Sister tackles brother’s journey to Vietnam war, and back
By Craig Westcott | The Shoreline
It’s an unusual story and oftentimes a sad one, but one Cathy Saint John, formerly of Topsail, felt compelled to write it.
“One For The Boys” is a biography of her oldest brother John Blake, who along with her other brother David, were among thousands of Canadians who joined the United States military to fight communism in Vietnam in the late 1960s.
Blake served two tours in ‘Nam, making many friends among the elite military units he served with and earning medals, but also racking up a couple of years’ worth of experiences that would torment him for the rest of his life in what was in those days undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Saint John mixes excerpts from Blake’s diary into her account of his life, which is based on interviews with people who served with her brother overseas. The result is a powerful and frank account of a tough life, one that even comes with a warning inside the cover that it contains intense emotional content and may even trigger PTSD.
“John died 23 years ago, but it’s taken me all that time to pull together his records and go through everything and piece together his life, the parts that he didn’t want me to know about, to be able to write his story,” said Saint John. “I didn’t find his unit in Vietnam until 2012.”
Saint John and her siblings spent their early years growing up on Topsail Hill.
“We lived right next door to the Woodstock (Colonial Inn),” said Saint John. “My mother built that Woodstock. But we left in Come Home Year in 1966 and we ended up in Montreal.”
That was after the family patriarch John Saint John had died and the children’s mother, Pearl, struggled for a couple of years running the restaurant and cottages that were then associated with it on her own.
“We were in Montreal when the Vietnam war was happening,” said Saint John. “I was 16 at the time and David was probably 17 and John was 19. The war became the war on television and it was very real. Draft dodgers were coming in and a lot of people in the neighbourhood were volunteering. And coming from a family where our father was a World War 1 veteran, and Mom was a World War II Royal Navy WREN, the boys didn’t hesitate to join, because there was the threat of communism and (President) John Kennedy had said, ‘Why not?’ kind of thing. They were all full of patriotism and this is what propelled them to join the United States Army.”
The day after the brothers managed to obtain landed immigrant status in the U.S., they signed up. “John became a Green Beret and David was a chopper mechanic,” said Saint John.
David actually ended up going to Vietnam first. That threw off her brother John’s plans, said Saint John. He had been selected to train as a translator in army intelligence but changed course in the hope that by going into combat his younger brother would be sent back from the theatre of war.
“That didn’t work out, so I had two brothers in Vietnam at the same time,” said Saint John.
“John did two tours and it took a toll on him,” said Saint John. “He was an elite soldier, he was a special forces airborne ranger. They were six-man teams that went into the jungles near the borders and did intelligence work and reconnaissance. I didn’t know much about it until I found his unit. I couldn’t finish the book without this information.”
Saint John ended up meeting with a bunch of former airborne regiment veterans, including four of the five who served on one of her brother’s six-man teams. “It was amazing and over the four or five years of going to reunions I was able to interview a lot of the Rangers who miss him, served alongside him, knew him as a soldier, they all had pictures of him, I had nothing. The only two Vietnam veterans I ever knew were my two brothers, until John died.”
Saint John said when the Vietnam veterans returned from combat to the United States they were treated horribly. “There was no welcome, there was no heroes’ parade, there was no forgiveness, there was no thank you, and the boys carry that to this day, a lot of them… So, they kind of went underground and licked their wounds and tried to heal,” she said. “And it didn’t work out very well at all.”
Saint John’s brother John was left wracked with the torments of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, something that took a severe toll on his family and personal life. Blake returned to Canada for a while, married a Canadian girl and had a child with her, but after a few years returned to the ‘States.
“His world was falling apart around him,” said Saint John. “We didn’t know, nobody knew at the time that John was suffering so badly. He didn’t understand it and nobody understood it. PTSD wasn’t discovered then. John wanted to go back to the ‘States to see if he could find out what was wrong with him. His anger was out of control, he was having all these memories and flashbacks and everything that dictates PTSD today, he had it back then. So, he went back to the United States and it was there that he found people just like himself. He found a community where he could live and function, so he stayed there and became a veterans advocate.”
In the early 1980s as the U.S. was about to unveil a Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. inscribed with the names of U.S. soldiers who had died or been left unaccounted for in Vietnam, Blake decided to tackle the lingering stigma attached to Vietnam veterans by walking across the breadth of the United States, in full combat gear with a 50lb pack on his pack and carrying an American flag instead of a gun, in the hope of attracting attention and raising awareness.
“John felt the (unveiling of the wall) was so low key that the vets might not come out,” Saint John said. “So, he took it upon himself to walk across the United States… There was no entourage, there was no GPS, no technology, just him and his Ranger skills. And he did that, 3,200 miles in seven months.”
Two years after the unveiling of the Wall, Blake’s PTSD went out of control. “He continued trying to help veterans, but that too was impacting him,” Saint John said. “He was in out and out of the VA (Veterans Affairs) hospitals getting stabilized, which is what they called it at the time. They didn’t know how to treat it and they weren’t treating it properly from the get go. They were doing more damage than any good. Those were the early days. Now it’s a whole lot better. John didn’t want to share that kind of life that he was living with any of us, so he stayed in the United States.”
In 1996, lost his life to the demons of PTSD.
Saint John said it feels good to finally have the book completed. “He wrote part of it and I used his work,” said Saint John.
“Last year I was given a health scare myself and I questioned my own longevity,” said Saint John. “And I was so mad for not having John’s book out there on the stands. That was the only thing that troubled me about that whole period of time of being diagnosed and getting surgery and recovering. I said, ‘I didn’t do it, I failed him, I didn’t do it.’ And I was destroyed. I knew I would get through the health thing, it was secondary compared to what I had done here, I had not gotten the book finished. So, when I got out of surgery I picked myself up and I said, ‘Get on it, get this book out.’ It is a tough read, but it is a necessary read, communities need to understand what goes on in a person’s and a family’s PTSD world.”