Written by me, this article was originally published in the Memorial Day issue of the Lititz Record Express. For more information, visit http://lititzrecord.com/2012/05/renaissance-man-with-a-frozen-soul-lititz-vietnam-vet-authors-new-book/
Mekong River, South Vietnam, 1970.
A Vietnamese woman travels along the muddy water in a sampan, a flat-bottomed Chinese wooden boat, carrying baskets of fresh fruits to sell to the locals. A vessel carrying members of the Mobile Riverine Force treks in the opposite direction to Cambodia and Laos. It’s after 6 p.m., and the crew is ordered to enforce instantaneous action on anything that comes in its sight. With the sampan gliding in close proximity, one crew member, in particular, is hesitant about blowing off the boat and tries to go against the lieutenant’s orders, but fails.
“The lieutenant said, ‘We have strict orders to shoot everything that moves on this river.’ He threatened me with disobeying direct order while in a warzone, which is a very, very serious offense,” said former Navy sailor and Vietnam Veteran Jason Goodman, of Lititz. “I took a machine gun and with one burst, the boat disappeared. It was gone, and he was fixated on this. This (lieutenant) always walked around with a Bible, which I didn’t understand the dichotomy or the hypocrisy of it. I think he just wanted to see what would happen and yet he would have the blood on his hands so he could order me to do it for him.”
Sitting in his burgundy-walled kitchen adorned with his paintings, Goodman’s raspy voice grows low and his dark brown eyes intense with recollection. The nightmare of that fateful incident from the Vietnam War is still frozen within him to this day.
“I had no intention at taking a shot at this person in the sampan. None whatsoever,” he recalls. “I still wake up with the bed sheets completely wet from sweat. I’ve actually had my wife up and change the bed sheet, even the pillowcase because I’d be right back in Vietnam, and it would always be the same couple of episodes I went through.”
Four decades later, Goodman, 62, has chronicled this tragic first-hand episode and more in his new book called “A Puzzled Existence: A 60-Year Autobiographical Portrait by the Artist,” now available on Aaron’s Books.
So far, the 458-page autobiography has garnered positive reviews on Amazon.com. The book is based on the “idea of a puzzle” with each chapter detailing brutally honest accounts of Goodman’s sojourn life from his turbulent upbringing in the coal-mining town of Kingston, Pa., to his time in Vietnam to his post-war endeavors.
“It’s got humor, but it does have thorns in it. I didn’t hold back on anything,” said Goodman, now a professional artist and an owner of Alchemy Studio LLC in Lititz. “I just kept it to certain areas and stories that were impactful in my life at the time…I’m not just patting myself on the back all the time and telling you all that every page is about me. I didn’t want to write anything like that. I wanted to write a book that was a good read.”
The writing process became a little grueling in more ways than one and suffered a few setbacks. Diagnosed with a nerve disorder called neuropathy, Goodman has suffered neurological deterioration of the feeling in his arms and hands. Two years ago, doctors at Penn State Hershey Medical Center performed four surgeries on his neck and arm. He still has numbness on three of his left fingers, making it difficult to hold a paintbrush or a pen. He also has trouble walking.
“It’s like my left leg doesn’t tell my brain where it is at times (because) I trip over things that don’t exist and the same thing is starting with these fingers,” said Goodman, who is left-handed. “I don’t know how much pressure I’m putting on something. I’m always dropping things.”
Nonetheless, Goodman was determined to complete the project with the help of his wife of 23 years, Teresa. He began writing in black and white composition books. One book contained 100 pages, and Goodman spent many late nights sitting outside his kitchen porch filling up ten of them. He used journal entries from his extensive travels, old letters from his late mother, and old calendars to help him with the research.
Afterwards, he typed his handwritten work on a manual typewriter before ultimately typing it on the computer at his publisher’s request. Certain parts of the book were difficult to write, according to Goodman. Looking back, his pain began well before the Vietnam War commenced.
His story begins at the age of six. As the third youngest of four sons, Goodman described his family as like the Cartwrights from the classic show “Bonanza” because everyone in town knew them. His mother, whom he called “Mary T.” was highly educated who reportedly was the first female student to graduate from M.I.T. and helped design the folding wings to the Hellcat aircraft, while his father was a “coal-cracker” or a coal miner.
