The Tucson Citizen invited Mike Brewer, a Vietnam War veteran who served in the Marine Corps from 1967 to 1969, to write about how a combat veteran readjusts to society after war.
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each person’s life, sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
On July 2, 1968, one day before my 20th birthday, I was assigned to Hill 10 in the Rocket Belt, Republic of South Vietnam, not far from the Laotian border and the first strong line of defense between the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Da Nang Air Base.
My first assignment was to stand watch over a North Vietnamese prisoner – the most alluring and gorgeous woman I had ever seen. “The French Vietnamese,” our gunny sergeant told us, “are hands down the prettiest women in the world. It’s too bad she’s booby-trapped, corporal.”
For the next 15 months my Catholic education and sense of agape were submerged. My appreciation for truth and beauty was numbed and placed in cold storage for the next 394 days of raw uncertainty.
The very moment I was caught in this woman’s trance-like aura, I turned my gaze and knew I had to implement all combat training and instantly hate. Hostility was now the order of the day. Survival was the end game. We were never informed of the end prize.
No mistake here, I never lost my sense of duty to God and country. In fact, both became more intense, and I was rapidly promoted and given more responsibility. Privately I thought, “Do they all look like her? What is their end game?”
Numerous combat operations followed. As a forward observer, I witnessed the most awesome firepower ever mustered together by a unified fighting force. B-52s, napalm, Hueys and chemical warfare known as Agent Orange.
The lean, mean killing machine of the United States Marine Corps was at this point as finely tuned as an Indy 500 race car and operating at maximum rpms. The only difference between the car and my internal killing machine is that the car had an OFF switch and my brain did not.
Thirty-three years later, after bouts of insomnia, hypervigilance and rage, a few good men, including Dr. Ben Jennings and Dr. Ken Mroczek in the VA Health Care System, gave me some tools to turn OFF my switch.
That switch is now commonly known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Thanks to a new, three-week program at our local VA hospital, I now know how my killing machine works. Prior to this treatment, I was just the driver – the engine operated on its own.
Many war veterans are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. This “disorder” is, in fact, a “normal reaction to aberrant situations.” Disorder is somewhat misleading. PTSD is a new name for an old story. After the Civil War, it was called nostalgia; for WWI, it was shell shock; in WWII and Korea, it was called combat fatigue.
The core characteristics have not been altered by 300 years of poets, musicians and psychologists. While our facility to express it may be refined, the human experience is no different from what Homer emphasized in his epic, “The Iliad.”
The two common events of heavy, continuous combat are the betrayal of what’s right and the onset of the berserk state. Nothing has changed in the human heart in 27 centuries. Patriotism helps. It provides structure for our public rituals memorializing the past. Our sense of honor and commitment – two waning virtues in our time – are given a framework for identity. The common thread of combat veterans is one of the few experiences that cross all boundaries of politics and personality.
Monumentalism and memorialization of the combat experience is a good thing. Without memorials for historical decisions, we would simply have despair. We need to hold in high esteem in every memorial fashion those who chose to offer up their lives to protect our liberties.
But do not be misled. The private war that goes on in the soul of a combat veteran is not abated by ceremonial patriotism. It is as real as baldness. To salve over such a state of being with comments such as “just shed it” is akin to sending a pregnant woman to Weight Watchers.
The reason that Grampa often stared into space and had a few extra martinis is because it is no more possible to “shed it” than to shed Grampa’s baldness.
No matter what terms we use, the symptoms are the same for those who suffer, and most of these men find it easier to identify with another veteran who has had like experiences. Man was created as a physical and spiritual being. We know that physical wounds that go unattended may have debilitating consequences to the body. When a physical wound is cleansed and treated, only a scar remains.
A wounded spirit left untreated can have debilitating consequences, too. Whether from abuse, rape or war, the symptoms are the same. We need to clean the wound with fellowship and understanding until the victim is whole again and the memory is like a scar, no longer controlling the daily life and actions of the wounded.
I was blessed with a wife who knows how to clean wounds. Without her, I would have been dragged through life by the “intruder,” her name for the killing machine that was never switched off when I came home.
In “Vietnam Wives,” by Aphrodite Matsakis, my dear wife was afforded an understanding that was heretofore seldom discussed in polite and patriotic company.
“There are biological changes which occur in men when their lives are on the line. These changes minimize the warrior’s awareness of danger and of physical and psychological pain and discomfort and help him to move rapidly and powerfully . . . .
“Most (veterans) learned how to react quickly and violently to any danger, real or perceived. This quick response, however, while appropriate to the combat situation in Vietnam, was no longer useful (or condoned) upon return to the United States. Vets had to quickly unlearn the violent tendencies that had been expected of them and served them so well during the war.
“Yet, after the glow of coming home alive had passed, many veterans found themselves angrier than ever.
“First, at having been asked to fight in an unofficial war where political considerations often undercut military objectives and, second, at the U.S. public in general and at those in their immediate families who they felt failed to acknowledge, much less appreciate, their sacrifices in Vietnam.”
Armed with the understanding of how nations and a people are forged and sculpted by war, my heart turns nostalgic for the women in our lives. On this very American of all holidays, in the midst of all the memorialization and memorabilia, let us remember the Army/Navy Nurses, the USO and Red Cross volunteers of any war effort who also sacrificed their lives for the virtues of the free world.
From the Doughboys in the trenches of France to the heat of Desert Storm, wives have thrown their entire heart and soul into the “war effort” and without the counteraction of their love against our hate machines, what sort of humans would we be today?
The 19th century military theorist Karl von Clausewitz said the combat solder is “everywhere in contact with chance.”
Battle creates inexplicable events that soldiers experience as luck.
The gamut runs from amazingly good luck to devastatingly bad luck – both stain our souls.
Chance walks among us in dark fury to pause, choose and move on, with the chosen lying as found.
Vietnam combat veteran
Luck knows no reason, nor what’s right.
Palladas of Alexandria
Maybe one day we will be lucky enough to have a memorial for the death of hate and the advent of peace. I pray. I remember.
PHOTO CREDIT: FRANCISCO MEDINA/Tucson Citizen
CUTLINE: Delbert Daniels, 86, a Navy World War II veteran, smiles at a poster in honor of Memorial Day from a student of Mrs. Jacobs third-grade class at Holaway Elementary School. Daniels said he was going home that day and he really enjoyed being remembered by the students.
CUTLINE: Flowers stand over veterans’ graves at South Lawn Cemetery as a reminder of Memorial Day.
CUTLINE: The armed forces veterans memorial at South Lawn Cemetery.