The Travis Mills Foundation hosted more than 500 veterans and their guests at the Vietnam Era Veterans Breakfast held Wednesday, March 29 – National Vietnam War Veterans Day. Veterans chatted with one another, spouses and children supported their loved one who had served and many donned Vietnam-era shirts, vests and jackets.
One man showed the TMF team a scar on his face – not from combat – but from when a rock was thrown at his face upon his return from serving our country in Vietnam. Another man wore a jacket with the words, “When I die, I’ll go to heaven because I’ve spent my time in hell.”
Coast Guard veteran James Gardner attended the breakfast with his wife, Rebecca; he didn’t purchase his first veterans hat until a few years ago as a way to help overcome the post-traumatic stress he still feels since returning from the Vietnam War. He also wrote a poem, “WELCOME BACK!” VIETNAM VET, which he was inspired to share here, in hopes that it might help others:
“When you return to the United States,
When you pass through those airport gates,
You had better keep your identity hid,
Not many people are happy with what you did.”
I had no desire to return as a Hero,
But I certainly didn’t expect to return as a Zero.
When I returned from my Tour of Duty,
There was still a fight going on inside me,
One that only those closest to me could see.
It was an intensely personal battle with Chronic PTSD.
I was suffering from being deeply, deeply hurt,
The battle was raging deep, down under my shirt.
It would return without warning; this terrible fight,
Sometimes in broad daylight, but mostly at night.
My wife of 45 years has suffered along with me,
She’s also had this “Tour of Duty.”
She saw me struggle and sensed what I was going through.
She felt my pain, she stuck with me, as only a loving wife could do.
After 45 years I realized that I was bitter,
And it was time for me to reconsider.
I was bitter at the way I was treated when I returned,
I was bitter that my service to my Country had been spurned,
I was bitter that my Country’s flag was being burned.
I was bitter at those who to Canada fled,
I was bitter at the President who granted them amnesty (he said).
Over these past 45 years, I’ve tried to spend every day,
Investing in others so that they wouldn’t ever feel this way.
As I fought my battle with PTSD,
I didn’t want anyone to ever have to feel like me.
I asked God to forgive me for feeling this way,
And graciously He did, this very day!
I’m not going to carry this load anymore,
I’m giving it to Him and finally finishing my Tour.
I forgave the protestors who chanted, “Hell no!, We won’t go!”
I forgave those who fled to Canada, with their tail in tow.
I forgave the President who granted them amnesty, too.
I even forgave those who burned the Red, White and Blue.
When I finally expressed the way that I was feeling,
It gave me liberty and brought me healing.
I doubt that my PTSD has launched it’s final attack,
But at least for today, I told myself, “Welcome Back!”
Jamie recently read the poem out loud at his home Friday, March 31 in Edgecomb, Maine.
Enlistment and Bootcamp
The year was 1968 and Jamie Gardner had just graduated high school in Rockland, ME. For the last four years, he and Becky had been sweethearts and Jamie wanted to secure a bright future for the pair. He enrolled at Husson College to study accounting, but when the school moved its campus, tuition increased and even with a Pell Grant from the government, Jamie couldn’t afford to continue his education.
So, he worked odd jobs, including reading meters for the local power company.
On a whim, he and a friend who was already being drafted, hopped in his 1963 Barracuda and drove to Portland – fueled partly by few beers – so his friend could enlist in the military, the Coast Guard specifically, rather than being drafted.
“A lot of rural Maine guys enlisted,” Jamie said. “There was nothing up there to look forward to.”
As Jamie’s friend tested for a position, a recruiter approached Jamie.
“He came up to me and says, ‘You think you can beat him on that test?’’
The friend, turns out, hadn’t even graduated from high school.
“He didn’t even finish school and I had been to college,” Jamie said, adding that the recruiter did a good job of “sweet talking” him into serving his country.
Also common in rural Maine was a lack of dental care. The military wouldn’t accept his friend because he had gum disease. As for Jamie, he had some teeth pulled and he was on his way to training camp in Cape May, New Jersey.
While Jamie tried to stay out of trouble, a drill sergeant had it out for him and made his life miserable during bootcamp.
“When he found out I was from Maine, he gave me a real hard time,” Jamie said. “As a kid he was sent to a Catholic school in Maine and I guess he didn’t like his experience.”
