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Don’t Let The Bastards Getcha Down

 

Chapter Seven (02)

 

Same As It Ever Was...

So there I was suddenly taking my daily doses of the
antipsychotic drug Stellazine, one of the older neuroleptics
related to Thorazine, and living inside a mental hospital.
Because I clearly was not psychotic, the major tranquilizer
snowed me under and was not making me any better
psychologically or otherwise. I recall very little during
those days in the hospital because I was so groggy. When a
patient is misdiagnosed and given the wrong psychotropic
medication, serious complications and reactions frequently
occur. All I specifically recall from that holiday week
between Christmas and New Years that year in Southern
California were the torrential downpours every single day
that entire week. Right about then Albert Hammond was still
singing “It never rains in Southern California... it pours,
man it pours.” Between the cooped up feelings being trapped
inside a lock-up facility with nowhere to go and nothing to
do, on a drug that was fucking with my head and making
everything seem worse than it was, I was crawling the walls.
The bad meds, attending daily group therapy and killing
time while watching the rain fall outside was not the way I
wanted to spend my New Years. I had an old West Point
roommate Lee who happened to be stationed at nearby Fort
MacArthur in San Pedro. So I called him up and asked him for
the favor of rescuing me from my life in hell. Thankfully he
drove up ostensibly for a visit, then we timed it so when
the buzzer went off that unlocked the exit door for him, it
allowed me to sneak out with Lee. We had a good time that
weekend. Of course being anywhere but locked up and drugged
as I was would be a good time. But I am grateful to Lee for
coming to my rescue. When he dropped me off back at the
hospital, it reminded me of those dark days when I had to
return to West Point. To help ease the strain, my sister and
her family came for a mercy visit later that same day. I was
struggling to keep my head up psychologically, and my family
was there compassionately supporting me. Just as they were
ready to leave, something I will never ever forget suddenly
befell me. My neck suddenly tightened up and locked rigidly
into a right degree angle halfway home to “The Exorcist.”
Not being able to move my neck at all, it scared the fuck
out of me as I had absolutely no frame of reference for
making sense of it. The ultimate panic was fearing it would
be some permanent condition. My sister ran and got the
nurse who explained that it was a side effect from the
Stellazine I was taking. She quickly gave me a shot of
Cogentin in the ass, a side effect medication that within
minutes began loosening up my neck. I felt like the frozen,
rusted up tin woodsman when Dorothy oiled him back to life
again. In case you haven’t figured out with all my multiple
metaphor references, there is no better fantasy film in my
book than the 1939 classic “Wizard of Oz.” In any event,
apparently having taken that major tranq for just those few
days and then going cold turkey while AWOL, put me over the
edge. Needless to say, I refused taking any more medication.
When the Department of Army learned that it was picking
up the pricey tab on Lt. Hagopian’s private psychiatric
hospitalization, within the week I was transferred to the
nearby federally funded Sepulveda Veterans Hospital mental
ward. Talk about a night and day difference. Everything is
relative. I dreaded the week I had to live at Van Nuys
Hospital. But I really hated the VA hospital. It was an old,
dirty, dingy setting that would make any human alive very
depressed.