According to his book, growing up, his father would physically abuse him more than his brothers. When Goodman was 2, he recalled crawling to a rut in the driveway when he said his father ran over him with his car. Luckily, he didn’t get squashed, but he suffered damage to his lower back.
“The worst part was that I took after my mother because I would question him. I would ask him why. He didn’t like to be questioned. If he told you to do something, he would expect you to go without asking him any questions,” recalls Goodman of his father. “I would think of easier ways to accomplish a task and basically he would say, ‘I’m telling you to do it this way.’ He was very, very abusive to me.”
The night before he left for Vietnam, Goodman had left a bar and took his 1956 Ford Thunderbird for one final spin. After spinning the car in circles several times, the passenger side of the car struck a lamppost. In a letter to his mother from Vietnam, Goodman instructed her to sell the car. She sold the car for $500.
War protester turned soldier
By 1968, the Vietnam War had been ongoing for 13 years. Initially, like many Americans at the time, Goodman wasn’t supportive of the war. In fact, he was supposed to be a leading spokesperson in a protest in downtown Wilkes-Barre, but he had developed a change of heart thanks to the attitude of his peers.
“I am walking around, we’re having this meeting and everybody’s talking about what they’re going to wear because they knew that all the television stations were going to be there,” he said. “I didn’t say anything, but I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is absurd. This is totally ridiculous. They don’t get the point here. We’re demonstrating against a war that we really shouldn’t be involved in and a lot of men — good soldiers — are losing their lives every day, and these people are worried about what they are going to wear? Just because the TV cameras are going to be there.’”
The next day Goodman enlisted in the U.S. Navy, much to the anger of his peers.
“I was like a pariah or had leprosy. Because then I wasn’t a friend of theirs anymore,” he said. “I was now part of the military machine. Then I said to them, ‘Who has ever been or seen that place and comes back to talk about it?’”
A day after graduating from Luzerne County Community College with an associate’s degree in commercial art and advertising, Goodman was called to active duty. He was first stationed on a destroyer in Norfolk, Va. before being transferred to Philadelphia.
“Having to go through Vietnam was difficult. I told my wife ‘you cannot type that particular part. I have to type it,’” said Goodman about the writing process. “I went to (Veterans Affair hospital for psychological help) every month for 10 years because prior to that, I would never tell you I was in Vietnam.”
Goodman describes his time in Vietnam as a “total disillusionment.” Many of the soldiers were getting stoned on drugs like marijuana and questioning their significance in the war.
“It was a ridiculous war because it was operated in Washington. They were calling the shots for a war that was 18,000 miles away,” he said. “They weren’t listening to their commanders in the field. It was just absurd. A lot of men were asking themselves, ‘What are we doing here?’”
Goodman said during the Tet Offensive, which was a military campaign launched by the People’s Army of Vietnam against the Republic of Vietnam or South Vietnam and the United States, the Viet Cong put all their forces on the line.
“A day or two after the Americans got their wits about them, we started kicking their butts. The Viet Congs lost a lot of men and materials and these North Vietnamese generals, in the years afterward, were on their knees,” he said. “(General William) Westmoreland was asking (former U.S. President Richard) Nixon for 50,000 more troops, and he said that we could finish the war, and he was absolutely right.”
A member of the Riverine force, Goodman and his fellow troops were responsible for transporting ammunition to the firebases in Cambodia and Laos. The Mekong River served as a coastal highway for the Vietnamese, but it was also a dangerous spot for the American patrols aboard the LST because the Vietnamese helped load supplies to the vessel.
“The (vessels) were built to be destroyed and ours was a piece of junk. That’s why we worked. We were understaffed too. We put in long hours,” he said. “The freshwater machine would break all the time. Do you know what it’s like to take saltwater showers? My God, the laundry machine would break all the time. Everything would break all the time. The boat should have been taken out of its misery.”
One fateful day, Goodman was injured when an explosion occurred, throwing him off and landing him flat on his back. He suffered several broken vertebrae and ruptured discs.
