Faring Better By Sharing Our Pain

Fred Tomasello, Jr.
Guest Contributor

“Hey, if you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”

Scars, that is. Mental and physical.

I’ll go first.

While breast feeding, I must have bitten my mom because I don’t remember ever being held close to her body. I do remember the metallic taste of blood in my mouth after she slapped me hard enough to see stars. Maybe that’s why the sight of a woman’s cleavage still mesmerizes my eyes and buckles my knees. 

My grandmother took care of me as an infant, and I clearly remember her dank smell of sweat as she held me close and how the stiff black hairs protruding out of her facial mole jabbed my cheeks like needles. I wanted to please my mom and everyone else but my desire for affection was never returned.

In Catholic school, the Nuns told me I was an “evil sinner” doomed to hell for eternity. I was locked in a dark closet by myself to spend time with Satan. I never saw him in there, only darkness and isolation. When the Nuns noticed my grandmother was never at Mass, they told me my beloved Nana was also doomed to hell forever.

Clearly, I had to do something, anything, to prove my worth. 

Martyrdom became my shortcut to Heaven. If I died fighting Communism, according to the teachings of the Catholic Church, my sins were forgiven and Heaven became my “blessed assurance.” If I survived war, heroic manhood was mine and I could take my place in society as a combat veteran admired by all. 

So I joined the Marine Corps and volunteered for Vietnam, the only war going on at the time. 

My first wound on December 8, 1967, left a small, nickel-sized scar on my right shoulder where shrapnel imbedded so deep Corpsmen were unable to extract the pieces and left them in there. Another piece of shrapnel pierced my steel helmet and my ear was bleeding so badly members of my platoon were afraid that if I removed my helmet, my brains would fall out. 

My mental scar that day was the sight of Lance Corporal Gardiner, sitting cross-legged, both legs wide-open at the thighs, burnt and cauterized, white bone protruding from fat smoking flesh, telling me calmly, “I can’t get up, Lieutenant, they blown off both my legs.”

Between then and August 4, 1968, my mental scars included picking up body parts of men, women and children destroyed by artillery; seeing a jet drop bombs on top of Marines; and watching Corpsmen do “triage” on so many wounded Marines, deciding who to treat and who to let die because they didn’t have the resources to treat them all.

The wound that brought me home early was the bullet that went up through the fuselage of my Bird Dog (a small Piper Cub-sized aircraft used to support ground troops), lodge into my calf and extracted later by surgery near my right knee. I was awake and my request to keep the bullet was granted. 

No one, in all the years since, has asked to see my scars or that bullet, not even fellow vets. 

In the hospital in Japan, I hobbled through wards that specialized in different kinds of wounds and saw a man with no arms, no legs and blind, begging to die. Years later, I found out some combat corpsmen granted the request.

When I got out of my last hospital at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville FL, I was encouraged to stay there at the Marine Barracks and spent the last 15 months of my 3-year Marine Corps “career” making casualty calls, notifying families of Marines who were killed or wounded in action. I can attest to the fact that I wounded wives and mothers, mentally and physically on every call. Their wounds are also my wounds, and those “scars,” although they cannot be seen, still affect my outlook on the world today.

When my first wife and I attended marriage counseling in the early 1980’s, before Post Traumatic Stress, my malady was termed “anger management.” 

I’ll never forget the first time my counselor introduced me to group therapy. 

“Hey, listen up! You guys think YOU’RE crazy! This is our newest member, Fred Tomasello. He VOLUNTEERED for Vietnam!” 

Everyone laughed.

Those words stung and left a scar. Their laughter still lashes my heart and soul today. What the hell is wrong with these people? What’s wrong with me?

Why am I the way I am? Why does my anger and outlook on life demand justice? Why can’t I be happy and content and just move merrily along my way like other people seem to do?

Years of counseling, medication, mindfulness and searching for peace continues today. 

I’ve read that the body holds both the physical and the mental scars of our lives and traditional therapies do NOT address the root cause of our problems. 

In 1961 the husband and wife team of  Albert Pesso and Diane Boyden began refining the Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor. PBSP is a process that traces the absence of sensory interactions in childhood to our inability to cope with the challenges of adulthood. Those absences are referred to as deficiencies or emotional deficits and they define our adult perspective of the world. 

About five months ago, I had a session with a PBSP therapist. Because of COVID, we met via computer screens so the essential tactile part of therapy was missing, but the overall experience was beneficial. Through role playing, I was shown a mother who loved me in every way and met my desire for acceptance. Now, that warm feeling of acceptance joins my original feeling of rejection and takes a lot of the sting out of what actually happened. The experience gives me comfort and provides better balance in my life. 

Just like returning to Vietnam in 2018, 50 years after my tour of duty, gives me an alternative view of the country, healed on the surface and hiding the scars of the past. Today, the scars we once shared as warriors intent on killing each other are bathed in a peaceful light. We can commiserate together as friends. 

My most valuable war souvenir, the bullet doctors yanked out of my leg, was released, laid to rest back in the country from where it came. Relief does not come suddenly, but the alternatives to pain and suffering slowly grow as my search for peace continues. 

My scars are now your scars. 

Instead of living alone in hell, a closet occupied by Satan, we can fare much better together.  

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