Patriots Point helicopter brings Vietnam vet face to face with war traumas

"The more you actually confront something, the more it helps you," said Roger Tinley, whose treatment for PTSD involves visits to the same type helicopter - a twin-rotor Sea Knight undergoing refurbishment at Patriots Point - that airlifted him to safety after being wounded in Vietnam in 1967.

The nightmare that haunts Vietnam War veteran Roger Tinley is anchored around the helicopter ride that saved his life.

On April 21, 1967, Tinley was part of a group of young Marines sent to reinforce the Que Son District of Vietnam. It was not a good day for the Americans. They faced heavy numbers of North Vietnamese and casualties ran high.

Tinley, a radio operator, was wounded by a grenade in the close-quarter fighting and spent that night helping to fend off the attacking forces as best that he and the rest of his group of Marine riflemen could.

When the shooting finally stopped, Tinley was medically evacuated on a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, the familiar tube-shaped workhorse chopper that's carried aloft by two giant whirling rotors.

But Tinley wasn't alone on the flight out. The bodies of eight other Marines killed in the fighting were packed inside with him. "Why me?" Tinley thought to himself as the ride's only survivor.

Decades would pass until he faced the chopper again.

Around South Carolina, hundreds of ex-military are being treated for all types of post-traumatic stress disorders. But many are not. Tinley, now 70, of Summerville, left the Marines as a sergeant in 1968. For decades afterward he never gave a thought to address some of the nagging painful memories and moodiness that followed him home post-Vietnam.

He never liked big crowds or standing in lines. He never went to church and couldn't sit in a darkened movie theater out of fear of what was unseen behind him. He became less social. And when he occasionally visited military clubs, he never really took part in the heavier discussions.

"When they got to talking about Nam, I would just leave," he said. "After Nam, I didn't want to have friends that were in Nam."

It wasn't until the recent cancer-related death of a buddy from his Vietnam days that Tinley reached out for help. He hadn't been able to sleep for weeks, so his primary care doctor put him in touch with counseling.

In short order, psychologist Dr. Ashley Hatton of the Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Clinic in Goose Creek diagnosed two stressers Tinley had to face: the sight of the radio that he carried as a message-directing Marine under-fire in Vietnam, and the chopper he and the dead Marines rode out on.

"To have PTSD means there is a particular traumatic event or multiple traumatic events," Hatton said in explaining the hurdles Tinley faced. Patients "have flashes that come up of particular images." Nightmares play out exactly as it happened in real life.

On Hatton's suggestion, Tinley ventured over to Patriots Point in a sort of loose homework assignment, just to see if he could re-acclimate himself to things that are military. That's where serendipity struck.

In a far corner near the museum's re-creation of a Vietnam firebase, Tinley spotted the carcass of an old Marine CH-46 waiting to be refurbished. Neither he nor Hatton knew it was there.

Tinley crossed the yellow tape meant to warn visitors away and peeked inside. It was the start of the healing, though it was not the same bird that flew him out.

"I could see exactly where I was," he said, staring at a space just a few steps from the entry way.

Tinley had a lot to overcome. There was survivor's guilt and most nagging on his conscience was that the body of a very close friend was taken out with him on that 1967 flight.

The Patriots Point chopper came by way of the Marine Corps Air Station New River, arriving in April. It is owned by the National Naval Aviation Museum, but the museum plans to repaint it circa 1968 and make it part of a new firebase Patriots Point is building as part of the site's Vietnam experience. The museum also has a field radio like the one Tinley carried.

Tinley said he made four trips to the hulk in short order. Each time it got a little easier to stay as he relived that day. By the fourth visit his heart wasn't pumping with nervous anxiety, as it had the first time he walked over. The familiarity had worked to calm him some.

"Each time I went, it seemed like I could stay a little longer," he said.

Hatton said the visits made all the difference. "It really allowed him to face the trauma, work through it and come to some closure with it," she said.

Since Tinley sought treatment, their partnership has worked. Hatton gave him homework assignments to help overcome his memories and edginess, ranging from finally watching documentaries about Vietnam to even opening up, for the first time, a coffee-table book on Vietnam that had been in his home for 10 years.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.