Coming Home Againhttp://hom“To Bedlam and Back,”efires.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/22/coming-home-again/
I posted link to “To Bedlam and Back,” early last week and these were some of the responses posted at NYT just like the original article a very good read please drop by above links and check them out there are more comments at above page.
By The Editors
Brian Turner’s post, “To Bedlam and Back,” which discussed the challenges faced by soldiers who are asked to make a quick re-adjustment to the civilian world, elicited comments from many readers, including Vietnam veterans writing about their own experiences of return. Excerpts from some are below.
I am a Vietnam veteran, author, English teacher and photographer living in Ha Noi after completing a teaching job in Indonesia. I felt it was time to “return” to a place where, as a green 19-year-old, I was really on the ground.
I served with the 101st at Camp Eagle near Hue. I needed to get a sense of place and perspective. Nature has reclaimed all the land. Only the spirits and ghosts and memories remain.
I went to the Phu Bai airport. The yellow and green small simple cement building sits next to an “International” box. On the ground I found a discarded paper baggage handling tag. On one side in all caps it said, EMPTY.” I put it in my pocket.
“Yes,” I realized, “this completes the picture of my returning.”
As I wrote in my novel, “A Century Is Nothing,” when I returned to San Francisco from Saigon heading to Denver they gave us a new green uniform.
It was a strange flight to Colorado. I grasped the significance of being a ghost. No one spoke to me. They averted their eyes. Maybe I smelled like death, evil incarnate, a green silent demon. Maybe all the passengers were afraid because I represented their worst nightmare. I was invisible, just like now.
Fortunately my “homecoming” was brief, then I continued to Germany where I finished my military time. Two years later while attending the University of Northern Colorado insensitive students, knowing my history, called me a “baby killer.” They had no idea. I didn’t absorb their sense of anger, frustration and ignorance.
Brian’s poem is a truthful insight how it feels to be invisible after a war. How leaves and rain and medicine birds are all. A cleansing and healing ceremony indeed.
Retraining the Warrior
It does seem to me that we spend a considerable amount of time and money taking young people from the “tribe” to train them in the behavior patterns of military personnel. We focus their minds not only on a set of skills that are largely concerned with intense conflict, but also on the simplified value system needed to support their war skills — especially the values of obedience, conformity, unquestioning loyalty, pride and winning. In other words, we train our military personnel in a set of skills and values that seeks to reduce extremely complex situations into a set of clear-cut choices — very valuable on the field of battle, but very confusing given the complexities — practical and intellectual — of a civil and democratic society.
Therefore, it seems reasonable to me that, after having strenuously trained men and women to function well in the very specialized and exceptional world of the military, it would be very good indeed to give them at least an equal amount of strenuous post-duty training that emphasizes the values of tolerance, humility, consensus, losing and rigorous objective analysis — all the values needed for democracy to realize its potential. Thus would our warrior class be re-introduced to the civil world.
A Father’s Pain
I come from a family of soldiers — grandfathers, great-grandfathers, uncles and cousins. My father was in the Marines, but he never spoke of his experience (in Korea — where he took part in the Choisin Reservoir battle), so I can’t tell you what he thought about his homecoming. I can relate a story my grandmother told me.
He came home and for the first week, she said, he could not sleep in the house. And most nights he’d run out of his room screaming. So how can you welcome these soldiers home? The traumas of war can last a lifetime, even if they don’t visibly affect work and family life, they are an underlying current that sometimes surges to the surface. But in the beginning, when they are first getting off the plane and stepping back into civilian life, what I think would help most is a good solid month or two of therapy.
I admire the young men who have offered so much to their country — the least we can do is help them make the transition back to civilians — after all, it took months of boot camp to turn them into soldiers, the same care should be taken to turn them back into civilians.
