grace and mercy
I chose the title for this book not for any personal lack of spiritual or religious belief, nor to infer a meaningless or non-existent creator.
I do not intend to refute the faith of any or all who have served in combat, nor that of those who may read this accounting. I speak for no one but myself in this writing.
My experiences in combat, and the carnage it leaves in its wake, has left me with deeply rooted and horrific impressions that give me cause to doubt the presence of anything holy in a war zone other than those beliefs each of us may carry or develop within that hellacious landscape. There seems to be no reason for God, or any gods to be there, let alone choose to take sides.
The regular combat soldier is nothing more than a reluctant captive serving in a harsh and brutal environment where chance and fate collide endlessly, and staying alive is a day to day, if not moment to moment challenge.
It is my belief, in combat, who lives or dies is not a predestined matter guided by a holy hand, but rather it is determined by the consequences of bitter misfortune and random circumstance. To imagine that a loving “God” would place or remove anyone from the path of death because He had determined “it was, or was not the time” does not make sense in the everyday world let alone on the battlefield.
The brutal violence and slaughter let loose in the arena of warfare cannot be the work of anyone or anything holy. Surely a loving and gracious Deity weeps while Satan feasts in the absence of grace and mercy.
My wife and I sat in stunned silence, unable to take our eyes off the television set. A firefight was about to unfold in the early Iraqi morning. I found my eyes searching for movement in the flat two-dimensional distance while men and machine moved into combat positions. My breath quickened and my heart began to pound in my ears as the camera panned up and down the line of troops preparing to engage the Iraqi military.
My wife, her fists clenched tightly in her lap, sat with one leg tucked under her and the other on the floor pushing her into the back of the sofa. Her eyes widened in disbelief as I explained to her what was about to happen.
My muscles tightened, my mouth went dry and my head began to ache as the long sleeping beast, aroused by the adrenalin racing through my veins, fidgeted restlessly within me.
This had never happened before to a television audience…combat, live as it happened.
My war…Vietnam…sent filmed images to the U.S. within hours of an event for broadcast to television audiences as no other conflict before. The tragedy of combat filled the nightly six o’clock news; bitterly dividing the country; sending civilians and veterans alike in the hundreds of thousands to the streets in protest.
And now this, a life and death battle about to unfold in real time, scraped harshly against the senses and reached for old memories and fears to shake them loose.
When the fighting began, my wife curled her whole body onto the sofa and gasped as the rounds began to explode against the distant buildings and emplacements. I watched as she bit her lip and squirmed, her eyes transfixed, wide and horrified. “Oh, my God…my God!” she whimpered softly…”My God”
I turned my eyes back to the melee knowing full well that soon there would be death from this moment forward. Not to diminish the death that was already falling upon this tiny country by the technological superiority of our nations warring capabilities, nor the crude and sadistic death brought to it by the hands of its truly evil leaders…but these soldiers…these young men and women will soon be dying.
Thirty-five years earlier in 1968 I was part of a war that changed me in ways that can never be known by those who have never seen, heard or smelled its horrors.
There is a brotherhood with combatants…a fraternity of wounded spirits and sorrows for things done and friends lost…an intimacy borne of unspoken, half-forgotten and hidden memories. Color of skin or political ideology does not matter. Those who never lived this experience will never know. Never.
Now these young soldiers, miles from home, will join the ranks in the baptism of madness. And this night I watched as my wife grasped just a small piece of the hellish torment.
For thirty-five years I had kept the experience of Vietnam close. I made every attempt to put it behind me and make a “normal” life for me to live. The person I was before entering the service was nothing more than a ghost I pursued. I did not comprehend that my life as it once was had been changed. Who I once was and who I had become could not occupy the same space in time. The conflict lasted nearly forty years.
It was an intensely personal experience for returning VN veterans. We did not return home to parades and cheering crowds the way our fathers had at the end of WWII. We came home one by one, alone with our thoughts and unsure of our place in civilian life.