The dungeon that is Sepulveda Hospital

The wacko ward I was on housed about forty to
fifty patients at any given time ranging in age from young
mid twenties to older World War II vets. Their mental
functioning also widely varied with the minority of younger
guys appearing more with it than the older gents that
embodied the stereotype of a crazy old geezer, many
suffering from a very serious side effect from taking
antipsychotic meds for too many years called tardive
dyskinesia. They walked around grimacing with grossly
contorted faces a lot with involuntary tics and pronounced
facial and hand movements, totally psychotic mumbling to
themselves locked in their own pathetic lost world. This was
the typical patient on my ward. I was appalled, not so much
from these old guys themselves as much as the conditions by
which they were forced to live out their lives at an
outdated uncaring institution that was just drugging them
into oblivion for sake of managing them like a herd of
cattle. Because ten years earlier the state hospitals were
all closing their doors and emptying the severely mentally
ill onto the streets and board and care facilities, these
poor men had no other place to go other than the street. And
because they were elderly and had major medical issues
accompanying their mental impairments, these unfortunate
veterans had few other options. The staff to patient ratio
was something like one to twenty-five. There was no
treatment program to speak of, just the inhumane, impersonal
warehousing and over-drugging. They would pace up and down
the ward hour after hour all day long like caged animals
while an old TV set blared garbage across the room that no
one paid any attention to. Little conversation took place
because these guys were locked inside their own heads.
Despite being snowed under by all the drugs, once in awhile
an occasional argument would break out, usually over some
paranoid thought that agitated one of them into acting out
aggressively. And of course because I did not consent to
taking any more medication, I vividly recall with sharpest
detail the utterly demoralizing, lifeless, downer atmosphere
even all these years later. It was not a place that helped
people get better but a place where people were the walking
dead waiting to die.
One of the younger patients on the ward named Rocky
said he had a car in the parking lot outside that could take
us to his home in nearby La Canada. So as a respite, a break
from the daily tedium and the overwhelming despair at the
hospital, I was game. We snuck out the door and went AWOL.
This guy was a Vietnam veteran that no doubt saw lots of
sick shit there. I realized I was taking my chances spending
any time alone with Rocky as he seemed like a loose cannon
that could go off at any moment. But staying on that ward
after two weeks had me willing to take my chances just to
get a reprieve from that deadening place. I remember Steve
Miller singing “I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight
toker...” on the car radio and in the bar we stopped at for
a beer and game of pool. The scariest moment came at his
place when he pulled a gun on me that night pointing it
directly at my head while swigging down his Jack Daniels.
Afterwards, he joked, “I was just fucking with you.” He was
another seriously wacked out PTSD victim, living life on the
edge the only way he knew. As much as I dreaded going back
to that lifeless morgue at the VA hospital the next day, I
was also relieved to get the hell away from Rocky.
As a Vietnam-era vet who fought my war at home, I can
relate to the plight of the three million American soldiers
who fought in Vietnam. Though many were draftees, most
volunteered to serve their country believing it was the
right thing to do. There they saw the sheer chaos, insanity
and horror of war up close and personal, often not knowing
who their enemy was, yet just as often seeing their buddies 
die all around them. Then many were forced to commit murder 
of countless innocent victims with orders from the top by a
morally bankrupt group of West Point generals comprising
Pentagon brass. They sacrificed so much and got so little
back, from both their leaders they served under and the
American public whose freedom they thought they were
protecting. And for their sacrifice, they were literally
spit on by most Americans when they came home. They had next
to no support or assistance to transition from the brutality
of war to life as a civilian. Upon their return and really
ever since, most Vietnam veterans suffering from Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder have been forsaken by their own
people and country. Subsequently so many have ended up
homeless, on drugs, suicide victims and/or dead.   
I also had a psychiatrist named Dr. Chelnick, an
Eastern European accented, old school Freudian-type shrink
who played mind games with his veteran patients. He was an
incompetent, over the hill old fart who probably had his
license to practice taken away from him and had reached the
professional bottom with the only place that would likely
still hire him. He was arrogant, thought he knew it all, and
had an egotistical need to feel superior to all his patients
who he treated condescendingly. Just as his patients