When the drill instructor found out that Jamie was a poor swimmer, he tortured him.
“I was a failure,” Jamie said. “But I learned to swim well enough to get out of bootcamp.”
It was now Christmas 1969 and while Jamie, working in security, was supposed to go home on leave, he would have to stay where he was.
“It was me running security and another guy who was there to run the mess hall,” Jamie said. “Though lonely, we kept each other safe and fed.”
Jamie was next sent to Governor’s Island, next to the statue of Liberty in New York City, where he attended electronics technician school.
“I was the third rack high and could see her out the window at night,” Jamie said. “It was beautiful.”
As Jamie continued to train, he yearned go overseas. As a child, he remembers seeing the iconic Uncle Sam posters that hung in the post office.
“I wanted to see the world.”
First Night Overseas
Most members of the Coast Guard serving during the war were on boats outside Vietnam. Jamie was among about 100 Coasties who were stationed in country during the conflict, trading his bell bottom trousers for jungle greens. Also at this point, Jamie still hadn’t been granted leave and was feeling quite homesick.
Jamie found himself in Ho Chi Minh City, completely lost. None of the branches at Tan Son Nhut Air Base knew what to do with him and the building he was supposed to report to was blown up six months ago.
“I didn’t know anybody,” he said, tears in his eyes.
Jamie slept on the floor and cried as children tried to sell him beer and lizards crawled over him.
By the next day, Jamie was assigned an M16 and given a ride to a supply center near Saigon, and was told to shoot anyone who tried to steal something. Eventually, a plane came for Jamie and he made it to the LORAN Station where he was assigned to work. LORAN, Jamie said, were sort of a precursor to GPS. In fact, Jamie’s unit received a commendation when Apollo 12 landed on the moon.
“It had used our signal,” he added.
After serving in Vietnam for 15 months, Jamie had decided he would serve another tour.
“Financially, it was a blessing,” he said. “Overseas pay, hostile fire pay – there were a lot of benefits. I thought, ‘Well, I can do another year.’”
Meanwhile, Becky and Jamie wrote to one another while she was in college in Boston.
“Writing letters was our only way to communicate,” she said, adding that one time, she didn’t hear from him for three months.
“I didn’t know if he was alive or dead,” she said, crying.
Monsoons kept planes that contained mail and supplies from landing.
“I could hear them flying over,” Jamie added. “They couldn’t’ land.”
Finally, one day Becky opened her mailbox at school and a flood of letters spilled out.
“I just sat on the floor and hugged them to me and bawled my eyes out,” she said.
Jamie, 21, had completed a tour in Vietnam and was home with Becky. On a Friday night he asked her to marry him; he was supposed to leave the following Wednesday for his second tour in the country. Becky, 18 years old at the time, told her mother what the young couple had planned.
“She didn’t believe me,” Becky said, laughing.
Eventually, her mother was on board and they planned quickly.
“It was kind of neat how it worked out,” Becky said.
Her home economics teacher made her wedding cake, she and her bridesmaids got their dresses at the local general store and since her father was town’s postmaster, he had a part-time lobsterman as a mail carrier, so they ate lobster rolls at the reception.
“My sister and my mom picked white and purple lilacs from the side of the road,” Becky said. “Those were my bridal flowers.”
The reverend of the local Baptist church in Owls Head married them and had only these words to the couple: “I’ve married a lot of people and none of them have gotten divorced – you two are not going to be the first.”
Within hours, however, Becky became ill and was admitted to Camden General Hospital. As Jamie worried about his new wife and leaving for his second tour in Vietnam, he ran into a senior Coast Guard official who saw the need for a man with Jamie’s skills at a LORAN Station at Marshall Point Lighthouse nearby in Port Clyde.
“He gave me the number of an admiral in Boston to call, who gave me three choices: go back to Vietnam for another year, get on a Coast Guard Cutter out of Boston or go to Marshall Point.”
“So I said I’d go to Marshall Point. I also got to take care of my new wife,” Jamie said.
“The lord is good,” Becky added.
After the marriage, the couple lived in a small trailer up the hill from Becky’s parent’s house; in winter, they’d wake up to ice on the bedroom walls and they lived on $100 a month. Jamie was still in the military and so when he’d receive new orders, Becky would travel with him. They both enjoyed living in Kodiak, Alaska and Venice, Florida. However, Jamie was different after serving in Vietnam.