No one acknowledged us as we made our way home through the country’s airports in our class A uniforms. They did not have time to stop as they hurriedly made their way to their own destinations. Or perhaps they did not know how to approach us; what to say to us as we made our way to our destinations. Or maybe they just didn’t see us.
Perhaps we were nothing more than ghosts unaware of our own death; disembodied spirits trying to make our way home from Vietnam’s killing fields.
By the time I returned home in September, 1968, America was deeply divided by the war, and neither its citizens, nor we returning veterans could comprehend the depth of the restless tempest each of us carried. It was an unspoken message; a deep understanding for us that it was best to keep it hidden away.
Rarely would I risk sharing my experience. Mostly, no one seemed interested in hearing. No one asked, but, when someone did, the retelling left me fidgety, uncomfortable and nearly spastic with deep internal turmoil; stumbling awkwardly over my words as I attempted to answer the questions: Were you afraid? Did you kill anyone? Did you have any friends that died? What can you say to someone who has not lived that reality? How do you answer those questions when that reality is still an oozing wound slowly eating away at you?
They are curiously mystified by the closeness to the combat experience standing next to you offers them. Like the slow gawking procession past an auto accident, they dare to look into the mayhem that trembles before them. How can you put into words the horror and death experiences of war? What could be said that would give them the bleeding raw sense of fear, terror and inconsolable grief that consumes you each day?
Others, as most vets will attest, questioned my service with queries as to why I didn’t choose to go to Canada…or jail. Some simply resorted to the label of “baby killer;” words that struck the heart and spirit like no bullet ever could.
It was not theirs to judge. They were not there and did not have the slightest clue of what living in a war zone was like. They had no idea what the unimaginable dark corners of hell feel like. They did not have to come to terms with their own death or face the specter as it carried away a friend or comrade.
Over the years there have been many times when Vietnam has come to haunt. It often felt like a dream I had sometime in the past; so strong was the desire to forget and the ability to stuff the memory deep. And if it hadn’t been for photographs in a photo album, I might have come to believe that it really had all been a dream. But down deep I knew. I felt its presence in me. I still do.
This accounting has become the path connecting my past with the present…and headed to the future. I am walking towards the gateway to understanding, acceptance, and healing, and I am discovering that others, vets and clinicians, are walking with me; each of us lighting the way for one another.
It is also my wish that those of you who have not lived this experience, a window will open and the view of our world will lead you to an understanding of who we are and why we act the way we do at times. In so many ways you are the lucky ones. No matter the reason, you have not served in combat; your lives were not touched by the beast, but your relationship with the veteran has put you closer than you may be aware.
I do not feel that this telling bears any more value than any other. There have been many retellings by many others over the years, each with its own unique and enlightening perspective. In so many ways it becomes our opportunity to face our past and let loose our demons, if only for a short while.
December 5, 1967
We watched in apprehensive silence as the glittering lights of Waikiki faded slowly into the inky black South Pacific night. It was December 5th, 1967, and our time in the paradise of the Hawaiian Islands had come to its end. Months of training had shaped us, the 11th Light Infantry Brigade, into the Jungle Warriors called to action by General Westmoreland who believed we were ready to battle the communist enemy on the other side of the globe.
Huddled aft on the U.S.S. Gordon, we strained to catch the last fading glimpses of the world we were leaving: warm sandy beaches, tanned and bikinied beauties, and most of all… our youth.
The shoreline shimmered softly like a strand of diamonds resting on the obsidian night as we sailed away to war. It flickered as if to say aloha…and then was gone.
The mood on ship was pensive and solemn as we stared into an empty and dark night. Whispered conversations drifted into the December trade winds as the old gray merchant ship cut its way through the water.
We knew that within the coming year many of us would be killed. The truth of hostile conflict was an unknown; not even sixteen months of training could have prepared us for what lie ahead.
Who amongst us would not return?
The answer was out there…somewhere beyond the horizon… waiting for us.