represented the stereotype of the most chronically severe of
the mentally ill, this little shrinkoid personified what was
the worst about his profession of psychiatry. I recollect
our final and among our more memorable conversational
clashes.
“Think of me as your Dutch uncle when I tell you this.
You need to go back to Fort Sill and face the music back
there. You’re a young man trying to shirk your duties and I
am not going to coddle and enable you,” the smug, thought-he
knew-it-all doctor insisted.
“You have no idea what I go through there. You’re
pulling a Catch-22 on me. I feel like Captain Yossarian, not
quite crazy enough to pull me out of the Army, so you’re
throwing me into the fire to face the insanity that’s
waiting back there to brand me with a dishonorable
discharge,” I came back at him. This asshole had no clue
what I’d been going through the last five years of my life
in the military, yet he was so sure he had me all figured
out as my arrogant “Dutch uncle.”  
“Young man, you need to grow up and not take the
coward’s way out,” he verbally attacked.
“Fuck you, you don’t know shit about me or what I’ve
been going through!” I got up and left. After a full month
in that horrific loony bin, as much as I hated going back,
I was relieved to get the fuck out of that madhouse and my
“Dutch uncle” throwing me to the wolves.
I must have called Bill Smith twenty times in the
course of that life changing month at the VA Hospital,
pleading with him to do anything to get me out. Though he
always showed compassion, his mantra was, “The longer you’re
in there, the better your chances for getting out with an
honorable discharge. I know it’s got to be tough Joachim,
but I also know you’re a remarkably strong individual, so
just hang in there and soon enough it will all be over.”
Thanks Bill for believing in my strength when I had doubts.
I was due back at the fort on that first Monday morning
in February 1974. I left Los Angeles and my sister on Sunday
afternoon figuring I’d pull another marathon all nighter
driving back. Though I was able to resist falling asleep at
the wheel, at about three in the morning I did hit a large
armadillo lumbering across the road on a stretch of open
two lane highway in the Texas panhandle going about sixty
miles an hour. Unfortunately I jammed on my brakes at the
exact same moment of impact, which was a big mistake as it
spun my car around into a complete one eighty so I was
speeding down the middle of the road in reverse seeing
everything passing before my eyes for what seemed an
eternity. I finally came to a dead stop about a hundred
yards down the road. My heartbeats were pounding out of my
chest. While going backwards for that three second eternity,
I remember praying to God to keep my breakable plastic toy
upright on the road, afraid that in an instant I could be
splattered and dead if I’d hit a pole or gone off the road
into the nearby ditch. Scenarios of that thin fragile thread
of life being severed could have been endless and most
probable. So when I finally came to a halt still upright and
intact straddling that middle line marker in the road with
just my heart jumping out of my skin, I sat there for at
least a minute just trying to shake off what had just gone
down. My car started right up again. I slowly turned it
around still thanking God I was still alive and resumed
covering the home stretch back to the hell that awaited me
across the stateline.
Whenever us humans emerge on this side of life from
such a close brush with death, we interpret the favorable
outcome as a gift and validation from the Almighty that our
business here on this earth is yet unfinished. I think it
gave me renewed hope and resolve that my trials with the
military would soon be over. And I could finally start fresh
at living the rest of my life more the way I felt it was
meant to be lived.
Shortly before I’d gone to California over the holiday
break, my superiors had decided to put me back at the start
of another round of officer basic classes going through.
They must have counted on me to see the futility and error
of my ways and start trying to pass with a fresh new start.
But then came my CO claim and five weeks in the nuthouses in
Lala Land. So they were the ones who had to reassess their
strategy, facing their futility in believing that cramming
their steel on the target school down my throat a second
time would suddenly make me see the light. When I got back
to Fort Sill that Monday I was placed in a temporary job
with supply. Funny how twice when they didn’t know what else
to do with me, first at West Point and now the Army, the
powers-that-be chose obscure, do-nothing jobs in supply. At
least my boss who was a major seemed cool and not a harasser
thinking he could single handedly turn the screws and do
what none others could in making me something I wasn’t.
Instead he had me doing menial, mindless tasks like counting
inventory items. I remember he offhandedly assigned me the
job of composing a letter of recommendation for somebody I
didn’t even know. But just based on a few of his descriptive
words, I created this shining gem of a letter touting the
greatness of someone I never knew and from that point on the
