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The Worst Question You Can Ask a Combat Vet: Talking Dirty to the Kids

By Marc Levy

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Our apologies, good friends,
for the fracture of good order,
the burning of paper instead of children,
the angering of the orderlies
in the front parlor of the charnel house.
We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.

Daniel Berrigan, SJ

From time to time I talk at colleges and high schools. The subject is war and its aftermath. Experience has shown that most students find the politics or dry facts boring; they do not relate to long films, well meant but impoverished poetry, the uncompelling war yarn. After many years I have learned this: True war talk is a hard sell but someone has to tell it and hope young ears will listen. Done right there is no substitute for speaking straight from the heart.

Bentley University

A well endowed private business school, the pleasing campus of red brick buildings and clean open space is a hub for future leaders of commerce. Most are well-heeled and upper middle class; they dress causally, walk softly, carry wallets with ample cash or plastic. They are bright, ambitious, competitive. The four-year goal is to make money. The syllabi are thus geared to that end. Among the non-business electives offered, a course on Vietnam, taught by the noted translator and poet Dr. Nancy Esposito.

Last year, after the two-hour talk had finished, the class of twenty students filed out glum and silent. Had I done something wrong? Told over the top stories? Used profanity to excess? In the initial class go round, had I shown disrespect to the nephew of a commanding general in Iraq?

I kept those thoughts to myself. "I'm drained," said Nancy. I waited. "You really shook them up," she finally said. "They weren't expecting that. These are good kids but they're insulated. You probably made them very uncomfortable." We locked eyes. "Good," I said, without malice. "Right," she replied. That was six months ago.

The summer class of thirty-five visiting European students and eight Americans was held in a large, airy, carpeted hall with an overhead projector; a long table resplendent with sodas and hors d'œuvres, parked to one side. The students filed into the room. Took their seats. Read my handout titled VN 101, a generic sketch of a one-year combat tour. After Nancy gave a brief introduction, I told myself one last time, "You are good, you are calm, you are strong," took a deep breath, and began.

"It's good to be here. We have two hours. I'll talk for forty-five minutes. We'll take a ten-minute break. Show a half hour film. Wind up with questions and answers. My subject is war and its aftermath. A little about me: I was an ordinary soldier, an infantry medic, and saw my share of combat. But first, let's talk about you." The students looked surprised. They didn't expect that. And there would be other kindred ambushes.

Hands on my hips, I said, "The imploding stock market, the drop in housing prices, the increasing rates of foreclosures, unemployment and job losses. Some say a real recovery might take time. And that affects you. After graduating from Bentley, suppose you can't find a job. Suppose you have limited funds. Your folks may have lost money in the market, in their 401ks, they might have been laid off and are looking for work."

I paused to let the dread sink in. This was their world and they knew it. "By a show of hands: How many of you have credit cards to pay off? School loans outstanding? Car payments? Rent due every month? Cell phone and utility bills?"

Nearly every hand shot up.

"So tell me, "I said, "How does the pressure of debt and uncertainty make you feel?"

Responses were slow in coming. "Don't be afraid," I said. "This will not be on the final exam."

A few chuckles, the mood lightened, four hands tentatively raised.

"I'd feel nervous," said a short-haired boy in the first row. "Or anxious," said the brunette girl next to him. "It would be hard to concentrate," said a stocky youth in the back. "Confusion," said a thin boy in jeans, T-shirt and two day stubble.

"Nervous, anxious, confused. Tell me more," I said, seeking to draw the students out. Ten minutes later, having amplified their feelings, I went to work.

"I want you to take that dread of no where to sleep, no food in the fridge, panic snapping at your heels, hope gone sour, hunger and fear knotting your gut. Five months job hunting and nothing to show for it. I want you to take that dread, that shame, that sinking sense of doom, I want you to multiply those things by three. You can do it. Close your eyes. See that dark, never- ending abyss. Feel how it overwhelms you. Be it."

It was quiet. So quiet. Then came the sucker punch.

