Chris Lambert, the son of a veteran, volunteered at age 17 for duty as a U.S. Marine. He was a new high school graduate in 1967, class president as a sophomore, popular with his classmates and a better-than-average athlete with hopes of a baseball career.
He had come a long way from being a sad child of divorced parents who bore the brunt of his childhood classmates’ brutal teasing for the way he talked and the kind of clothes he wore and his lack of success in the classroom, where he learned to think of himself as not very smart.
The relatively recent Gulf Breeze resident, who grew up in California, says at the time he signed up, he was just looking for some excitement and some affirmation from his dad, who had played ball at the college level before marching off to World War II.
After six months of combat in Vietnam, Chris Lambert came home with three Purple Hearts, the anticipation of a nation appreciative of his service and high hopes for the marriage he had made with a beautiful young woman just before leaving for a war being fought on the other side of the world.
The Purple Hearts were fashioned of sterner stuff than his anticipation or his hopes, as it turned out.
The painful reality was that he had to endure the scorn of the populace which was showered upon most of his brothers in arms upon their return. No honor for their service. No welcome home parades. Only pain that ran so deep he could not even bring himself to exercise the new privilege of voting as an adult – a mark of maturity he had not even attained when he left home to fight for his nation as a 17-year-old.
Lambert slipped further into alcohol dependency, at one point losing everything he had and destroying his grandmother’s kitchen on one particularly wild night. The case of beer he brought home one memorable evening turned into a year and a half of mostly ugly drunk.
He heard his young wife eventually describe him as an “animal,” rather than the “sweet, kind and loving young man” she had married. She was a witness to some of the road rage that resulted when an unexpected “trigger” put him back in battle mode one fateful night.
He divorced and remarried – this time to a woman who shared his love for partying and drinking but with whom he had little else in common.
Then he married for a third time.
While the third union lasted for 20-years-plus on paper, it was a tumultuous relationship both economically and emotionally.
“I didn’t have the skills or the ability to pick a healthy woman,” he says in retrospect.
Those were the low points.
There were, however, high points.
In December of 1980, he got sober by white-knuckling it. Nine years into his sobriety, he heard a friend tell him that while he wasn’t drunk physically anymore, he was still drunk mentally. That’s when the Vietnam vet got involved in AA, although it was Al-Anon that eventually helped him most of all, he says. As a recovering alcoholic, he started helping others get sober.
He fathered two children and eventually adopted, at her specific request, his stepdaughter from his third marriage.
He abandoned atheism and became a Christian and the senior youth director at his church.
He earned the right to call himself a successful businessman as an auto wholesaler.
He married for a fourth time – the beautiful daughter of a veteran with whom he has found joy over the past 22 years and whom he describes as the foundation for everything good in his life.
What he never did – what he never consciously allowed himself to do – was to “work” on what that time in Vietnam had done to him. That didn’t mean those battle filled months were not working on him, however, utilizing all the tools available to a significant portion of the devils in hell.
“If you could have seen my life (from the outside), you would have thought I had it all,” he says in retrospect of the years, primarily in the new century, that led up to Dec. 17, 2009. That is the date he went into the hospital to finally face his demons, thanks to his wife, Susie.
“I couldn’t drink,” he says when recalling the particular door now closed to him that some veterans choose as their first means of coping. It is not a circumstance he regrets, but having that avenue of temporary escape cut off may have pushed the avoidance of dealing with his real trauma a little deeper.
“I couldn’t work any more, and work had become my drug of choice,” he adds as he explains the ineffective coping skills he had fallen back on, “but I wanted to make sure Susie was taken care of.”
He thought she would need that assurance of a financially secure future because he had gradually come to the decision that the only way out of his torment was to kill himself.
“I remember sitting in a chair in my living room and ‘hearing’ guys dying,” Lambert says of the horror that was closing in at a time when he should have been enjoying the fruits of his hard work, the joys of a successful marriage and the peace of his relationship with God.
“I just broke down when a counselor told me I had to get honest, even though I’d been working (as a mentor with more than 40 years of life experience) with other vets in lots of counseling sessions. That’s when I began ‘vomiting’ Vietnam.”
Lambert’s war story
“There is no way to describe combat. Hue City. The Tet Offensive. Truoi River Bridge. There were 5,000 Viet Cong one time, and when the U.S. was done, the blocks all around us were littered with dead Viet Cong. It was my job to deal with the dead bodies. We tried to burn them. We brought in Seabees who dug a huge trench. Part of my job was collecting bodies and putting them in that pit. That was the day I ‘turned’ as a Marine.
“When I was taking lives before, it wasn’t a game, but it was a mission I understood. After that day, it was something I enjoyed. It was the moral injury.”
As part of his recovery effort almost 12 years ago, Lambert wrote a “letter” that poured the horror of all his battlefield experiences into one encounter that happened on the night he won his third Purple Heart.
