“I loved it,” Fortney says. “I went in because I had a feeling I was going to end up in jail, dead or a derelict. I fell in love with the structure, the forced discipline.”

After boot camp, Fortney received airborne training in Fort Benning, Georgia, before returning to California and training as a forward observer with the elite Third Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company in Long Beach.

Four years later, his unit was shipped to Kuwait in preparation for Operation Desert Storm. “Most guys crapped their pants and tried to get out of it,” Fortney says. “But they didn’t. I was hoping to get what I was craving. I was ready.”

Haunted by the past, Vietnam veteran Walter Lee Treadwell has been homeless for 13 years
Keith May
Haunted by the past, Vietnam veteran Walter Lee Treadwell has been homeless for 13 years

During the brief, intense few weeks of actual combat, Fortney went behind enemy lines and called in aerial bombardments on Iraqi positions, watching through a high-powered scope as flames devoured enemy tank positions and human bodies flailed in pieces through the air. Afterward, he’d walk out and inspect the damage.

“By the time the war actually started, the enemy was so scattered and tattered that they quit,” he recalls. “I was foaming at the mouth. I can’t explain the feeling I felt other than complete rage that they were calling us back. I had a lot of rage.”

In April 1991, Fortney came home, but he says his mind never left the battlefield, even after he married five years later. “I didn’t want to be here,” he says. “I spent the rest of the 1990s drinking in bars, fighting with my friends and kicking their asses. I was fortunate enough to never kill anybody, but I hurt a lot of people and stopped myself when I reached out to kill someone.”

Since coming to grips with his PTSD after almost pulling a man’s eyeball out of his head during the parking-lot incident, Fortney has been working on a book tentatively titled Alphabet Man, a reference to all the various diagnoses he’s received: PTSD, ADD (attention deficit disorder) and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). With encouragement from his fellow veterans, Fortney began attending group sessions at the Veterans Center several years ago and, more recently, at the Garden Grove Elks Lodge. “It’s been good for me,” Fortney says. “These guys accepted me.”

*     *     *

Drafted into the U.S. Army at the height of the Vietnam War, Les Hudelson arrived in Asia in December 1968. His first assignment: guard duty for a group of Army engineers building a road along the Vietnamese coast. “The first day out, we got ambushed,” he recalls. Hudelson led a group of children who had gathered nearby to beg for money into a nearby cave and waited while a jet dropped bombs on the hillside above. The entire cave shook with the force of the explosions.

Although nobody was killed or injured that day, the screams of the terrified children would haunt Hudelson decades later. Guard duty didn’t last long, and in the spring of 1969, Hudelson volunteered to join the 25th Division, which was busy fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese in the jungles near Cu Chi, headquarters of the Viet Cong’s infamous underground-tunnel complex. Weeks earlier, a platoon of American soldiers had been wiped out in a Viet Cong ambush.

A few weeks after arriving in Cu Chi, Hudelson got to know a grizzled black soldier who had played professional basketball before the war. They chatted during a 15-minute water break while on patrol. As the platoon resumed marching, the soldier stepped on a small, explosive booby trap that blew off part of his foot.

“He was sitting there, laughing, saying, ‘Now, I get to go home,’” Hudelson recalls. “He knew he was never going to play basketball again, but he didn’t give a shit. He was happy to be going.”

Not all land mines were so merciful, however, especially when they belonged to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), which had begun moving into the area by that summer. Hudelson’s new battalion commander wanted to engage the NVA with high-profile attacks. He ordered his men to land in a wide-open, almost-desert-like field while Cobra helicopters fired rockets into the surrounding jungle. As the choppers flew off, Hudelson could hear his captain arguing on a field phone. Then his squad leader informed the men they had orders to march in a “V” formation.

“The first thing you learn in basic training is to walk in a file,” Hudelson says. “That way, if you step on a booby trap, only one or two guys get hit. In a ‘V’ formation, everybody gets hit.” Sure enough, just a few seconds later, the man at the head of the formation tripped off two buried artillery shells that blew him and several other soldiers apart. “The explosion just flash-burned him,” Hudelson says. “He was crispy black, like a burned hot dog. He died just like that. I saw everybody in front of me get hit, each guy.”

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