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  • USS Stribling, DD-867. March 1974. Down in the bilges of the Engine Room, dipping oil out of the water into my bucket. Oily coveralls. Suddenly, pounding on the deck plates above, clatter of footsteps running on metal, commotion, a muffled voice over the engineroom speaker, bells clanging. Up the ladder I go! Black smoke everywhere. Thick, dense - can't see a thing! Hand over mouth and nose. Grope my way to the nearest ladder out, scramble to the top – closed and locked! Crap!

    Scurry back down the ladder, feel my way around to the the one other ladder out. Find Manny and Louie on the way - not alone! Together we head that way. Louie’s first up, I’m next, Manny’s several rungs below. Louie yells - this hatch is also locked! No! This is not good! Can’t breathe – lungs are burning – Oh God, we’re trapped! Lemme outta here! Louie pounds on the hatch, we all start shouting, more black smoke entering our mouths and throats. No! Not now! Not like this! It's all wrong!

    Wait! Is that the hatch cover turning? We’re going to make it! Fresh air rushes down, for a split second of hope, followed by a “Whoosh!!!”- a sudden flash of light, a fireball lights up the blackness, the force propels us right up the ladder, through the hatch, into the corridor, but we're on fire! Coveralls engulfed in flames! Drop and roll – others there take us in and quickly beat the flames back! We’re out! We’re o.k...sort of.

    My moustache is gone – hair badly singed – minor burns on the face and arms. Louie’s about the same. Manny’s not so lucky. He’s hurtin’ bad. Some serious burns on his arms and legs. The worst of it is this burning sensation in my throat and lungs, and that taste that won’t go away – it’s awful. Pervasive. But we’re alive!

    I should be relieved…should be grateful. I am. But those dreams…every night. Back in the Engine Room trapped. Burning. Hatch locked. Black smoke. On fire. Not free…not really.

    They didn’t have a name for this back then. Now they call it post-traumatic stress. It took awhile to overcome. Self medication mostly. Abuse. I only first tied it to PTS when I was talking to a Marine back from Iraq, last year. He talked about his experiences there, what he could talk about. Some things, you just couldn’t talk about yet. Somehow, my Engine Room story came up. I have no idea why. I’d never really told it, like that, to anyone before. It was still a part of me, 38 years later. Who knew? Thought I’d long since put it behind me. He recognized it first. “I'll bet you were a real mess for awhile after that, weren’t you?” “Uh…yeah, you could say that.” “That’s PTSD, dude.” Hmmm …never thought about it like that. Just thought I was a degenerate mess. Nice to make some sense of that time – even if it was 38 years on.

    It's never too late to learn.
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