A Daughter’s Experience: Vietnam, PTSD, and Law School

Katherine Ells, Class of 2017

I knew when I woke him that he would jump. I was prepared to quickly move beyond his reach, and pretend like I did not see the fear in his eyes that I had grown familiar with. As a daughter of a United States Marine who has been captive to decades of PTSD, I am motivated to help veterans. When I started my undergraduate degree, troops were just being deployed to the Middle East, and I gravitated towards International Relations classes that focused on the conflict. I knew this generation of veterans was going to face some of the same problems my father did when he returned from Vietnam. I aspired to academically and professionally prepare myself to help them adjust back into civilian life.

At sixteen, my father lied about his age and joined the United States Marine Corps. While many in our country banded together in protest of our involvement in Vietnam, he spent four tours serving in the conflict. Even deployed soldiers protested military involvement in Vietnam.

So much of my life has been impacted by a soldier my father court martialed. As a Sergeant, my father was responsible for several men below him. One of them began to regularly use narcotics while on duty, even while out on patrols. After reporting this incident to my father’s commanding officer, despite this soldier’s threats to “frag” (a slang term coined during the Vietnam War that refers to the assassination of a fellow soldier) my father, the young soldier was released from jail within hours for a narcotics charge while on duty. Later that night, this man threw a grenade on my Dad’s cot and nearly took his life.

Like many of his colleagues, this left him to spend the next two decades trying to build a life while facing the emotional scars of community rejection, psychological trauma, alcoholism, and failed marriages. Twenty years later my parents married, started a successful real estate business, and I was born. But, it took twenty years to achieve the conventional American life that was promised to him and so many other Vietnam veterans.

Both of my parents worked hard to provide a life for me that was better than that which they experienced. Though neither of my parents are college graduates, they stressed developing a strong work ethic as well as academics, knowing it was the way towards professional achievement for their children.

I am truly indebted to my parents. Their perseverance to get past painful emotional scars, and commitment to raising their children together, has helped me get to where I am today. Admittedly, I was distracted during my first year of law school by the lucrative careers that can come from being an attorney. This past semester, spent working with several other students on a VA’s appeal pro bono case, has been a rewarding experience. It reminded me of my motivation for initially applying to law school. Working on a veteran’s appeal for benefits has empowered me to help a soldier reintegrate into society. My hope is that such compensation will bridge the twenty-year period it took my Dad to rebuild his life.