Martha Surwillo

You Don't Just Come Home Once

Profilers: Brooke Turpin, Briana Chue, Adrian Flores-Navarro, Bruce Bearer

Life Before Jim

Us: As a little girl, what was your perception of the Vietnam War?

Martha: You know, I was very little when the Vietnam War was going on and so I don’t have a lot of memories of being a child with a war going on. What I do remember is that my oldest sister is seven years older than I am, and she had friends who were involved in the Vietnam War and most of that had, you know, most of that knowledge that I have comes from being an adult and sharing in those stories with her. At the actual time that the Vietnam War was going on there was that I remember, there were people who wore dog tags and I didn’t really know what that was all about. Then there were the MIA bracelets that were a big deal when I was a schoolgirl. So that is what I have memories a lot about as far as that period of time. My little world, I was raised in a relatively small town in Chicago and I lived with parents who, you know, who grew up during the depression and the stories of World War One and Two and the Korean War and those were the stories that I heard more about and movies on TV, I was pretty protected from the really harsh war.

Us: Did you learn anything about the Vietnam War in school?

Martha: You know, I just don’t have any memory about that, not so much, no. I do remember, I do remember things in history, I remember the day MLK was shot but I’m too young for Kennedy. I remember some things, you know like, the astronauts in space. But no, I don’t, I don’t have, it’s just the MIA bracelets and dog tags, no I don’t. I had a cousin who was in the navy. But Vietnam, Vietnam for me came into my life large, big and large when I met Jim Surwillo.

Life After Meeting Jim

Us: Was Jim Surwillo (ex husband) your strongest relation to the war?

Martha: He really was. He was ten years older than I am, still is, he was then and still is, ten years older than I am and he was a Vietnam veteran and a proud American and he enlisted and went back for a 2nd tour. I can tell you as an adult, at the time I met Jim, I was in my early twenties and I know a lot about the Vietnam War from that age on.

Us: How did meeting him change your perception of the war?

Martha: Well, first of all it taught me everything there was about the war, the history of the war, the whole idea of the north and south and you know, people. All the other wars were people who were of different nationalities and different places in the world and they fought against each other and Vietnam wasn’t like that and that was a big deal, it was a big deal that they were fighting people who were much the same, you know, I mean everybody’s different, but it was hard to know who the enemy was and it was a long war–it was a grueling war. There were all levels of ways to fight it by all different military forces and the war did not end just because the fighting was over and the boys were home. It just did not end and I think today it still goes on for a lot of guys, and women too. You know they were one of the first wars that started having, what would be the word, memorials, to the women who fought in war and it was amazing, it was amazing.

My father was the very first person who said thank you to Jim, and that was, that was like 20 years after he had gotten home and it was my father who was the first person who said thank you to Jim. It was a big, big deal. Just big.

All his buddies are Vietnam veterans and his family are his buddies and they are the ones to a veteran, at least the veterans that I know up close, are the ones who really get him, the rest of us just don’t get it. You didn’t go, you don’t know. They got a lot of slogans, they put them on their cars and they put them on their motorcycles and they put them on their helmets and they wear them on their jackets. And they are some of the proudest true Americans there are and I think people who fight in wars really have a core of American truth in their heart. And I admire that, I admire that. But, they come with great pain, they live their lives with great pain.

Us: Did you meet anyone else through Jim who was involved in the war in general?

Martha: Oh everybody, everybody, all of them. I don’t think he knew one person that wasn’t a part of the Vietnam War unless they were somebody from work or somebody that, you know, they stick together, they’re a group, they are brothers, they are like a clan. So yes, all our friends were Vietnam veterans and they were all his age and so you know, they played together, they holidayed together, they hung together, they, they did everything together. So I think I was a part of it but I wasn’t because I was ten years younger. One of the women in the group, she was just you know, we all, when you live up close with veterans like that, you go to war at home, and she takes care of them all, she’s amazing. We all deal with a thing called PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder and it becomes a part of your life. It’s kind of like when you go down south and you hang out a little bit too long and you start talking a little southern, you know, you take it on, it just becomes a part of your life. Our bookcases are filled with historical books of Vietnam; the house is decorated with Vietnam memorabilia. It’s your life…it’s your life.

Living with PTSD

Us: When you were with Jim, would you consider that you experienced some of the same PTSD?