"You got it? Excellent. Now I want you to multiply THOSE feelings by ten. That's hard, sure, but not impossible. See the dread. Feel it. Become it."

Thirty seconds later, their ingenue eyes re-opened, I said, "Good work. You've come close to understanding the terror of combat. " I scanned every face in the room. "Welcome to my world. Now we can begin."

It was time for the once around. "How many of you know a veteran of any war?" I asked.

Almost everyone raised their hand.

"Great. Take two minutes, I'll point to you, tell me who that person was, what war they were in, what they did, what they were like before and after they returned from combat."

The Europeans cited relatives from WWII. The Americans cited Korea as well. In many cases, though not all, they spoke of men who did not talk about the past. Who, once they returned home, worked hard, smoked or drank, brooded or stayed to themselves; or married, kept up appearances, but might beat or yell at their kids, their wives, sometimes for no reason. American uncles from Vietnam were a somewhat similar story. "He was angry a lot," said a cheerful boy dressed in black. "Or his moods changed. It was hard for him to sit or stand still." A blonde girl with braids said, "I hardly knew my uncle, but my father told me something happened when he was there that changed him."

"Angry, moody, never the same," I echoed, then called on a black-haired, serious looking girl who spoke with a Mideast accent.

"My father was in the Iraq-Iran war," she said. "He fought under Saddam Hussein."

Stunned, I momentarily could not speak. A nightmare had broken into the tranquil room. My heart went out to this young woman, this soldier's daughter, this survivor's child. Given to sudden emotions, secretly I pressed my index finger over my right thumb to curb my feelings. To keep my mask intact.

Swallowing hard, I asked, "Does everyone understand? Her father fought against the Iranian army in a terrible eight-year war in which many men died."

Their knotted brows suggested most had not heard of the Iran/Iraq war.

"How is he...how is your dad, now?" I managed to ask.

"I was born after he returned," she said, pursing her lips. "My mother told me he was happy and outgoing. But when my dad returned she said he was different; she called him her ghost. Sometimes he won't speak to us, or walks away, and never explains where or why. I want to love my dad, I want to care for him, but he won't let me. I hardly know him."

I crushed my feelings by squeezing both fists behind my back. An awkward silence followed.

"Thank you," I finally said. "Your name?"

"Elena."

"You're very strong, Elena, to speak up like that. I'm sure your dad cares for you and your mom, but it's hard for him to show his love." I paused a moment. "This is a good time to talk about PTSD," I said. "What does that stand for?"

Silence. I caught the darting eye of a pleasant-looking girl.

"Me?" she asked.

"Yes, you," I said, my voice soft.

She struggled a bit, then found the right word order.

"Very good," I said. "But what do those words mean?"

I pointed to an expectant-looking young man.

"It has to do with how war affects you when the fighting stops. When you are safe. You still think you're in combat."

"Excellent," I said. "Post...after. Traumatic...trauma. Stress Disorder. The disabling stress that comes after combat. Or six months after you come home. Or six years. Or twenty or thirty." I turned my head slowly to the left and right.

"One symptom of PTSD is startle reflex. Who wants to take a shot at that?"

I pointed my trigger finger at the clean-shaven fellow wearing a white shirt and blue tie; the only one to get the gag.

"It's like, you hear an unexpected sound, and you turn real quick to see where it's coming from because it makes you think of danger."

"Very good," I said. "Startle...reflex. Would you show us? Can you do that?"

And he did, and did it well, jerking his head side to side, and I immediately said, "Do that again."

This time everyone looked.

"Anyone been in a car accident?" I asked. "You throw your hands up or duck down without thinking. If you're lucky, you walk away. If not, you're messed up. In combat it's like there are speeding cars waiting to collide, and sometimes they do, sometimes they don't, but you're always ready, waiting, tensed, and you drop or throw yourself down so many times it becomes second nature. And for some it never leaves you."

The words came quick, my voice was clear and strong, but so were the deep, sad feelings crawling up my throat. Fists behind the back. Squeeze hard. Harder. I tell a story.

