April 2, 2006 — -- Danielle Trussoni hopes her children will remember fun and happy times. It would be a stark contrast from the memories she has -- of a war she never fought but that irrevocably shaped her life.
Trussoni's father, Dan Trussoni, was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War in 1967, traveling there in 1968. Never one to back away from a challenge, she says, he chose to be a "tunnel rat" hunting the Viet Cong.
"It was extremely, extremely dangerous," Danielle Trussoni said. "The casualty rate was very high."
Dan Trussoni survived the deadly work, but his closest friend and mentor, Tom Goodman, was killed when the two of them were out one day checking tunnel entrances for traps.
"Tom went to go do it and there was nobody there," Danielle Trussoni said. "And, it was my dad's turn. And Tom said, 'Oh, don't worry about it, I've got it. I'll get this time.' And he was careless because they thought nobody was around, and he flipped it up, and someone shot him in the head.
"My dad witnessed that and carried him back to the rest of the platoon, which were behind him," Danielle said. "And this experience damaged him very deeply."
Dan Trussoni eventually came back to the United States but brought the war's horror home with him. In 1973, he started a family, but his nightmares eventually drove his wife away. Danielle, Daddy's little girl and namesake, chose to stay with her father while her brother and sister went to live with their mother.
At the age of 12, she became her father's confidante.
"I think that by taking in such violence, and having such violent stories become part of my life at such a young age, I did always feel a very deep connection with Vietnam and I always felt that Vietnam was my war," she said.
The years Danielle Trussoni should have spent socializing with friends, shopping and going to parties, she spent in dark bars, listening to war stories and taking her father home when he'd had too much to drink.
She didn't realize it at the time, but her father was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He would be diagnosed with it years later. At the time she only knew that his scars had become her own.
"They're being regularly exposed to doses of traumatic exposure that the direct victim experienced," said Dr. Mark Lerner, president of American Academy of Experts in Trauma, "and they are now picking up some of the similar symptomotology themselves. We call this the vicarious power of traumatic stress."
Seven years ago, Danielle Trussoni decided to confront her father's demons, now hers too. She traveled to Vietnam, even climbing into one of the tunnels where her father had faced constant terror 30 years earlier, hoping that in some way this would release her from reliving her father's past.
"I really thought that if I went and I saw this place that I couldn't forget, that it would free me from his stories," she said. "And it turned out that it didn't."
What finally did free Danielle was the decision to write about her father. She interviewed him on tape and documented the conversations about the Vietnam War in a new book called, "Falling Through the Earth."
Her father died of throat cancer at age 61 and was buried last month, the weekend her book was published.
"He and I made peace about it," Trussoni said. "I think there is no way that I will ever totally make peace with it. This is something that is with me for the rest of my life."
For more information about how to deal with traumatic stress from the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, click here.