, it’s hard to explain.”
A freakish accident at Elgin 1976, he said, may have contributed to the decision. A dead battery in a military van mysteriously blew up while Prevost was helping to recharge it with another vehicle.
“The whole top came off,” he said of the battery. “It sounded like a 12-gauge shotgun. It blew me back.”
An unexplained explosion blew him to the ground, but not before battery acid splashed his upper torso. The acid burned his hands and face, and shards of broken battery bits flew like shrapnel. Fortunately, at the time, he wore hard contacts in his eyes that prevented the acid from severely damaging his eyes.
“I was very lucky to be seeing,” he said.
After leaving the military, Prevost returned home. His father, who lived with a disabled hand because of his Normandy experience, persuaded him to visit the VA hospital in Martinsburg for counseling. He came back from Vietnam with really bad headaches, headaches requiring injections to relieve.
“I didn’t really want to go,” he said. “It’s really helped me a lot and I know it, just sitting here talking like this is hard. But since I’ve been in the group — everybody’s there. … We have Vietnam vets. We have Iraqi vets. We have Afghani vets. We have everyone that’s in there. Everybody in my group — most of them are Vietnam veterans.”
“We all talk about things, and we’re safe in there,” he added.
His headaches are gone now. And Prevost goes to the VA three days a week — Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday — for peer support, for anxiety, for combat support.
“If it wasn’t for the Martinsburg VA center being where it is and with the people that they have down there — I don’t know, I don’t know, I’d probably be like some of the others.”
He said he knows lots of veterans with PTSD. All of the 24 veterans in his talk therapy group at the VA hospital have it, and there are several such groups at the hospital. But some veterans don’t want to talk about the problem at all, he said.
“They don’t ever want to hear the word — not at all.”
For a few years, Prevost worked as a local sheriff’s deputy before taking a deputy job in Washington County, Maryland. Those jobs, however, wore down his nervous system, he realized later. He remembered one night sitting in his patrol car with the radio on, and “Danger Zone” came over the speakers.
“You can’t tell me what happened after that — I wanted out, out of law enforcement,” he said.
Even today, Prevost has several friends working in law enforcement — “My heart’s with them all the time,” he said — but he is glad he left the job. For a few years, he built hot tubs before retiring.
Lessons from there
Prevost said he enjoyed his military service and was proud to serve. Sitting on a sofa at home surrounded by medals and memorabilia, he reflected back on what his Vietnam experience taught him. He talked about a string of several topics, past and present, seeking connections between the two.
Firstly, America naively doesn’t learn history, Prevost offered. World War II was the only war that was justified for Americans to fight, he said. But since then, he said, our country and its leaders have been too arrogantly blind to history, which is mostly about war. Prevost talked about other countries — France, Great Britain, Russia — that became militarily entangled in Vietnam before America, only to abandon the country unsubdued.
“With all of the countries that were there in Vietnam before we got there, nobody ever won the ballgame,” he said. “Everybody just kind of quit and went home.”
He said, “I feel that those of us that went to Vietnam — I think we were betrayed because the simple fact is that nobody ever takes a look to see what happen or how or why it happened.”
Secondly, America too often treats is veterans too casually, Prevost said. Part of Prevost’s anger is that the country fought the Vietnam War without letting the military win it, he said, but more of it is that we lost so many good people in the fight. Without reflection, American leaders have been willing to sacrifice American lives too easily, he said.
Prevost said if he had had a child, he would have wanted him or her to serve in the military. He said every young American should give at least two years of their lives to military service, and the way most Americans would be prepared to respond and assist their country in an emergency, whether they happen to be in the military at that time.
However, he said it’s unconscionable that the same military members are sent today to serve three and four combat tours. He recalled one soldier who was killed on his fifth tour. Sending a soldier on that many combat tours is abusing that person’s patriotism, he said.
“You should never have to put that kind of pressure on a person, never ever.”
Prevost mentioned the use of Agent Orange deforesting chemicals in Vietnam and the government’s stinginess after in identifying and assisting troops possibly harmed by exposure to the chemical. Any person who served their country’s military should receive medical treatment, no matter what the medical the issue is, he said.
Thirdly, there’s too much conflict and war, Prevost said. He talked about history again, how it is taught in America in a way that discounts the terrible costs of war too much.
Prevost mentioned politics and politicians influencing America’s wars, “and just about everything in some way today.”
Prevost said he would probably be a conscientious objector today if he was called to fight what he called another senseless war. He said America needs to focus on defending itself more, and not be so quick to intervene in conflicts within the borders of other countries.
“We’re Americans. We go in some place and we fight,” he said. “And we lose people. For what reason? Because when we’re done anywhere, anyplace, at any time — America goes back in and they build up their countries. They rebuild everything for everybody. It’s always stupid how it happens.”
Prevost wishes television would show more programs with less conflict and more “togetherness.”
“But if we don’t think… if we don’t take ourselves seriously enough to understand what we have around us here,” he said, “this whole world is going to light up in a big way.”
A good life left
Prevost, who has a third-degree black belt in karate, likes to spend time in the woods alone. He has a cabin in the woods, but he goes prepared to defend himself “in case something happens.”
He wouldn’t travel overseas — it wouldn’t be safe enough, he said.
“America itself — there’s no greater country,” he said. “And to be in the military, there’s no greater feeling than to serve your country.”
Prevost said he’s lived a good life so far, and hopes to live many more years. When he goes to a restaurant he, like other veterans he knows, prefers to sit in the back with a wall behind him and a vantage of the whole restaurant in front of him.
“Even 40 years or more later, it’s just there,” he said.
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