“He wasn’t the same person I knew before ,” Becky said. “He was depressed, he was angry. The littlest sounds bothered him. I’d catch him staring out the window in the middle of the night – I had to hide the weapons. I was afraid he’d shoot me thinking I was the enemy or something.”
When Jamie turned violent toward Becky, she threatened to leave him if he ever acted that way toward her again. At that time, both had turned toward alcohol and came to a realization.
“The way we’re living is wrong,” Jamie recalled saying.
The couple went to church at the urging of a fellow community member, and that was that.
“We quit everything in 1976,” Jamie said. “We found the Lord and it just changed our whole lives.”
While Jamie still struggled with his experiences during Vietnam, he felt peace in his heart.
“The Lord called on me to preach,” he said.
Still serving our country, Jamie navigated how he’d now also serve the Lord.
The Next Chapter
After advancing to officer in charge of his unit in Venice, Florida, the unit was shut down and two days later Jamie was in Springfield, Missouri, in Bible college. He completed four years of training with help from the GI Bill.
Both Jamie and Becky dedicated their lives to pastoring the communities where they were sent – they even lived on the Mexican border at one time. The couple moved to Houlton, Maine, in 2002 to pastor a church there until Jamie’s retirement in 2015, and then moved to Edgecomb, where they currently live, and where Jamie filled in as pastor.
“As a minister, you’re about everyone and everything else,” Jamie said. “I finally started to think about myself a little.”
That meant reflecting on his service in Vietnam.
“My doctors said they thought I had chronic post-traumatic stress disorder,” Jamie said.
After the third or fourth time speaking to a counselor at Togus VA Medical Center in Maine, he stopped her: “I said, ‘Can I just tell you how I’m feeling?’ I didn’t mean to be rude. I just dumped everything that had been bothering me and that was the beginning of me getting healed a little bit.”
He and Becky even watched from the end of their street in midcoast Maine when a piece of the Vietnam Wall Memorial traveled by as part of a national tour.
“The guys on the motorcycles escorting the Wall saluted him,” Becky said, crying.
It was in 2016 that Jamie wrote the poem, “WELCOME BACK” VIETNAM VET.
“It was part of my healing process,” Jamie said. “Then I finally ordered a Vietnam vet hat online.”
“I was thinking last night how the bad way we were treated when we came home was a blessing to me. I know it’s helped the younger guys,” Jamie said. “The way I’ve been treated recently, I feel spoiled. Everybody has been so nice to me.”
Jamie and Becky had a wonderful time at the Vietnam Veteran Era Breakfast held by the Travis Mills Foundation.
“Sometimes a child will run up to me, shake my hand and thank me for my service,” he said. “It’s almost like we’re getting it paid back now more than we deserve.”
Day by Day
To this day, Jamie still has symptoms of post-traumatic stress. He’s also learned that many health issues he has are to due agent orange exposure in Vietnam.
In 2020, he spent a long three nights in the hospital after unexpectedly needing triple bypass surgery. His room was near the hospital’s helipad and the sounds triggered his PTSD.
“The guy in the next bed was screaming,” Jamie said. “I was praying for him.”
Since the global pandemic had taken hold, Becky couldn’t be with her husband of then 49 years.
“We didn’t even go to the grocery store without the other,” Becky said. “It was terrible.”
The bypass was attributed to agent orange exposure, as is his melanoma and high blood pressure.
“I just feel grateful that I had a chance to serve my country,” Jamie said. “I’d go back and do it again in a second if I could.”
About the Travis Mills Foundation
The Travis Mills Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports post-911 veterans who experienced life changing injuries while in service to our country. The Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat offers our nation’s recalibrated veterans and their families a week-long, barrier free, all-expenses-paid experience at its world-class retreat in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine. It offers various programs that help these brave men and women overcome physical and emotional obstacles, strengthen their families, and provide well-deserved rest and relaxation. The Foundation also offers the Warrior PATHH Program (Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) for combat veterans and first responders, the nation’s first of its kind program designed to cultivate and facilitate post-traumatic growth. Learn more >>> www.travismillsofundation.org.