"Sharing can be a way of healing. Grief and loss can isolate,
anger even alienate. Shared with others, emotions unite
as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

Through our writing, we walk out of the darkness into the light
together, one small step at a time, recording history, educating
America, and we are healing.
~CJ/Todd Dierdorff

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Piece of My Story: CJ Heck

Over the past month, many of you have thoughtfully shared your experiences. It's so good you have been able to do that. I know it took courage to face the memories and even more courage to sit down and write about them.

I figure it's only fair to also share something with you that I haven't written about before. I also had memories and feelings that haunted me.

My loss of innocence came when I was notified about the death of my husband in Vietnam when I was twenty. Doug ("Doc") was KIA in September of 1969. 

Emotionally, I was not able, (or maybe didn't know how), to talk about what that was like, even to those closest to me.

Months passed and eventually, I applied to and was accepted by TWA as a flight attendant. After the six weeks of training, I moved from my hometown in Ohio to San Francisco. A part of me thought by moving away, I could also escape everything I had been feeling and was unable to cope with.

For a while, I continued to wear my wedding ring, which often brought questions and comments from those I met.  Some people could be so cruel:

"He shouldn't have been in Vietnam -- none of them should be there!"
"What a stupid way to die."
"Thank God you didn't have any children."
"Vietnam isn't even a war."
"Oh, did he kill children?"
"Why didn't he just refuse to go?"

I soon took off my ring.  I locked it [and my memories] in a safe place, but where I could get to them, when I needed to. But I had learned not to talk about him at all, or about how I felt.

As you know and have shared, back then, anyone connected to the Vietnam War learned to hide their experiences, their emotions, as well as their anguish. I know many stopped all contact with other people, preferring only the company of those they knew would understand.

It was not a time when people wanted to listen -- they wanted only to take action.

One night when was feeling really bad, I decided that I didn't want to feel anything, ever again. I was going to be with Doug. I drove to a beach, parked my car, and calmly walked out into the ocean.

A couple walking on the moonlit sand saw me and, against my will, they dragged me back to the beach. They refused to leave, until I had stopped sobbing, and made me promise to get help in the morning.  Then they watched as I got in my car and drove away.  I knew I wouldn't be able to talk about it, so I ignored my promise, nor would I speak of this again to anyone.

Later that same year, I met a veteran, a Marine Lt. fresh home from Vietnam. He was living in the BOQ at Treasure Island. His MOS had been transportation, and what he had experienced in country had been disturbing to him.

While we dated, I encouraged him to talk. Somehow, I knew that was important and I listened as it all poured out of him. I could easily relate to much of what he shared:  the anti-war atmosphere that permeated the news and the streets, the memories, emotions, the loss of Brothers in Nam, and the whole negativity of the public towards Vietnam veterans in general.

Ten months later we were married, but I knew early on that this had been a mistake. I also needed to talk about the worst experience that I had ever been through in my life.

He saw my need to talk very differently. He told me he would not compete with a ghost. Even though I assured him that was not what I was asking him to do, he would not allow it. I needed him to be there for me, to listen to what I had also been through and how it had affected me. But he would not.

Though I knew in my heart that it would never work out, I was not raised to be a quitter. Indeed, some in my family even said, "If it isn't working, then you aren't working hard enough." So, I set my jaw, determined I would make the marriage work. I stopped bringing up my issues and did my best to ignore, and hide, them.

Emotionally, I knew I was distancing myself -- I could feel it. And although I hid everything, it was still there -- I could feel that, too. Every time it came to the surface, I shoved it back inside, and each time it came back, it was worse than before.

By year seven, I was busy raising three daughters, ages 1, 3, and 5. They were the light and the focal point of my life and I poured my love into them.

Then suddenly one night, I started having the same dream over and over.   In it, the doorbell would ring. I would open the door to find Doug standing there wearing faded jeans, a T-shirt, his tan jacket over his right shoulder, and the teasing smile he always wore, the one I loved so much to see. He would happily say, "Hey, Babe. C'mon, you ready? Grab your jacket, let's go."

I remember feeling no hesitation in the excitement of seeing him. I threw my arms around him and hugged his chest. Then, as I turned to get my jacket, there stood my three little girls, side-by-side, looking up at me in wide-eyed innocence.

Like a knife in the chest, I felt a cloying pain, confusion, and an overwhelming sadness. As I looked from their beautiful trusting faces to Doug standing casually in the doorway, then back at them, and again at Doug, I always woke up. I was drenched in sweat and shivering with terror.

The dream haunted my days and plagued my nights for months, until I finally told my husband about the dream. He informed me that I was crazy, or worse, that I was obviously contemplating suicide.

To be honest, I wasn't sure myself what the dream meant. I only knew I would never, ever choose to leave my daughters -- him maybe, but them, never. Maybe I was going crazy. Was I considering suicide again?

During the next nine years, I distanced myself even further. I had stopped talking about the dream to anyone. It was still an active part of my nights, but it was ignored, hidden the best that I could manage, along with everything else I wasn't supposed feel, or talk about.