No Welcome Home Party
I returned from Vietnam in 1973, having been in Southeast Asia for two years. I was pretty much treated as a fool who had allowed myself to be used by the government. And me a Harvard-educated surgical resident. What was truly notable was that no one wanted to hear word one about two years of my life (and I was a volunteer). A welcome home party where Vietnam was not mentioned once.
Feelings? Rejection, loss of self respect, and a desire to leave the country (which I did for a year). I wonder if all the draftees, the grunts, were welcomed better by their communities. When people now say, “Thanks for your service”, I just shake my head and wonder why. Great piece.
No Direction Home
I guarantee that in the 60’s and 70’s we were at best ignored at worse humiliated. I never got spat on or called a baby killer but I did get the, “Why don’t you just get over it?” and the “Chill man, it’s no big deal.” The cold stare, the disgusted snort, the “You were obviously part of the problem!” My response was to spend the next four years on the road: hitching, jumping freight trains, picking fruit, sleeping under bridges, standing in the rain.
Alienation was my atmosphere, Isolation my bread. They sent me to fight for home only to find upon return that home was never there.
Know who I talked to over those four years? Well, everybody, anybody — America, but really it was World War II vets. Men like my father. Mostly guys who spent their lives on the road. Truckers, route salesmen, deliverymen, the dairyman making his daily run with the milk. They all had a story I don’t think they told very often, so we traded. The Wake Marine. The 8th Air bombardier shot down who spent 11 days behind German lines. The Silent Service sailor on the horror of crouching deep as the Japanese depth charged them for hours on end. The paratrooper who did three drops. On and on. I don’t think anyone had ever heard their stories. Maybe I should write a book.
Perhaps only fellow survivors can understand, but I refuse to accept this dark conclusion because this would mean there is no hope we would ever convince others that going to war is the stupidest thing humans can do.
How do we bring the warrior home? I’d rather we never sent him or her out, but until we become a wiser race we need to acknowledge that we are damaging them and that healing must be part of the act.
To Brian Turner, all I can say is that four decades since the year that lanced through my life, I’ve never really talked about it to anyone. I don’t recommend that. What you are doing is good. It is not that we “get over” things like this or “find ourselves” again. It is more that out of the shards and bits and broken pieces — those museum uniforms isolated behind glass — something new is fused, grown. We become what we were but so much other and hopefully more, the more having the insight of the “sailor home from the sea.”
Yeah, it would have been nice if we’d have come back as a unit and someone had walked up and said, “Welcome home” and “Do you want some coffee?” Almost makes me cry.
How to Heal the Trauma
Fortunately we treat vets better as a society than we used to. Yet we continue to fail them. Too many civilians expect me to talk about body count or pronounce on strategy or just make them feel good for not serving. But I am grateful that it has been a while since I was called a baby killer.
These days I work with trauma survivors who have P.T.S.D. If they are military veterans, Blackwater cast-offs, rape victims, or clergy abuse survivors, they all have the same P.T.S.D.
Too often civilians want vets to be their scapegoat. They don’t like what we have done in their name, even though they like driving cars and using oil. Rituals help us heal from our P.T.S.D. trauma, regardless of how we got it. Native American rituals and traditional rituals help nourish and heal the soul.
Best advice to help someone with P.T.S.D.: If they talk to you about their experiences, just shut up and listen without judgment. Don’t interrupt and tell them about your own sorrows or you know someone like that. It may be the one time they are able to talk about it and heal. Don’t shut it off. Second piece of advice: sustained prayer.
Surface and Light
Over the years after my return to the U.S. from the infantry in Vietnam (where I killed only soldiers, in your name, by the way, thank you) I’ve occasionally have met men my age who bragged about the hoops they jumped through to stay out of the military (commit a felony, extend time in college, taking continued military training until their four years was up). To me they are cowards. And they’ll never have explored the depths of their capabilities. They are but surface and light. Now they create new wars for my sons.
The silence of America in not being able to speak the word “Vietnam” says volumes of your shame. The millions of dead Vietnamese and Cambodians deserve your repentance. They have mine everyday. You (as least so far) never will.
