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books Gerald McCarthy: Haunted Marine, VVAW Activist, College Professor

There were no words for what to say about the war for 19-year-old combat vets coming home in 1967. Words like post-traumatic stress, survivor guilt did not exist. This book reveals the inner world of many war veterans that home folks haven’t a clue.

Men of Troop B, 1st Battalion, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, and their M-48 Patton tank move through the jungle in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, June 1969.,(Photo by U. S. Army Military History Institute/AHEC.)

For more than 30 years, students at a small Catholic college in upstate New York took composition and literature courses taught by a quirky professor named Gerald McCarthy. Some were appalled to discover that their English prof had gone AWOL from the Marines after a tour in Vietnam and served time in jail. Others were delighted to find that this acerbic vet—who propelled himself into the University of Iowa Writers Workshop masters’ degree program—prodded students to become better writers. 

“McCarthy has led a very interesting life,” one senior wrote on “He draws on his experiences in his writing and encourages his students to do the same. When I was his student he really pushed me to dig deeper and do something meaningful. He's passionate about poetry and creative writing.” 

I got some insight into this dynamic while teaching journalism at the same college for several years. Gerald McCarthy also enlightened his students by bringing in as guest speakers avant-garde poets addressing war and social issues. 

Retired now as professor of English at St. Thomas Aquinas College, McCarthy has dug deep into his past to produce an astounding volume of literature. Hitchhiking Home from Danang: A Memoir of Vietnam, PTSD and Reclamation (McFarland, 2024) reveals the inner world of many war veterans that home folks haven’t a clue about. 

Hitchhiking Home from Danang:
A Memoir of Vietnam, PTSD and Reclamation
By Gerald McCarthy
McFarland Books; 249 pages
Paperback:  $29.95
December 1, 2023
ISBN: 978-1-4766-9284-5


McFarland Books

“You come home alone and no one knows what it’s like…the aloneness would not let go of me, it clung like a mist or a shadow, and I couldn’t shake it,” he writes. “I felt like there was a stranger in the room, someone I hardly knew—and the stranger was me. Alone, aloof, apart. It stayed and grew and became my ‘thing’ and I could not shake it or find a way out of the despair and unrest it brought.”

There were things that happened in Vietnam that he couldn’t talk about. He couldn’t find words for what troubled him when he went AWOL from a Marine base in Norfolk, Virginia. He couldn’t blurt it out when he ended up in jail, in a military brig and in a Navy hospital psychiatric ward. He couldn’t say, years later, when his 18-year-old son asked what happened. 

“I tell Nate, ‘Well, I just left, I’d had enough of it, you know.’ And I think that’s close to the truth, but I’m leaving things out on purpose,” he writes. “I’m leaving out the nightmares, the waking sweats…I’m not telling him about the flashbacks, about the dead, about the other stuff.”

There were no words for what to say about the war for 19-year-old combat vets coming home in 1967. Words like post-traumatic stress, survivor guilt did not yet exist. Grief was not in the lexicon of a Marine. Even years later, he couldn’t tell his wife about the damn, disturbing dreams that kept popping up. 

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“My wife shakes me in the dark and asks, ‘Who are you talking to? Why are you so restless?’” He couldn’t tell her that sometimes he was intently talking with dead buddies, that he was suddenly remembering a sergeant’s drunken screams about the horrendous casualties in the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, the explosions of the mortar attack shortly after he got to his field unit, the mortar attack on the Danang airfield when he was about to leave for the States, the airplane burning, men scrambling out of the flames, and so many other ways Marines died in Vietnam. 

“And then the others too, after I came home, after I was discharged, after all the ‘military madness’ had ebbed and I was drifting in a cloud of stelazine and beer and regret,” he wrote. “Bill Shaw crashing his old Corvette into a tree at night…Dennis Michaels…hug himself in his parents’ home…two months back from his time with the Army.”

McCarthy struggled through classes at a state college. He got into the Iowa Writers Workshop, where professors told him the war was over and to write about other things. He wrote poetry about the war to try to describe it. War Story: Vietnam War Poems (The Crossing Press, 1977) took a crack at it. It described the elements of PTSD before the malady was named by the psychiatric establishment. 

That first poetry collection caught the attention of Gloria Emerson, the fabled New York Times war correspondent, who became a mentor. She got him an assignment to write an article about the dedication of the new Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. “You have to go down there and cover the dedication ceremony and then you’ll write a poem about it later,” she told him in a telephone call. “First you get paid to write about it and that will cover your expenses.” 

He reached out to other vets, joining Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He offered writing workshops for vets, taught writing at Attica prison, in migrant labor camps, county jails, schools. By the time he became a college professor, he knew a lot about how to help other people tell their stories. 

But he struggled to tell his own. This book is focused on revealing, 50-some years since his return from war, what he found so hard to talk about. In retirement, he can no longer hide behind the sandbags he erected as a college professor who took on extra work, including teaching at the American Academy in Rome and at local schools. 

“Now they come back when I’m alone, and in the dusk those shadows start to materialize. I can see them—glimpse their faces—this legion,” he writes. “And they are there waiting. They know I have had a life. And I have to join them at some point. I keep trying to tell a few stories, push away from what is there… I think the solution is to learn how to speak to people again, to try to communicate, to keep forcing yourself to wake up. You can’t give in to the ghosts, to the grief, to the overwhelming sadness.”

And he discovered another insight. “Now 50+ years later, and after four years of therapy at the James A. Peters VA Hospital in Bronx, New York, I have come to realize that the tranquilizers were a stumbling block to my recovery,” he writes. “Now I know I needed therapy and counseling. Now I know the tranquilizer led to other depressants like alcohol…and drugs, to feeling depressed and full of self-loathing.”

As a persistently creative poet and writer, Gerald McCarthy demonstrates in this book how he helped forge a better way of dealing with PTSD and survivor guilt: write it out.