When John Stillman returned from Vietnam in late 1968 after serving a year in the Army’s 101st Airborne and 199th Light Infantry Brigade, he wanted a nice quiet place to live, work and raise a family. After a year of fighting a gruesome war, he thought that was all he needed to get over the experiences he had.
In 1975, he and his wife, Rita, bought some acreage in the Lonedell area and raised four children, picking a spot where he couldn’t see any lights at night nor any houses.
Working as an operating engineer with Local 513, running heavy equipment on job sites, John didn’t have to talk to many people throughout his day, which was exactly how he wanted it.
“I’d go to work, get on a piece of equipment and work . . . There was very little conversation or interaction with anyone,” he said.
At home, John’s children knew he had served in Vietnam before they were born, but they didn’t associate that with his quiet nature.
“I always thought, my dad is just shy and quiet,” said Lori Stillman, his daughter. “He doesn’t like to talk, and he doesn’t like social events. But he didn’t drink or do drugs, and he wasn’t abusive. He was always present; he had a job.”
He was the perfect father, and emotionally he appeared to be fine.
Back then, John would have agreed. Now he knows that he came home from Vietnam with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and no amount of peace and quiet and not talking about it or interacting with others was ever going to help him move past what he had experienced in Vietnam.
What has helped has been the exact opposite — talking about it.
John and his daughter Lori have written a memoir about his service in Vietnam, “Jumping From Helicopters,” that has been receiving rave reviews and winning awards.
It has been honored with the prestigious Independent Book Publishers Association Benjamin Franklin Award for Best New Voice: Nonfiction, as well as a Book Excellence Award.
“Reading this book gives one the opportunity to go inside a soldier’s mind, living his real-life experience that most people could never imagine,” said Paul Means, brother of late soldier, Ronnie Means, who served with John in the 101st Airborne.
“John Stillman’s account of his experience in Vietnam is simultaneously brutal, heartbreaking, and tender,” said Amy Shaw, senior vice president of engagement and content for the Nine Network of Public Media. “It’s painful to see him being rewired in real time, all the while knowing now the long-term impact of those experiences . . . This is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand the cost of war and the commitment to country.”
About a month ago the VA in St. James asked John if they could start using his book in group therapy. The therapist will read a chapter to the group, and they spend the rest of the time discussing it. And the veterans are really opening up to her now.
That makes John feel good. He had been nervous about publishing the book, mainly because of how other veterans would receive it.
“I thought they’d be critical, not want to read it, but that has been totally wrong. It’s been the opposite,” said John, proudly.
Life coach and counselor Lori Hamann noted, “This memoir is not only courageously and beautifully written, it holds the power to heal — not just for veterans and their immediate families, but for generations to follow.”
‘It Just Keeps Boiling Inside of You’
John had known since he was a boy that he wanted to enlist in the military. As the son of a World War II veteran and the grandson of two World War I veterans (he also had an uncle who was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor), service was a family tradition.
“My whole life I just grew up knowing I wanted to go in the military. Originally I thought I wanted to do it as a career, but Vietnam kind of changed that,” said John.
After graduating from Webster Groves High School in 1966, Stillman went to work for the Frisco Railroad, where his boss was a veteran who had served in the 101st on D-Day. That inspired him.
“That was my goal,” said John. “I got out of Jump School, and they did put me in the 101st, and I thought I was lucky.
“They put the Jump Wings on me, gave me my orders and sent me to Fort Campbell, Ky. When I get there, I find out there’s going to be 10,000 of us going (to Vietnam) together.”
A year earlier, when he was still in high school, John wasn’t paying all that much attention to the news coming out of Vietnam until a young man who had been in the class ahead of him was killed in action, and the school held a memorial service.
“I went home and told my mom about it and we looked it up in a World Book Encyclopedia and saw Vietnam,” he said.
John served in Vietnam from December ’67 to ’68, the year of the Tet Offensive. As a member of the 101st Airborne, the Army paratroopers, he “was trained to jump out of anything they could put me up in the air in,” he said.
After a year, he returned to America and his then-girlfriend could tell that he had been changed by the experience, but he seemed to function well enough. He didn’t want to talk about any of it with her or anyone else.
“I wanted to try to forget it, escape from it, but that doesn’t work,” said John. “It just keeps boiling inside of you.”