Seventeen surgeries later, Goodman continues to undergo treatments for his injuries sustained in Vietnam. Even though he’s won several medals and has received letters of gratitude for his service from Nixon and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the memories of his combat experience are still vividly cemented in his mind.
“You have to have a frozen soul to be a really good soldier. Every episode that took place in Vietnam had a hand in my soul freezing a little bit more. I was losing my integrity as a human being,” he said. “It was early in the war when the officer ordered me to shoot that sampan, and I didn’t want to. I objected it. I was fighting with him. A few days later, I would have pulled the trigger. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.”
One day Goodman was given some “liberty” or free time, and he decided to meet up with a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a Protestant minister, all whom were military personnel, to try to make sense of the killing of innocent Vietnamese people, but it only re-emphasized his frozen soul.
“I asked them, ‘How in the hell am I supposed to justify this? I mean in the commandments it says thou shall not kill. That’s causing a real problem in my mind. It’s a paradoxical situation,” he said. “First, they beat around the bush and they told me that the Vietnamese were gooks so they don’t count. It was okay to kill them because they weren’t Christians.”
In July 1970, Goodman left Vietnam and arrived in San Francisco to begin treatment for his shattered body at the Oakland Naval Hospital. The minute he stepped off the bus he received a disgraceful homecoming when a woman spat on him and called him a “baby burner.”
“This woman spitting on me was just San Francisco crude and crass. It was a typical San Francisco attitude toward a person in uniform at the time,” he said. “Any sailor or soldier was fair game.”
His time at the Oakland Naval Hospital was “depressing” because he was surrounded by other soldiers who had lost their limbs during combat. He would eat three meals a day with them. Goodman would notice the look of sadness on their loved ones’ faces whenever they came to visit them.
“You see the young wives, and you could tell by the look on their face, they wanted to get out of this now. They didn’t want a paraplegic for a husband,” he said.
In 1984, Goodman was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a severe anxiety syndrome common among war veterans. According to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs’ National Center for PTSD, 30 percent of Vietnam Veterans suffer from the disorder.
Dealing with PTSD can be struggle for many war veterans and for Goodman, certain aspects in his everyday life remind him of Vietnam like watching old war movies, seeing a fireworks display, or witnessing a mother spanking and yelling at her child in a store.
“I feel myself going cold,” he said. “There are times when I can scare myself and can be a very dangerous person just by my thoughts. I’m not alone in thinking in that respect. I think a lot of Vietnam Veterans are like that. I know a lot of Vietnam Veterans that are like that.”
Love of art
Goodman has worked in stints as a barker at a carnival, a nude model, and an undertaker at an Australian mortuary, but it was his love of art that has lasted the longest time. A professional artist for 40 years, Goodman claims to have a love-hate relationship with the creative field.
“It was his mother that got him going. It showed him as the talent in the family,” said Goodman’s third wife Teresa. “It’s a lot of hours put into it too — 40 to 50 hours.”
In fact, Goodman kept a journal of his drawings during his time in the Navy. He would try to hide it in his sea bag or a military bag, along with other military uniforms and clothing attires.
“I drew pictures of different types of things. I drew people. I drew things that I would see from our boat — real quick drawings of a village like the huts and houses,” he said.
Unfortunately, the journal was stolen by presumably one of the officers.
Goodman studied for three years under the late portrait painter Niccolo Cortiglia. A post-impressionist artist, he uses vivid colors and distinctive brush strokes in all of his works.
“I sketch on all kinds of things — on napkins or paper bags,” he said. “I’ll shoot my own composition with my own camera and then work off my own photographs. The way I look at my artwork is I take reality and just bump it, move it a little bit. I just knock it out of the kilter. My attitude is like super-realism.”
Discipline and hard work in any profession can be rewarding whether in an art studio or in service. His paintings have been featured in numerous collections around the world, including South Korea, Australia, and in Europe.
In sharp contrast from 40 years ago, Goodman has received numerous kind gestures from people for his time in Vietnam. He said he still has trouble dealing with it, but it’s meaningful.
“Today I have a lot of people that shake my hand and thank me for my service,” he said.
That’s a picture that could be worth a thousand words.