“Mr. No Face:
“Our corpsman helped me to Phu Bai med. Late May 1968, hot, dusty and dirty. At the door we met. I thought you were dead. Your face was just ripped up brown and red flesh. If not for your hair I wouldn’t have been sure what I was looking at. Your forehead was gone. Your eyes and nose gone. Only a lower jaw, ears and hair. When your left arm moved to shoo the flies away, our relationship became intimate. Comrades and brothers in war and pain. I naively asked our corpsman to help you. Why are you outside with the flies, inside are the doctors, you can go ahead of me. Hell only my wrist is shattered and some other shrapnel wounds, not as serious as my wounds were before. I’ll be okay, I can wait. I’ve waited since midnight already, said no to the damn morphine. I even walked here from our LZ. Our corpsman tells me of your inevitable fate and at that moment I cognitively shut our door. You have been tucked away for four decades plus, coming only in bleeps as I try to make sense of that war. I’m deeply sorry I have avoided you for my entire adult life. I didn’t have the mental tools to address your fate and pain. I’m with a new squad, old aging boots with 2 very professional leaders helping us to remember and deal. I am apologizing for blocking you out of my memory. I was only 18 and did not have a clue. You have my respect, honor and love. No matter what side you fought on. I’ll bless your soul as a Christian, no disrespect to your personal belief. Then I’ll see your face in heaven. Until then God bless you Mr. No Face, I’m so sorry.”
On that same night, Lambert had a conversation with the God he professed not to believe in while he was waiting alone, for treatment of his wounds, in the middle of a battle still raging.
“I told God, ‘I know I’m going to die. Could you just not let them torture me (a tactic the Viet Cong used to demoralize the other Americans who were intended to hear the screams and sometimes see the brutality directed toward their fellow soldiers)? And could you stop the noise?’”
“I can still remember flashes and explosions, but it got deathly quiet. It was the most peaceful place I’ve ever been,” he says of those moments between heaven and hell.
Mr. No Face was undoubtedly buried somewhere that tragic night in Vietnam. But he struggled to rise through Chris Lambert’s consciousness for the next 40- plus years. When he finally succeeded, the veteran discovered it was possible to begin to deal with the traumatizing memory and to move beyond the horror.
He wrote the letter as part of his therapy for the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that had been dogging him more than half his life.
He read it aloud to other veterans dealing with their own unresolved grief, guilt and shame.
“When my counselor found out I was almost 30 years sober, he said I could give a therapy group a lot of input. So now, I had a reason. I came back the next day, and in six months, I was talking to vets who wouldn’t talk to anyone else. I had a bigger client list (as a mentor) than the hospital,” Lambert says. “I took all the recovery skills I had and poured them into learning about me as a veteran, and then I got into counseling programs.”
He put his skills, his personal insight, his experience, his compassion to work in psych wards peopled by vets who had, basically, given up – much as he had, at one point.
He began to bring vets home with him, to help them get “squared away.” When one left, he would fill his place with a new face.
“Susie sat in on some of the mentor therapy sessions I did with vets in our home. She heard some stuff about me, then, too.”
“The biggest fight now is for people to know we (veterans) are not broken, we just weren’t trained. Not trained in life skills. And kids today are carrying all the weight of the United States,” he says.
“I love Susie as much as any man loves his wife. But the love we had for each other in combat, like John 15 says, there’s no greater love than for a man to lay down his life. You see that in real time, and it can’t compare to anything else. Having to share that last drag of a cigarette and not even hating to do it. Sleeping side by side, because you are so cold …
“If we need to teach vets anything, it’s that the intensity we lived with kept us alive – that focus on the guys to our left and our right. At that point, we weren’t fighting for freedom anymore. Once the bullets fly, it’s about me and my buddies.
“When we get home, that intensity just doesn’t belong, and the rest of the country doesn’t get to know what it is or what it means. I see that a lot,” he says as talks of his ongoing work with vets from his new home in Gulf Breeze.
“It’s mostly not combat that got us,” he insists. “There’s no difference in me and everyone else, but I focus on love and forgiveness now. Once you learn how to forgive and love, including yourself, you’re off to the races.
“‘No one left behind’ does not stop when our combat boots land on American soil. Let’s talk. Vets help vets.”
To contact Chris Lambert, U.S. Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, call (209) 985-7075 or email Chris4vetsnolb@aol.com. Lambert also encourages veterans who have received a Purple Heart and want to help local veterans and their families to call him and become part of the Gulf Breeze/Pensacola Military Order of Purple Heart Chapter. Interested readers may also make donations to assist local veterans by sending a check to MOPH, Chapter 566, at P.O. Box 205, Pensacola, FL 32591. One hundred percent goes to local veterans.