(Written August 7, 2005) During the past school year we had some students living next door. Several months ago they were having a party for a friend who was home on leave from Afghanistan (serving with the Army). I told them I would like to meet the guy.
One of the guys and ‘Tony’ came over for a short visit. We popped open a few beers and talked for about a half hour. I don’t really recall many of the details of what we talked about - M-this’s and L- that’s and Things That Go Bang (day or night). Long hours on duty, bad food, raunchy living conditions - standard military topics. Instead I found myself stepping back from the conversation and observing in fascination.
He was sitting there with his foot tapping, full of nervous energy, talking nearly non-stop. And yet he wasn’t really talking to us - it was all stuff he had said many times before and would likely say many times again - a steady string of words with no real meaning. I’m sure it had become a pretty well practiced, automatic response - push the Defense Button and the words come out and the wall goes up and nobody can get within a million miles of you.
But what really caught my attention, in a lightning bright flash of realization, was that I was seeing myself nearly 40 years ago. Just like someone had held up a great shiny mirror. In all these years I had never seen myself then so clearly.
I guess a good part of the reason I had never seen this before was that I had only ever been around other Nam vets (and earlier) before. And with almost any Nam vet, once they learn that you are a fellow Nam vet, many of the walls go down and you are “brother”. So I guess I sort of expected that to happen with Tony, and it was a surprise to find myself on the other side of the wall with everyone else. And I think it was finding myself on the “outside” that made it suddenly clear to me.
There’s a line by King - one of my favorite characters in “Platoon” - where he is telling Taylor “all you have to do is make it out of here alive. Every day the rest of your life will be gravy compared to this”. And that is how it seems over there, but the sad truth for many is it does not turn out that way. Even those who did not face combat have still been in a very life changing experience. The “World” you were dreaming of the whole time over there no longer exists when you return. It does, but you are looking at it through an impenetrable invisible wall.
For example, you run into an old friend and the conversation goes something like this:
“Hey, haven’t seen you around in awhile - what you been up to?”
“I just got back from [fill in name of war]”.
“Oh…. uh, sounds rough. So, you hear about what [fill in name] did? [fill in some trivial bs about some meaningless event or long lengthy complaints about nothing-at-all]”
Or even worse: “Wow - so did you kill anybody?”
You discover that you no longer fit in. Nobody has a clue about what you have experienced, and you can’t bring yourself to give a rat’s ass about most of the things people “back here” are finding so important. Some of your closer friends and family really do want to hear and understand what you went through. But you may not be able to talk about it, or, if you are willing to try, you quickly discover there really is no way of getting it all across. Like many other things, “you had to have been there”. After becoming frustrated with your inability to express it so anybody else can understand it, you finally give up and just mumble a few standard lines to make them think they have learned something - but mostly just to make them go away.
For the more casual inquiries, or those with the idiotic “did you kill anybody” questions, you develop a good set of stories and comments designed more to shock than to inform. It sort of becomes your own personal joke way of telling them to F*** Off without them even realizing it.
You realize that the only people who can understand what you went through are the ones who were there too. In the beginning that is a very small group - mostly the guys you knew there or who had similar experiences (infantry or whatever other sort of job you had). To an infantry guy newly returned a desk clerk in Nam was not much different than a civilian.
The WW2 and Korean guys were of course quite friendly when I returned, but they did not understand “my war”. They did not know anything about Viet Nam and jungles and rice paddies, and the war they fought in was light years away from anything I knew. The free beers at the bar were appreciated, and they were better than civilians in understanding - and giving you plenty of space, but they too were on the Other Side of my own personal wall.
Over the years many of what were once large distinctions begin to fade, and almost anyone who served in Nam has become “brother”, regardless of their job over there. Same with WW2 and Korean and Gulf War vets. The details of the war matter less and less and the common ground of having served is what becomes important.
So it was from this perspective that I expected to meet Tony. Which was why I was initially surprised at running into his Personal Defense Shield. But my surprise quickly turned to fascination as I realized I was seeing myself all those years ago.
I knew then there was nothing I could do but buy him his beer, listen to whatever stories he had packaged up to tell, and wish him well. He will have to find his own way with his own brothers (and sisters). For him the jungles of Viet Nam are as alien as the battlefields of Europe were to me on my return. I was just another one of “them” living in a world he was no longer part of.
He was home on leave and was returning to Afghanistan for another 6 months or so. He expected to be back and off of active duty in time for Fall classes, which he was intending to enroll for. That will be a tough road - making the jump from Afghanistan to classes within a few weeks. I’m not sure it is a good idea, but maybe he’ll do OK. At any rate there is nothing I could do or say that would make much difference.
If you have friends or family returning form Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever, give them space to find their own way. Let them know you care and appreciate their service and that you are interested in hearing anything they would care to tell you, but don’t probe. If they want to talk to you they will - when they are ready. But if they don’t your questions will be as effective at getting them to talk as poking a box turtle with a stick will be at convincing it to open up.
This was submitted to the local newspaper several weeks after it was written: Roanoke Times Article. I was surprised to receive several phone calls from veterans in the area. Most of the interesting conversations were along the lines of thank you, this is what I’ve been trying to explain to friends/family for years….