"Three years after coming home I hitched to St. Louis to see my best friend, Jim. He was our machine gunner." Time for context. I define the term platoon. "On patrol, the point man is first in line. He's looking, listening for the enemy. It's a shitty, risky job, like walking down dark streets in the wrong part of town, but someone's got to do it. A few yards later, the slack man. Both have their weapons on full automatic. Then a couple of riflemen. They carry M16s, grenades, packs filled with food and water, ammo. The machine gunner carries a nasty weapon that fires hundreds of bullets in seconds. Next comes the medic, the radio man, the lieutenant. More riflemen. The last man, we called him, Drag, makes sure we're not being followed."

I'm talking in the present tense. Swaying to the mimic march. An invisible M16 at my hip. I'm living this story and the class can see it.

"I meet Jim at his place in St. Louis. After hugs we sit on a couch. Roll a joint. Jim tells me his girl friend is on the way. He says, 'What's mine is yours, Doc,' takes a long drag, then shows me her picture. My god, she's gorgeous. A while later there's a knock at the door and in walks the most beautiful girl I have seen in my life."

A couple of students smile or grin. For some reason I speak directly to the boy wearing the shirt and tie.

"I am twenty-two years old. I have seen my share of war and women and she is God's gift to mankind."

The kids laugh. They are all eyes and ears now, fully engaged by the thin old man spinning a good war yarn. But he is young, fearful and fearsome and locked and loaded. Ready to rock and roll. Maybe they see that. Maybe they don't.

"We say our hellos. Jim says, 'Be right back, Doc,' and leads Ms. Universe to the bed room. After a time the door opens. Jim says, 'I'm really sorry, man. She doesn't want to do it. Doc, I'm really sorry.' And he closed the door, and I slept on the couch. But he really meant it, 'What's mine is yours.' Why? Because you get real close to people when bullets are flying, mortars explode, men scream in pain or shout 'Look to the left. They're trying to out flank us.' In combat every second counts. So he was really sorry."

I pause for effect. Make a serious face. Then smirk, "And so was I."

The kids laugh. The story is getting good, picking up steam, but it's about to take a hard left.

"In the morning Jim says St. Louis has the best I HOP in the world. Ms. Universe giggles, "Pancakes make the man." Jim gives her a peck on the cheek, drives his little Volkswagen too fast, but I keep quiet. He finds a parking space near the I HOP. We have to cross a busy street. There must be thirty cars waiting for the light, and a road crew fifty meters south. We start walking, Jim and Ms. Universe hold hands. When we are half way across, the road crew opens up with a jack hammer. It sounds exactly like an enemy machine gun. Me and Jim drop to the pavement. We start to low crawl through traffic. Drivers and passengers stare at us like we're crazy. We get up and dust ourselves off. Rub spit on our cuts and bruises. Ms. Universe asks, 'Are you all right?' The light turns green but we don't care. Drivers honk their horns and yell, 'Get out of the way.' I yell, 'Fuck you, motherfucker! Fuck you!' Jim holds up his middle finger. His face is beet red. He yells, 'Eat shit and die, motherfuckers! You heard me. Eat shit and fucking die!'

The students look at me strange. Is my voice too loud? Am I too caught up in this tale? What do they see? Just keep talking. Lower the voice. They might be scared.

"I punch Jim in his arm, not the wounded one with the stitches like stars. 'Don't mean nothing,' I say. 'Don't mean nothing,' he says. That's war talk. It's meant to keep you strong. We cross the street. Jim says, 'You hungry, Doc?' I say, 'Roger that.' And the food was good.

The wide-eyed students lean forward.

"That's startle reflex," I say. Then a half dozen symptoms shoot from my mouth like plunging rockets: "But there's hyper vigilance, crying spells, anxiety, drug abuse, thoughts of suicide, homicidal ideation."

Take it easy. Slow down. You're too excited. I pick up my note book.

"Anyone know what that last one means?"

