The Many Sacrifices of Captain Van Thach

Trained as a lawyer, he joined the infantry after 9/11 to "engage the enemy face to face." As told to Jonathan Wei

My father knew that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—he does, too. He was a World War II veteran, a Korean War veteran, and a Vietnam War veteran. He advised me to go out to Northport [Veterans Administration].

Having somebody who wanted to be there with me was [another] major factor. Since my divorce was finalized, I had started to be romantically linked with my best friend's wife's friend in e-mail. She was in Vietnam. I took a one-month vacation in Vietnam. I petitioned a K-1 visa, a fiancée visa, and I brought her to the United States in 2010. I needed somebody I could open my heart to. I had to find a counterpart.

The third thing that helped me was a service dog that I received free of charge from Canine Companions for Independence, through their Wounded Veterans Initiative program. Instead of always asking my wife, my mom, "Oh, I dropped my medication bottle, my keys, my socks—can you pick it up for me?" my service dog, Liz, can pick up items on command. Her compassion for me, her being next to me, has helped me emotionally.

Van Thach and his service dog, Liz, on May 3, near his home in Bellerose Manor, Queens.
Caleb Ferguson
Van Thach and his service dog, Liz, on May 3, near his home in Bellerose Manor, Queens.
Van Thach with General David Petraeus in Baghdad, March 2008
Courtesy Captain James Van Thach
Van Thach with General David Petraeus in Baghdad, March 2008


As part of Operation Proper Exit, a nonprofit

that works to treat PTSD by bringing wounded veterans back to the war zone, Captain Van Thach spent seven days in Afghanistan in February of 2013.

We flew business class from D.C. to Kuwait. We transitioned into our uniforms, and flew by military plane to Afghanistan. I was there for one week. I, along with eight other wounded veterans, traveled to several bases and attended town-hall meetings, with over 1,500 U.S. troops. We talked about how we were injured, how we have been treated, how we are persevering.

My psychological scars—nightmares, anxiety attacks, the hyper-vigilance—I wanted to face those fears. Worrying about that . . . that rocket flying into a base. Worrying about being shot at. We were traveling in convoys, we were traveling in the traffic of everyday life and at . . . at any time a suicide bomber could have came [sic] in a taxi or somebody could have came [sic] on a motorcycle with explosives or on a bike with explosives, and I had to keep my eyes open to face those fears. I had my cane, and I was walking through the base during the day and night to take on those fears.

Right now I'm taking 20 pills a day. I'd been on sleeping medication for over five years. After the fifth day, I did not have to take my sleeping pills. Since coming back to the United States, I did see my psychiatrist and I mentioned that to her, and she was very happy for me.

I cannot bend over. I have high anxieties. I have nightmares. The bomb blast contorted my spine. I have to use a cane to walk. If it's longer than two blocks, I use a walker. If the pain is tremendous, I use a wheelchair.

But our injuries don't define us. It was a tremendous experience going to the war zone with those eight other wounded veterans. We want to serve as an inspiration to our fellow Americans and an asset to our country. I feel very honored that I had the opportunity to serve, especially during war. Many men and women have paid the supreme sacrifice. I'm very fortunate that I still have my life. Living through history to serve our nation and protect our citizens has made me a more compassionate person. I plan [on] taking the New York State bar exam, to work for veterans pro bono.

I'm working on my short-term and long-term memory. I'm taking the proper medication, but nothing can be fixed overnight, or in a week, or in a year. A lot of injuries are lifelong, so I have to be realistic. I have to accept it. But I have to make my life as comfortable as I can.


Jonathan Wei is the founder and director of The Telling Project (

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