Sunday, October 10, 2010

Patio talk: War stories

Vietnam! When two vets who live in here started talking around the table in the patio yesterday, they found out they had both been in the same company and were in Vietnam for a tour, only at different times. And then the stories began! I had never heard Dave who is Navaho sound so animated or even so moving in his recall of what it had been like to participate in a war that resulted in less appreciation for its soldiers, the other vet Charlie pointed out, than in any war before in this country. Dave said when he came home from the war a woman, an American citizen, started talked about our Native American population in a denigrating way as not doing their part to contribute to progress, and Dave told her, if I am not doing my part, why was I sent to serve in Vietnam so long? She did not know he was a veteran of this 10 year war and fell silent at the intensity that emanates still from this former warrior who became skilled in the use of the weaponry required to fight a war that was after ten years termed 'not winnable'. Charlie who calls himself French and Creole, not black, was equally intense in his description of his experiences, jumping out of helicopters running and he said how awful the smell of the dead was, especially those burned by napalm. There is nothing like a veteran for bringing a war up close and personal.
Trudy, 84, and I could not help but be riveted by the conversation of two men suddenly bigger than life as they recalled probably the most intense time of their lives in such vivid detail. Trudy who was in Austria during World War II had also told me about bombs falling on Munich when she had gone to work. All one afternoon, she recalled the war in Europe as she knew it. So I knew that these veterans were reaching her as they were me, and she could appreciate the way they experienced the horror of war because she had once ran to shelters to escape the bombs raining down on the very city where she lived.
I surely never experienced that kind of trauma safe in the hinterlands of the US, but I still lived through World War II, the Korean conflict, Vietnam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan. I asked Charlie what he thought of the last two wars and he said we shouldn't be there. The conversation ended with Charlie giving Dave his phone number and apartment number telling him if he needed help in any way to let him know. Dave is recovering from a badly broken arm. I have no doubt Charlie meant it as he winked at me and said, "We Vietnam vets have to stick together."
Dave's son Rick was hovering around the patio area, listening to some of his dad's stories. I sensed his Dad's war stories had been one of the elements that have kept the wild Rick from careening out of control in his struggles with unemployment, alcoholism, and homelessness. I could hear the respect in his voice as Dave told how finding his youngest brother dead in his trailer recently had caused a flashback to Vietnam, remembering the dead there and that smell of the lifeless bodies permeating the jungle. I knew Dave had become very upset over his brother's death. Now I knew better why.
Rick's dad Dave had been a sharp shooter. You do not mess too much with a man who has been trained to kill men in war. He might be troubled but this was no weakling, not this man, much smaller than Rick in his bone structure, but now I could see why Rick had come to help his dad out over and over, seeking help to soothe his own troubled soul, plagued by suicidal thoughts. There was definite powerful bonding between father and son, despite both turning to alcohol to numb frustration and yes, memories of war. Dave said that is why he drank so much after he came back from the war. Charlie said he did heavy drugs for a while to deal with the post traumatic stress, flashbacks, all the rest of the aftermath of armed conflict. Dave has not been drinking yet since he came home from the hospital. Charlie says he has got substance abuse under control.
Rick, I don't know. He sounded like he had been drinking during the month his dad had been in rehab. Rick said going back to the reservation was like going to 'Alky' land, where all too many discouraged men are drinking because of the limitations of life on the 'Rez'. Women, too. Rick seemed to think he does better away from there, trying to integrate into life among the general population. Rick is well liked here in this complex because of his intelligence, sense of humor and gregarious personality. I think the only chance he has is to bond with enough people he can get healthier again in these hard times. He has to find a way not to give in to despair, and this talk on the patio with his dad speaking his thoughts, reliving his memories in the service of his country, was helping, too. Bonding, bonding, sharing memories, that is what keeps people alive. Talk in the patio with many coming and going, listening, one vet speaking and then another jumping in with reinforcement. This is what all vets need I think to get over what they have had to do in war.
I like to talk to Rick. He is a thinker and very articulate. His mother was Hopi, I think she gave him the talking gene. I have the talking gene so I relate to him. Charlie certainly has it. He is one of the fastest talkers I have run into here. A take charge kind of guy. I can see him as a very efficient soldier.
Yes, war talk in the patio definitely made us acquainted with the plight of veterans who must fight the wars kept going by politicians who don't have to fight on the front lines. They play war games with real live people being scarred and forever changed by men drunk with the power they have to start wars and keep them going. Charlie said Bush went to war in Iraq because Saddam threatened his daddy. We talked awhile about that, and then I had to go.


Have Myelin? said...

Wow Gerry. You have a knack for storytelling. If I ever meet you, I will tape MY mouth shut because you are so interesting and I will want more than my fair share. LOL.

I wrote to a solider named Eddie who was in VN. I found his name and ad at the back of 'Teen' Magazine. I still have his letter to me!!! Told him I was 17 but I believe I was 14 or 15. HA!

I also remember the POW bracelets. I had two. I wish I still had them and am surprised I don't with what I call the living history museum following me around.

I agree we treated the VN vets horribly and hopefully most of us recognize that now. I had no clue what the war was about (still don't, really) but I have always supported our soldiers. Even as a hippie teen! said...

It is an unusual gathering when old soldiers meet and are willing to share their stories with each other and those that listen in. It's a remarkable event! I so enjoyed your blog about it.


Blog Archive