When Ronnie Ratliff enlisted in the Navy as a young man from Velma, he said he thought he was going to help librate the Vietnamese — like the images he had seen of World War II of the U.S. winning France from the Nazis.
However, he found the situation very different and for many years could not put the past behind him.
“When I went to Vietnam I was very young. I had it in my mind that we were going to ‘free’ these people and help them stop the communism and all that but I didn’t really see us helping them,” he said. “We did help when they were injured but it was like putting a bandaid on them then blowing them up. I mean it … made me feel bad about who we were.”
Ratliff was part of the “Brown Water” Navy, they ran supplies up and down the rivers, sometimes via trucks all across the country, usually starting from Da Nang.
On one such trip Ratliff said his truck was hit by an RPG and they lost some guys and “it’s always bothered” him a lot.
After Ratliff got back he started trucking for work and didn’t feel “right” and couldn't sleep or he’d be taken right back to the jungles.
“I felt like I was alright but I wasn’t — I couldn’t ever sleep right and had problems,” he said. “I went to the Veterans Administration (VA) to get help because I went to work hauling explosives and bombs. I couldn’t sleep. I’d drive and then never sleep. I thought ‘I’ve got to get some help because I’m going to wind up crashing the truck.’”
When at the VA they started prescribing pills, lots of them.
“I hate drugs — I told them I can’t take that and do my job,” he said. “And they said ‘Well you either need help or you don’t. And if you’re not going to do what we tell you to do, then we can’t help you,’” he said. “Well I tried doing what they told me to do — they decided what I needed was to give me 300 Xanax a month, 10 a day, they wanted to turn me into a zombie.”
By following their plan he lost his job, got a divorce and it got worse from there.
“When I asked the Veterans Administration for help because they were causing me an addiction to the stuff — what did they do? They sent the Sheriff’s office out and I wound up getting treated like a criminal,” he said.“I ended up laying on the floor of a cell going through withdrawals from the medicine that they gave me. They gave me no help, after that when the deputies took me back to the VA hospital, they wanted to put me right back on that stuff.”
Ratliff rejected the medicine and went to see what he could find out on his own. He went back to college to study psychology to see if he could figure out how to help himself with the drugs.
While there, Ratliff learned when people go through trauma sometimes going back to the place can help people get closure or creating new memories in the place helps heal some people. Also, he was told that helping others was a healer of wounds too.
Ratliff then started helping Vietnamese immigrants with his knowledge of the two languages get enrolled in school, work on citizenship paperwork, open businesses plus more in Dallas.
“I could feel there was a change going on with me and it was helping,” he said. “But still I wasn’t sleeping. I’d go to bed at night and I’d lay there and as soon as I was asleep I’d be back right in the middle of the war. I thought the only thing that I can think to do is go back over there, to find where I lost myself.”
That’s when he found a way to go back to Vietnam. He found a group of Marines who were going back to help build an orphanage. What was to be a 30 day trip turned into three years.
Ratliff bounced around building schools and other orphanages.
“Suddenly, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and I was sleeping again, things really smoothed out,” he said. “I just realized this was really what I needed all along.”
When he can, Ratliff now makes tours for other Vietnam Veterans. Using his old maps he can find the places the soldiers need to go back to. Once there they do some writing — Ratliff has them write out what hurt them, what still bothers them. They talk if they want too and then they have a “burning ceremony” where they “cast into the fire” all the hurts and trauma followed by a celebration with friends and food.
“I do not charge Vets for the tours back. They pay their own airlines and hotels which I get them group prices on hotels,” he said. “We all pay together for bus and SUV rentals. They will spend an average of $2,000 to $2,500 for a three to four week tour back. That’s their airline, Visa, food, hotels, transportation, in country flights and some souvenirs.”
For Ratliff, healing is a cycle that may never fully be complete but he knows by taking others back and helping them, it continues his journey also.
“From all the guys that have gone with me I haven’t had anybody say that it didn’t help them in some way,” he said.
Recently Ratliff got to go back as a guide and interviewee for a documentary called “Back to China Beach.” China Beach, now called My Khe Beach, was a recreation area where the Military would let the soldiers have a cook out and surf once a month. The documentary focuses on the surfing and the relationships built there.
The film, which is a Mike Cotton and Dave Barnes Production, will go on a premier tour starting Nov. 24 in Pensacola, California before hitting the small screen on the History Channel.
For more information about the tours veterans can email Ratliff at firstname.lastname@example.org.