(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?”