Martha: Absolutely. Myself and the girls. The thing is that, here is another thing that you go through or I did is that when a helicopter flies up in the sky, they react. I’m like hey cool, love the sound; they don’t, they hide, they go for shelter, they feel like they go into like military mode. For a lot of years, in the middle of the night Jim would get up and he would walk the perimeter of the house. Okay, I know that there is danger everywhere, but thank goodness, thank the Lord, there is usually, in this little world that I live in, not a lot of danger. But he had to check it, he had to check it to be able to sleep. You learn to live your life on guard when you live in a world of PTSD, you live your life very protective, you don’t trust quickly, you… you react more than you respond.

You know, it’s an element of, there is a constant level of fear in some ways. And so, you learn these skills in life that, I don’t think, I wasn’t raised with them. That’s an element of who you are, you know it’s a complicated situation because the girls grow up being who they are, you know, because of the nature vs. nurture idea, the idea of would they be this way if they weren’t raised in the environment that they were? You just don’t get to know that. But I know that as we come out of living in the environment that we used to live in, other traits are stronger than they used to be. And choosing to learn different ways to handle things have blossomed, which is a wonderful thing. The biggest thing is that we don’t live so much in fear and uncertainty; you just never know when a reaction is going to come. I think I can only speak truthfully about my own life but I was raised by a man who was a real steady Eddy and being raised by a veteran, in my own experience, and listening to the families I was close with, you just never knew what their reaction would be and a little bit of having to always be prepared to be okay if something bad happened so…

But you know PTSD is something that comes from all kinds of experiences and so you have to learn to, the thing is you have to learn to take into consideration that this is where I come from but now how do I do it differently? And how do I make it so that my heart is strong and I can be okay and we all worked very hard at that, very hard at that. And you know the thing is that I also want there to be an awareness too that every experience that goes along in life like that you have the choices to how you process that and work with it and it’s about making the choice to do so and there are veterans that really work hard to come out of combat and come into a mainstream way of life and it doesn’t have to always be a confrontation to prove yourself and you know it can be good, it can be good.


Us: Are there any vivid memories you would like to share about the aftermath of the war in your life?

Martha: Well, a very, very long time ago for me, before the girls were born, up in Sacramento, they had a parade. And maybe I think, it wasn’t just a parade, because there were parades at different times, but I believe up in Sacramento, which is our state capital—pretty sure—they had a park where they were doing a whole monument in honor of the men and women of Vietnam. And I think it was the very first time Jim ever walked in a parade, a thank you parade. And ‘cause he has his stories like thousands of them do, when he came home he was yelled horrible things, spit on and all that kind of stuff. And so this was now, should’ve gotten my dates straight in my head before I started chatting with you. But this was now probably 20 years down the road, and we went to Sacramento, it was a big deal, I had to take a day off of work. And I am not a girl to miss work but I took a day off of work so we could go up there and the event was about being in a parade and about the opening of the statue and a mini-wall and it was a big deal. It was a big, big deal. I don’t know if I would say to you–I couldn’t rank them but it was one of those days that goes along with getting married and having children and going to the celebration was really big. And he put on his clothes, he had on his jacket and of course it didn’t quite fit. But he wore it and he walked in that parade like he had just come home. And it made a big difference. Those things make a big difference in these guys’ lives. They need to have them. They are important. You don’t just come home once just cause your feet hit the American soil. You have to come home a couple of times to really believe you’re home. So that was a big day, a very big day.

I knew I was in for something that I wasn’t expecting when I married this man. Because one day I made this, we were like newly married, and I made this really beautiful Sunday brunch and he pulled the TV up to the dining room table, where I had made this lovely, romantic newly married, you know, brunch and put on the Vietnam War movie. You know, so while I am thinking this is so romantic and sweet, we are watching people getting killed. And I can tell you I’ve seen every…so I was okay I better really pay attention; this is a way of life for me. And ‘cause that was his life, that’s who he was.

Us: Would you say that the function of memorial like the memorial for women or the parade was something that helped them?

Martha: Enormously, and you know amongst the men of the different wars, they don’t understand why it has to be repeated over and over. Well some of it does need to be repeated over and over and it is, by movies and interviews and historical moments, every, all the wars get attention. The Vietnam War gets so much attention because they came home without the idea of being successful. And it’s hard to overcome something that you did your very best at and then people say and think about something really simple in your life and you get told oh that wasn’t good enough and you think oh my god I did it, I am alive and we did good. And…so it’s hugely important, absolutely and it should be. They should be honored. They should be honored. They are heroes; they are all heroes. They are definitely, every day, if you know someone that has been to war and come home, you have met a hero, absolutely. It’s grueling. I certainly would not have survived. It is grueling. So I hope they have a lot of them. And they do. They come together today still to walk in the parades and they bring one more buddy along. They’re all buddies.

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