Shrapnel the size of a jelly bean ripped into Michael Marceau through his lower back, tearing the left lung before cracking a rib and pinballing into his left shoulder.
He was critically wounded in Vietnam, halfway around the world from his Rockville home.
“My friend saw me go down and not get back up,” Marceau said. “I just kind of remember thinking to myself, ‘God help me.’”
Marceau, 63, who operated a switchboard during the Vietnam War, will return to the Asian country April 16 for a peace and reconciliation tour his first time back since a rocket blast rendered his body scarred and left arm paralyzed for three years.
During his two weeks abroad, Marceau will visit Agent Orange sites where vegetation hasn’t grown since the war, orphanages, colleges, hospitals and affected families. The goal, Marceau said, is to come to terms with his own ghosts and connect with the Vietnamese.
“I’m sure I’ll experience a lot of difficult situations,” Marceau said.
Marceau and five or six others will attend the self-funded trip, bringing along $1,000 each to donate to Vietnamese organizations. Friends chipped in an additional $700.
Marceau was drafted in 1969, on his 20th birthday, after dropping out of the University of Maryland. Trained to work a communications switchboard, he was injured May 6, 1970, and medically retired in 1971.
The trip is part of Veterans for Peace, a nonprofit of veterans dedicated to increasing public awareness of the costs of war. Marceau is vice president of the Washington, D.C.-area chapter.
For Marceau, part of the cost of war was, in addition to the loss of use of his arm for three years, a 12-inch scar on his shoulder and a 20-inch scar along his back and around his side.
Although the brace he wore on his arm helped physically heal the wound, it also might have helped prevent invisible, mental wounds.
“I really think my having a visible wound, as it were, helped me with the recovery process,” Marceau said.
The brace became a topic of discussion, forcing the veteran to explain what happened.
Physical injuries suffered by veterans are less stigmatizing and can be seen as a symbol of courage and honor, said Dr. Paula Domenici, the director of training programs at the Center for Deployment Psychology, headquartered at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda.
The injury may have been a conversation piece around which Marceau could discuss issues that otherwise might not have come up, Domenici said.
Traveling to Vietnam, Domenici said, will likely allow Marceau to contextualize his experience in a way that allows him to continue to move forward.
From a psychological background, facing trauma reminders, rather than avoiding them, helps individuals come to terms, she said.
“For [Marceau] to go head on, visit where he was injured and where he fought is a way for him to make meaning of the experience in a way where he is probably going to see things in a more balanced and realistic manner because he’s had distance,” Domenici said.
Marceau said he believes a more solemn part of the trip will come when visiting victims of Agent Orange.
The U.S. sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange, an herbicide, and other herbicides on trees and vegetation during the war, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Exposure to the chemicals can cause birth defects, such as congenital heart disease and hip dysplasia.
In 2008, the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign — a project of Veterans for Peace — focused on helping victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam, and the U.S. arranged for victims of Agent Orange to visit the U.S. Marceau spent three days with the visitors.
“It was very inspiring and humbling to go along with this delegation,” Marceau said.
One of the visitors, a college student, was born without legs or a left hand, he said. He deemed her one of the lucky ones because she didn’t suffer mental disability.
Three million Vietnamese suffer the effects of chemical defoliants used by the U.S. during the war, according to the campaign.
The campaign has been working since 2004, bringing delegations to the U.S. and sending veterans to Vietnam, said Merle Ratner, co-coordinator for the campaign.
“When [veterans] see the country at peace and they develop friendships with their counterparts, that really helps in the healing process,” Ratner said. “There’s an amazing kind of bonding that goes on.”
And that’s the part Marceau is looking forward to. He has an album of photographs, letters to his sister and the telefaxes sent to his mother when he was injured.
He will add to those memories/mementos this month, with new photographs of his time in Vietnam.
“I am stocking up on rechargeable batteries and memory cards,” Marceau said.