major thought I was just what he needed. So he proceeded to
keep me busy writing more letters for people I never knew.
In the meantime, another Article 15 came down the pike
slapping my hand for failing the Field Artillery school.
Apparently they had not quite given up on their original
strategy to continue building a legitimate case for
dishonorable discharge on me. The Army was determined to put
the financial squeeze on me as a Second Lieutenant living
under the poverty level for most of that year. They were
obviously biding their time trying to dig deeper to get more
dirt on me in a last ditch effort to counter my CO and
nutcase claims that had stolen the momentum from them. But
as soon as they exceeded their ninety day limit to legally
process my conscientious objector claim, Bill and I struck
back once again. This time we enlisted the supportive clout
of my famous Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. And that
intervention proved to be their checkmate. Suddenly I was
told to report to the Personnel Office the next day. That
was the same office that during that post-Vietnam, post-
draft era was the busiest office in town drastically
downsizing our military in the mid-seventies. In fact,
American soldiers went from three and a half million in 1969
to just two million in 1979. I was in the middle of that
decade when America was cutting back its troop numbers by
nearly half. I felt certain that this fact would be in my
favor to get out as a lowly Reserve officer and not be
missed at all. And I know my attitude and behavior proved an
irritable pesky thorn in their side to boot. Seeking the
gainful employment of legal respresentation a second time
after publicly defeating them back at the Point may have
increased their contempt and hatred toward me. But paying my
dues in insane asylums while submitting a conscientious
objector claim they failed to act on within the legal limits
placed them again at a decided disadantage. And then siccing
one of the most powerful and famous senators on them for
their legal liability proved to be the ultimate game
changer. They promptly gave up their vendetta against me and
on the morning of my twenty-fourth birthday, I was signing
my honorable discharge papers.
Suddenly becoming a civilian was by far the best
birthday present I could ever receive my entire life. Thank
you Ted. You were the best! And though you were born with a
silver spoon in your mouth, unlike most elitists, for
decades you chose to fight for us little guys. And thank you
US Army. Your relentless pressure and nonstop trauma of five
years in a repeated effort to destroy me and break my will
and spirit failed. But it forced me at a relatively young
age to find out who I was, and who I am. I learned through
the hardship, adversity and the growing pains of my
character-building that I am a spiritual warrior determined
to live up to my ideals as a fighter for truth, justice,
peace and universal love and compassion toward all that is
sacred in life. And I could never have done it without you.
I was so jubilant grabbing my hard earned honorable
discharge, and so used to marathon cross country road
trips, despite it already around noontime, I jumped in my
Lotus in Oklahoma and raced home to Massachusetts trying to
make my homecoming in time for my birthday celebration as
well. And though I was three hours into March 13th, I
triumphantly woke up and surprised my parents and family in
the middle of the night. And as a civilian survivor, I had
won my protracted stateside war twice against the US
military establishment, and lived to tell about it in
celebration of both my freedom and slightly belated birthday
with the family I loved. A final West Point irony: in its
mission to always screen the weaker ones out, after two
concerted campaigns to defeat Joachim Hagopian, I was the
one left still standing proud and true. With war after war
ending in defeat, the same cannot be said for the military.
Two months later the Senate Watergate hearings had run
their course, three months later releasing its 1,250 page
findings. Five months later the first United States
President in history gave up his losing battle to stay in
power and finally also resigned in disgrace in August 1974,
forcing the first non-elected Vice President Gerald Ford
into becoming our thirty-eighth President. Two and a half
years later Jimmy Carter became America’s first elected
President to be an Annapolis graduate. Meanwhile, the power
of West Point generals, the Pentagon and the ever-growing
military industrial complex in recent decades has led the
American Empire and its mighty war machine down the doomsday
path to complete annihilation and global self-destruction.
This cancer must stop before it is too late for all of us.
Just as I as one determined individual fought and defeated
the military twice from destroying me, so can all of us
citizens of the world unite and fight the Empire’s violent
oppressors to take our planet back and ultimately find a
civil nonviolent way to resolve conflict, ultimately
learning to live in peace and harmony as one human family.
If our human species is evolving at all, then we must make it happen.

Go to Chapter Eight

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