Someone mumbles the right answer. "Please speak up," I say. "And talk with the full authority of your voice."

A European, a muscular handsome boy says, "I believe it concerns how one thinks of killing people with a certain rate of frequency."

"Very good. Excellent," I say. "Thoughts of killing people."

I flip through the notebook. Put it down. Garcia can wait.

"Not a day goes by, I don't have angry thoughts. My vet friends have the same problem; many Iraq and Afghanistan vets, too. It's not ordinary anger. It's sudden and red hot and way out of line. Most vets don't act on it but some do and wind up in jail."

I check my watch. Supermarket or plate glass window? It's a tough choice. I like them both.

"Yesterday, in a supermarket check out line I stood behind an old man. When it was his turn to pay he couldn't find his wallet. Then tried to give exact change. Most people would have shrugged it off. But in my mind I said, 'Mister. What is your fucking problem? I don't have all fucking day.' When he gives me a dirty look I grab his throat and squeeze hard just above the trachea, right below the jaw. He's twisting in pain and can't breathe. I love the way his face turns red, his eyes lids flicker, his pupils roll back as his face goes blue. It's called cyanosis, lack of oxygen. I squeeze tighter until his body stops twitching and he goes limp. I punch his face three times. A stream of red leaks from his nose and mouth. When I release my grip he hits the floor with a solid thud. I want to see that sight. I want to hear that unforgettable thumping sound. I want to see and hear it because I like it very much."

The kids are dumbfounded by the gleeful tone of my voice. The wicked look in my eyes. No one speaks. There is only one thing to say and I say it.

"I have these thoughts often. I'm told most combat vets have short fuses. They go from anger to rage in seconds. Why do you think war vets are like that?" It's a rhetorical question. Good for a segue.

"I want to read you the story of Benito Garcia. In Vietnam he was your age. Just like a lot of the soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq."

I read the excerpt loud and clear. Modulate my voice. Walk to the left, then right; now and then, look up from the page. From the first line the class is shocked by what war is. What it does to the human heart.

"The first time I saw a dead American, there were three of them. Their heads were up on stakes. The enemy did that to scare us but we just got angry. On a patrol I found the men that did it. I bayoneted one, shot the other two and cut off their heads. It didn't bother me back then but I don't sleep more than fifteen to twenty minutes at a time; I wake up with nightmares and chills and sweats. I walk the perimeter at night. I saw children after I killed their parents. You hear them cry. I'm 100% disabled for PTSD; 30% for diabetes; 10% for erectile dysfunction and 10% for organic brain damage. They give me pain medication that doesn't work. What helps is marijuana but the Veterans Administration won't let me have it. They want to give me codeine, but that counteracts the Viagra and I'd rather have a hard-on and pain than just be a fucking zombie. After the war, on Mother's Day, my father, a police officer, arrested me. In eighteen days I robbed six banks in Chicago. I served sixteen months in prison. In 1995 I served three years, three months for possession of marijuana and am presently on parole. I won't smoke now, but come Christmas 2005, I am going to roll a fucking joint the size of a bus and I'll kill it in one drag."

I close the notebook. "Pretty strong stuff, huh? Killing and not caring, until you get older, feel the regret. Walking the perimeter means at night he locks the doors and window of his house or else he won't feel safe. He robbed banks. That's high risk behavior, kind of like combat, it gives you a rush. He has nightmares. Have you ever had a bad dream, until you fully wake up, it's still real? I know vets who keep loaded guns by their beds. Or spend hours in the basement because it's quiet and safe. Civilians think that's crazy, but plenty of men and women your age returning from Iraq or Afghanistan are not happy campers. They could be Garcia's sons and daughters."

Where that last line came from I do not know.

"I recorded my nightmares for thirty years," I said. "They've pretty much stopped. But here are three."

Unlike the war tales, I've rehearsed the dark dreams multiple times, found where my voice cracks, my throat constricts and I cannot speak. Practiced until I've bled them dry, know them by heart, can recite each without problem.

