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For some veterans, a different war continues

Apr. 14, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Steven Seldomridge is a proud veteran of the Vietnam War -- a war that maintains an iron grip on his life and will not let go. He speaks with a great deal of reservation as he relives his tour of duty in Vietnam as though it was much more recent than 40 years ago. His voice stumbles and pauses repeatedly with emotion as he painfully recalls events from a war that shattered his world. So many who leave to fight for their country are not the same when they return.

Seldomridge is among thousands who returned home from war emotionally wounded. Because their scars are not obviously apparent, their problems are often overlooked by others and left to be dealt with by those who endure them. Research shows this to be a problem with all past wars.

Seldomridge hopes by agreeing to be interviewed, that it might encourage others who suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder to come forward for counseling and support.

"PTSD is a real problem," said Seldomridge. "Emotional wounds suffered in war are not as visible to the public, but they are just as crippling."

Seldomridge considers himself to be a "reluctant volunteer" for military service, because of the circumstances surrounding his initial enlistment.

"I was enrolled at Marshall University in 1967 when I received my draft notice from the United States Army," said Seldomridge. "I asked the Army induction center for a student deferment to allow me to finish my degree program; they refused. Even after I produced a statement from my physician showing I was still recovering from hepatitis, the Army wouldn't budge from their position."

Seldomridge knew if he enlisted in the Army he would be in the infantry and was going to be sent to Vietnam. So he decided that sailing the ocean with the Navy would keep him far from the boarders of southeast Asia.

Ten days after entering boot camp at the Naval training center at Great Lakes, Ill., Seldomridge received his first few letters from home. One of those letters came from the Selective Service System granting his deferment from the military until graduation from college. The Navy's answer to this letter was that they didn't draft him, and they had no intentions of letting him go.

After boot camp training at Great Lakes, Seldomridge thought for sure he would be assigned to a large, oceangoing aircraft carrier, instead he was sent to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla. For the next two years or so he worked odd shifts, irregular hours and weekends as directed.

"I hung up large targets," said Seldomridge. "When Marine and Naval fighter pilots needed air-to-ground target training, I went to the range to hang up the large targets for them. I would score their hits and report the results. After they finished, I would clean up the target range and get ready for the next group of fliers. I never got hit directly from their fire, but sometimes they were close."

Then came assignment orders to Vietnam, a place that Seldomridge once believed had little need for the Navy. Prior to departing, he was sent to Little Creek Naval center in Virginia for counterinsurgency training, which consisted of various weapon qualifications, lifesaving techniques on water, physical fitness and classroom survival training. His class was later dropped off in the dense woods of Virginia to practice what they were taught in the classroom.

After being allowed a week home in Huntington, Seldomridge was soon aboard a packed commercial jet heading for Vietnam. He remembers thinking how many aboard would return home. He wondered if he would be one of them.

"I arrived in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, around 2 in the morning on Oct. 2, 1969," said Seldomridge. "The place was alive with activity. The smell of jet fuel was so heavy it was almost nauseating. Helicopters were landing and taking-off, C-130 gunships were lined up near the runways for take-off. On the far side of the bay you could see bullet tracers firing into the dense jungle hillside from flying aircraft. I wanted to crawl back into the plane and go home, but I knew that would be impossible."

Once again Seldomridge found himself with a job full of odd shifts, irregular hours and weekends as directed. He flew with cargo planes dropping off Navy Seebees to remote construction sites. He flew to river locations with supplies for Navy patrol boats. He took medical supplies to Thailand, Subic Bay in the Philippines and other locations as directed. Often, there were bullet holes to patch in the airplanes.

When not flying, he was driving and refueling aircraft from a gasoline truck that carried 5,000 gallons when full. He would walk night patrols along the perimeter of the flight line and, something he dreaded most, stood on night guard in the observation tower near the parked aircraft.

"The planes needed patched up quite frequently from ground fire," said Seldomridge. "One night the flight line was attacked, and some friends were killed. After that I always became quite nervous driving that fuel truck around. There was always the threat of sporadic mortar and rocket attacks that brought return fire from our H-1 Huey choppers."

In order to keep the worry down at home in West Virginia, especially for his grandmother, Seldomridge and a buddy snuck in the base swimming pool one evening, and climbed up in the lifeguard seat while wearing swimming trunks and took pictures of each other. They then sent the pictures home telling family not to worry because their only job was that of a lifeguard at the base pool. It worked.

Seldomridge returned back to the states to receive a most unruly welcome home. He describes the scene at the airport as hurtful, terrifying and nerve-racking.

He returned home and tried to finish his degree at Marshall but lacked the concentration he once had. He took his old job at Big Bear for a while, traveled to a few towns trying to settle down, returned to Huntington and began seeking help for PTSD.

Amid his treatment, Seldomridge found steady employment and retired, but not before suffering congestive heart failure at age 58, a condition that was corrected with open heart surgery.

For many years he didn't want people to know he was ever in the Armed Forces. And yet he did as much to protect this land as anyone. And he is still trying to completely recover from it.

Clyde Beal is an area freelance writer looking for stories from those who remember Huntington's trolley cars. Write him at archie350@frontier.com.