— Posted by John Higbie
A Thank You
I felt as if I had snuck back into the U.S. from Vietnam in ‘71. My family was proud of me, but they tiptoed around a lot of questions. I was recently evacuated from Lebanon because of the conflict in ‘06. In the process, in a casual conversation with an Air Force colonel, he asked if I had ever served in the armed forces. I said yes, and he did the mental math and asked if I had been to Vietnam. When I said “yes” he just said “thank you.” That was the first and only time anyone had ever said that to me. I cried. And then he found us a place to sleep for the night, and I returned the thank you. I think the Bush-era ban on returning ceremonies for soldiers killed in action bordered on criminal neglect. The British publicly honor every fallen soldier returning home. I suspect they do a better job of honoring all of their soldiers. I wish America would too.
— Posted by Robert Easton
Not What We Signed Up For
My experience during the Vietnam era: I was stationed in Japan and my supervisor was from the Liberty. Our base was used as a halfway house for seriously disturbed Marines that could not be introduced into society until they had a cooling off period. I visited Vietnam through their stories. My days off were spent on the Japanese economy and I traveled extensively having three days off between watches.
Before volunteering into the Navy, I had quit college; I could not set a path; I hated being passive sitting in a class. After two years I was told to leave and grow up. I worked for a bit in a laboratory and joined the Navy when a friend did.
For those who say you deserve what you get because you volunteer, what you volunteer for and what you get are worlds apart. I spent a year in Navy schools where a passing score was 96 percent.
After four years in Japan, I returned home full of stories and impressions of Japan that I wanted to share. The very first impression when I landed in the U.S. was in the airport terminal. A tuna fish sandwich in a vending machine cost $1.85; on base it would cost 15 cents. For some reason, I thought that everything would be unchanged when I returned, that only I had changed.
I bought some camping equipment and when on a long hike in the Cascades and stopped when loneliness overshadowed the experience. It was my transition hike. I hit the road hitchhiking back East. What I experienced was complete and total apathy . Not a single person was interested in my adventure. Everyone was caught up in their own lives. After a week, I shut up and moved on. I worked again in the lab and went back to college quickly becoming an A student as the Navy had completely changed the learning experience. I looked learning as acquiring skill sets needed for the rest of my life as a scientist. Although a bit older than my class, no one ever asked about my military experience nor put me down. It did not exist other than what I got out of it.
Let’s be honest, the first time you go to boot camp, you have football stars, valedictorians, punks, and preachers. You have your head shaved and after two days the only thing that counts is who you are, right now, a member of the team. The entire time in the Navy, I shared no stories of high school or college because they were irrelevant to the current situation. You live in the present. It must be very difficult to be a soldier and live two lives simultaneously, one foot in the U.S. and one foot whereever. Neither life understands the other nor wants too.
I remember a new crop of disturbed, gaunt, tanned, killing machines, the hunters and the hunted. They were sitting at the table in a group at lunch, their lunch being a bowl of white bread, milk and sugar. Their eyes were always casting about; they sometimes hit the floor at the sound of a bowl or tray dropping. There were plenty of screams in the night and smashing of bunks and lockers while eight other Marines tried to restrain one of their own. My corpsman friend who had been there and done that in the bowels of Vietnam would tell me of last night’s adventure of hitting a guy with enough thorazine to knock down a horse and he was still kicking. I don’t think this is what either of us volunteered for. A day in the corpsman’s life was stopping at a village and handing out candy to the kids while one tiny kid slipped under the ambulance to plant a bomb.
I’m in Iraq right now. I’m in the Foreign Service, embedded with the military, in month 14 of a 12-month tour. At this time I’m uncertain when I’ll finish up.
Precisely for the reasons outlined in the article, I’m going to spend a couple of days in the tent in Kuwait before crossing the ocean. It’s essential to decompress and chill out before moving forward.