Fast forward more than 40 years to 2012. John was invited to his high school alma mater, Webster Groves High School, for a tribute to Vietnam veterans. He didn’t know he would also be asked to speak to the students.
“I wanted to run, but I would have been too embarrassed to do that,” said John.
He talked to the students about some of the lighter aspects of his year in Vietnam — the food they were given to eat, where he slept . . .
The next day when he was telling Lori about the event and how by the third class he had spoken to, things became easier for him, and how interested the students were to hear his stories, she had an idea: His story could be a book.
She asked him the next day if he would be willing to tell his story and he agreed.
‘It Felt Good to Start Talking . . . ’
As good as John’s intentions were to share his stories, they didn’t come out easily, said Lori, who at the time was working as a manager for a manufacturing company.
“It felt good to start talking with her, the problem was I would start crying,” said John.
That was hard, admits Lori.
“He cried when he told me the stories, when he said the names of his platoon brothers that he hadn’t said in 45 years, things that nobody had heard from him,” she said. “I had never seen my father cry, and there were times I thought I was making a huge mistake. Then some of the things he told me, I felt like I shouldn’t be hearing them . . . ”
But it was therapeutic for John to talk about Vietnam.
Around the same time that John was opening up to Lori, he also began going to the Truman VA hospital in Columbia for treatment for PTSD. He had been going to the VA to be checked for problems as a result of being exposed to Agent Orange during his year in Vietnam, and every time he noticed a sign on the wall:
“It said, ‘A True Warrior Isn’t Afraid to Ask for Help,’ ” said John. “I kept reading it every time I was there. That went on for a couple of years. Then I finally asked my wife, ‘Do you think I need help?’ ”
Part of his treatment to help his PTSD was to start writing things down and talking to people about his experience, exactly what he and Lori were doing for the book.
Not Gruesome, But Real
In addition to John’s memory of his time in Vietnam, he and Lori had a couple of other resources to help them in writing the book. One was a journal that John kept. His father had given it to him before he left and said, “You may want to write some stuff down.”
Another resource were letters John had written to his wife, who was then his girlfriend. Turns out, she kept every one.
Telling the story of John’s experiences in Vietnam in a way that was compelling but not gruesome required some filtering. Lori said they wanted the book to be appropriate enough for kids as young as middle school to be able to read it.
She didn’t want anyone to be so bothered by gruesome details that they stopped reading.
“So it’s filtered, but I believe there is enough that you can understand and picture what is going on without it being thrown in your face,” she said.
“Jumping From Helicopters” is self-published, but Lori hired a professional to edit the book.
The book, which includes lots of photos from John’s service in Vietnam, all taken with a Kodak Instamatic 100, is dedicated to every name on the Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington, D.C.
John noted in his unit alone there were 152 men killed.
Highest Award for Self-Published Book
“Jumping From Helicopters” was published Dec. 7 (the anniversary of the day John came home from Vietnam), and their editor recommended that they submit it to the Independent Book Publishers Association awards.
The awards ceremony was held last April in Chicago, and the Stillmans compared the experience to the Academy Awards. There were some 50 categories, and the nominees for each category were announced before someone opened an envelope to reveal the winner.
In the Best New Voice: Nonfiction category, there were three other finalists. When they announced the Stillmans were the winners, they went up on stage to accept the glass crystal award.
It was hard to stand up there in front of so many people, said John, who had obviously come a long way in his PTSD treatment and therapy.
“I remember thinking if I wasn’t with Lori, I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” he said.
He had come full circle from where he was that day back in 2012, standing in front of high school students at his alma mater, sharing those few details about his service.
Looking back, Lori said their goal in writing the book had been to help heal John, herself (she had been in a relationship with a veteran who had PTSD) and anyone else who reads it, and they feel like they’ve accomplished that.
“We’ve had strangers reach out to us and say veterans have read it and it inspired them to talk,” she said. “We’ve had people from my generation tell us that their father drank himself to death and they had no idea what he did (in Vietnam), but this gives them a little insight to their struggles.”
“Jumping From Helicopters” is available at Neighborhood Reads bookstore, 401 Lafayette St. in Downtown Washington, as well as online from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, IndieBound and Books-A-Million.
For more information, visit www.jumpingfromhelicopters.com.