"We're walking through jungle. I'm in charge of three people: two men and a girl. A new man is sent to replace me. I shoot him in the leg. We hear the enemy. I check my ammo. A moment later we're ambushed.

"I climb to high ground. I can see the enemy as they shoot at us. I shoot back with my forty-five. The bullets are strong and powerful. I yell to the new man, 'Throw a grenade.' I yell to the girl, 'I will not die.' I tell the girl I love her. Then I am shot."

"I'm in Cambodia at the site where the squad threw themselves on top of me during the ambush. Instead of M16s and AK47s firing, the Americans and the Vietnamese yell and scream, prepare for hand-to-hand combat. The enemy charge with bayonets drawn. I wait for the killing thrust into my chest."

"My brother and I are in the jungle. I'm a radio operator, not a medic. A pilot sends me a message. I take out a pen. Spread a napkin on the ground. Tell my brother to hold it flat while I write down the message. My brother laughs. I take out my forty-five pistol. I say, 'If you do that again I'll kill you.' He laughs. I shoot my brother in the face. I wake up saying, 'You didn't listen so I killed you.' "

The students shift in their seats. Are they bored? Tired? Uncomfortable? A cute girl in the first row raises her hand.

"Why did you kill your brother?" she asks.

It's a silly little question, annoying really, born of sweet forgivable innocence. I tell her in childhood we did not get along. I tell her most people did not understand the war, or were indifferent to it, some even laughed at my war photos. I remind her this is a nightmare. I remind her that in war every second counts. "It's like driving a car a hundred miles an hour; you have to concentrate or you'll crash. If someone distracts you, without thinking you'll shout, 'Shut up!' Know what I mean?"

Other questions followed. I tell the kids that fear, helplessness and death are the dominant motifs. I tell them my nightmares where the bullets spill out, or I've got no ammo, or we're being chased by the enemy, I wake up scared. I tell them two months ago I'm sleeping on the couch, my girlfriend walks in, I jump up, fists cocked, ready to strike. I tell them ten years ago I found Timmy Day. Once our point man, he plays semi-pro golf, teaches it, but has the same kind of dreams I have. I tell them Timmy found Jesus. Because Timmy Day told me Christ fixed his bad leg. Fixed his spine. Timmy Day said, 'Doc, is Jesus in your life?' I told him, 'No, Timmy. Not yet.' Timmy Day said, 'Jesus is my lord and savior, Doc. He can be yours, too.' I tell the kids I don't care about Jesus, but I'm glad Timmy Day made it back safe. I tell them in Vietnam, after one year, if you didn't get shot or killed, you went home. That was great but it felt bad, so bad, to leave your platoon, your best friends. And later you wondered 'How come I didn't get shot and someone else did?' Or if you could have saved him.

Quickly, quickly, I tell them of back packing in Southeast Asia and thereabouts in 1995; the many adventures, the relentless flashbacks. I tell of the rain forest in Sumatra. On the third day, after trekking six hours, just like in Vietnam, I lowered my head, leaned forward like we did on patrol. Looking up I hallucinated myself in combat. And cried." Quickly, quickly, I read the poem about Bill Williams, the platoon's letter to his widow, then finding her twenty-five years later. "Thank you for writing. Here's my number, but please don't call, I couldn't bear it," she wrote.

For ten minutes I've talked without stopping but at the last line falter, instinctively clamp my jaw shut, choke back tears. Did the kids see it? Of course they did. In these moments I am one hundred per cent naked. And that is the heart of it, these unmasked moments of grief and sadness, rage and laughter, that make each tale, each anecdote, each beck and call ring true. At such times the students see a bit of war and its aftermath. In an old soldier. In new ones. And maybe themselves.

"Time for a break," I say. A minute more would have been punishment.