Then something happened, which finally broke me. My mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She and daddy had always been my anchor. They knew I was unhappy -- I had told them that much -- and I always knew they would be there for me. 

Mama's diagnosis weighed heavily on me, until my fiercely guarded control over everything finally just unraveled.

I remember being on the couch curled in a fetal position, when my husband came home from work. I tried to speak, but I was unable to. I couldn't do anything, but shake uncontrollably. He was shouting at me and I was having a nervous breakdown.

The next morning, I found a therapist in the yellow pages and called. Over the next eight months, two sessions each week, I learned that I wasn't crazy, nor had I been contemplating suicide -- I loved my little girls more than anything in the world and I loved my life with them.

Through therapy, I slowly began to break down the walls I had built for self-protection. I also learned that you can't run away from hurt. You bring everything with you no matter how far you go, or how deep you bury it down inside. To begin to heal, I first had to face my fear of feeling, as well as everything else I had hidden away for so long. In the therapist's office, I found I could safely talk with no repercussions.

I was also encouraged to vent the deep anger I had hidden and felt so guilty about; anger towards God for allowing this to happen and towards Doug for leaving me. Most importantly, I was learning that it was okay to have all of those feelings. They were all a part of the grieving process and all were normal stages that I had just not gone through when I should have.

I also learned that it takes two people to make a marriage work. I could set my jaw all I wanted, with all the determination in the world, but unless both people are willing to do that together, the marriage cannot survive. We were like oil and water. Each is unique and good, separately, but the two together will never mix.

I still had a long, long way to go, but that had been a beginning ...

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale


  1. CJ I deeply admire you and all you have done. I can't imagine having to face life after the door bell rings. I hope you understand what I mean by saying, it's over for the fallen but not for the family. To face each moment after that horrible day such as you have tells me your a very special person. I know deep inside the battle continues, I know because it's now 3:30 AM as I write. You have made adjustments and making more as each day passes. I wish you happiness as you face those uncertain bends in your road ahead. Your strength is shown in your penmanship,,, With Deep Respect.

    1. Memoirs From Nam has taught me many things. I have learned that we all have hidden demons that haunt us. But they are what they are, our deep fear of facing pain. It takes courage to to that.

      You and the veterans I've met through the groups, are also my family, and I respect and love you all. I have found much comfort in knowing I am not alone.

      By your courage, I have learned courage. By your strength, I have learned to be strong, and by your sharing, I have learned that I can also share.

      Thank you for being my friend, for your thoughtful encouragement along the way, and for your warm comments here today.

  2. CJ: Thanks for sharing this, very brave and heartfelt. Also, a great reminder that we soldier types are not the only veterans who need to get it out. There are spouses (and families, too) out there who carry their own war stories, sometimes for many years, and always unless they tell them. Keep up the great work.
    By the way, my review of Anatomy of a Poet is up on Amazon, Goodreads, G+ and my website.

    1. I appreciate that, Byron. Your thoughtful comments mean more than you can know. Thank you, too, for taking the time to read and review "Anatomy of a Poet", and for sharing the review in so many places. You are a friend always.

  3. CJ, I feel moved and honoured to have read this part of your story. It takes great courage and emotional maturity to share such deeply felt, long-hidden feelings and events. I hope you found it a little cathartic. If I was with you, I would want to hold you close and weep with you for the release of these painful memories and dreams. You are deserving of great respect. You certainly have my respect...and admiration.
    Thank you for allowing me to share this intimate and meaningful part of your like.

    1. Thank you, my sweet friend, for your warm comments, and for your encouragement.

      Yes, writing has been very healing, even when I wrote 'for my eyes only', tearing the paper up, after the words left my fingers. Like you said, it isn't always easy, but writing and sharing is cathartic and healing, even just seeing the words on the page.

      When I count my blessings, please know, you are among them. A big hug back atcha, Christine, and thank you again.

  4. Thank you for your emotionally touching story. When people talk about war and the damage to the soldiers, they don't seem to understand that the families are just as effected as the soldiers themselves.
    Thank you for everything you are doing.

    1. Thank you, Bill, for your service, your kind thoughts, and your encouragement. I feel very fortunate to have met so many fine veterans like you and the many others I've met as a result of Memoirs From Nam. We are all helping each other and it's wonderful. Thank you once again!

  5. Thanks for what was on the home front or as in Nam we [back in the world ] as we ditty bopped in the bush .
    Later Dee

  6. CJ, you constantly amaze me. You are truly one in a million who can relate to Vietnam veterans. It is a rare gift. Imagine, a lady being such an inspirational source for a bunch of old combat vets. Your courage is indescribable! I am grateful to you for your sincerity and your willingness to share. I was moved in a very good way. Thank You.

  7. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Tony. I only wish I could do more to help.
    You have all been there for me in the groups, in emails, and every time any of you share through your writing for the blog, you're there for me yet again. You have all helped me more than you can ever know and I thank you, all of you.

    This blog has been like a bridge connecting all of us, heart to heart to heart. We are not alone.

    Thank you for being my friend.


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