When the kids return I show the film. Done on a shoestring, professionally edited, the class is drawn into the five sketches studded with combat photos, archival footage, and special effects. But some students furtively watch me. Even though I have viewed the video fifty times, I visibly startle when shots ring out, when slender rockets speed and strike, when the Willie Pete grenade unfurls its deadly shower, when invisible cannons fill the roaring room with sprays of whizzing shrapnel. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. The weapons and gear have changed but not much else.

As the credits roll I turn the lights on, wait for the kids to stop blinking, then spring the penultimate ambush.

"What is the worst question you can ask a combat vet?"

Several hands go up.

"Were you afraid?"

"Were you wounded?"

"Did you kill anyone?"

They are all good answers but in my experience the last response is best.

"What goes through a veteran's mind when you ask that question?" I say.

"He feels bad."

"He doesn't want to talk about it."

"It brings him back."

They are all good answers and in my experience they are all the best response.

"It brings him back to being ambushed or pinned down or maybe shooting someone by mistake. It makes him angry because the person asking the question cannot possibly know what it means to kill or see someone die. It brings up rage, it brings shame, it brings back the colors and sounds and smell of battle. It brings up 'Who are you? Who the hell are you to ask me that question?' Most vets won't give you an answer. It's best not to ask."

I check my watch. No time to tell Tommy's story; he witnessed so much rape he is loveless for life. No time for the Englishman married to a Khmer woman; she escaped the killing fields but acts strange. "So that's it!" her husband said, after I detailed PTSD. No time to quote Whitman's elegiac, "Specimen Days," or "Infantry Assault," from Doug Anderson's book, "The Moon Reflected Fire":

The way he made that corpse dance by emptying one magazine after another into it and the way the corpse's face began to peel off like a mask because the skull had been shattered, brains spilled out, but he couldn't stop killing that corpse...

No time for Army evil at My Lai, Marine madness at Haditha. There are other matters at hand.

"What...what is the worst compliment you can pay a combat vet?" I ask.

Like shooting stars a dozen hands go up.

"Good job!" says the brunette girl. A quizzical smile inhabits her face.

Excellent," I say, secretly stunned. "Say it again, louder." When she does some students laugh; but most are quiet.

"We'll come back to that," I say. "What else?"

"Thank you for serving your country."

"Thank you for helping to keep us free."

"You're a hero."

Enough bulls eyes for today. I tell these well-heeled young adults, these private school students, these future leaders of commerce, I tell these good kids what I have learned from raw meat experience.

"When the shooting starts,when men are shouting 'Keep your head down,' or 'There they are, kill those motherfuckers,' or howling in pain, or dying, no one fights for their country, for freedom, your right to vote, the fifty-star flag, democracy, you name it. Those things mean nothing. Combat is all about survival, which means you kill the enemy so you and your pals are saved. That's all that matters. And when it's over, and you are home, civilians talk a strange language: 'Hero,' they call you. 'Freedom,' they say. 'Good Job. Ultimate Sacrifice.' As if they knew what these things meant. Believe me, they don't. Too many Americans see only what they want to, not what war is, how it cripples the soul, maims the body."

"So, how do you greet an Iraq or Afghanistan vet?" I ask. "You could say, 'I'm glad you made it back.' Or, 'I'm glad you're safe. Take care of yourself.' Or you could say nothing at all. Just open your arms and invite that man or woman in. It's a loving gesture that some will accept and some won't, but at least you tried."

I open and close the arc of my arms, lower them.

"Love," I say. "That's a good word to end on. Love."


Marc Levy was an infantry medic in Vietnam/Cambodia in 1970. His work has been published in various online and print journals. He can be reached at silverspartan@gmail.com.

Benito Garcia excerpted from Inconvenient Stories: Portraits and Interviews of Vietnam Veterans, by Jeffrey Wolin. See http://www.jeffreywolin.com/.

"The Moon Reflected Fire," by Doug Anderson, is available at http://www.alicejamesbooks.org/moon_reflected.html.

Dan Berrigan's "Essential Writings" is available from Orbis Books (http://tinyurl.com/yaapbtq).

This article was originally published in the October 9-11, 2009 edition of counterpunch.org


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