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The Light at the Tip of the Candle
By Michael Orange
I believe there is a sacred covenant between a society and its soldiers. Soldiers do their part by being willing to serve, to fight, and perhaps to die, and society has an obligation to honor that sacrifice.
We soldiers carried more than just our weapons into combat. We also carried the political baggage of our war. Those who fought in the so-called "Good War" (i.e., WWII), carried the respect of their country and the approval of history. But if your turn comes up for a bad war, or a war fought for selfish or stupid reasons, then you carry that on your back.
I went to war when I was a little over twenty—not a child, but not yet an adult. When I arrived at the Cleveland airport after my tour of duty in Vietnam, I just sat down paralyzed with befuddled emotions. I didn't even call my parents to tell them I was home. I was afraid my family would expect to see the person I was, and not accept the person I had become; that they would not forgive me for what I had done and not done in Vietnam. How could they, when I couldn't forgive myself?
Like some toxic virus morphing in a Petri dish, the war infected my moral DNA. I came home no longer thinking with the same mind, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears. The Marines had trained me in the belief that I could kill people because they were the enemy that would try to kill me. The rounds I fired did kill people in Vietnam, including some who had tried to kill me. But I know that most casualties were civilians, caught in the carnage that is war. Sitting in that airport terminal, I was neither able to judge my actions and inactions, nor to fully grasp the transformation I had undergone.
I found it hard to describe the differences between life in a war zone and life back in "The World," as we soldiers referred to it. In combat, emotions become so extreme they create their polar opposites. Terror sparked adrenalized excitement. Panic birthed the resolution required to control it. I remember the unrelenting chaos of a firefight when I hugged the ground as if the safety of burrowing into it could avoid being buried in it—and finally screaming into the cacophony, "I want it to stop! I want it to stop!"
In Vietnam we had a mantra—It don't mean nothin.' It was a necessary, all-purpose lie we used as a bandage to keep our consciences from bleeding out, and as a mask to hide our faces from ourselves, from each other, and from our role as aggressors. We got so good at telling this lie that we kept telling it even after we came home to a nation that didn't want to hear our stories.
Vietnam gave me the opportunity to explore the very best in me and to face the very worst. Bootcamp was designed to swap out civilian ethics with the militaristic replacements needed to deal with the barbarism that is war. But when discharged, there was no Bootcamp to reverse-engineer the process.
When I came home, I was unaware that I was suffering from what would come to be known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, even though it formed the fault line of my personality change. I repressed the war and my experiences. It don't mean nothin.'
I went back to college that fall of 1970 and tried to fit back into my former cocoon. I had to restrain my urge to revolt at the triviality of my classmates' concerns while I still had friends rotting back in the jungle. It strained my nerves until I thought they would fry from too much voltage. Instead of screaming, I just went along like a foreigner pretending to understand the conversation.
In Vietnam, I heard stories about anti-war protesters, and I knew my college friends thought the war was immoral. I gave this some weight, but I had more important matters to attend to, like checking for a tripwire one pace ahead and straining bomb crater water through my teeth.
I needed a moral handhold there, illusory though it was, that we were doing something important, honorable, and necessary as I hung over the cliff of the war's dark insanity. After coming home and returning to college, I lost my voice on the highly politicized Kent State University campus. I had no railroad tracks to press my ear to—to sense what was steaming my way. Fearful of the stigma society laid on us Vietnam vets, I became a closet vet. I knew my handholds were slipping.
Thirty-three years later, I started PTSD therapy. With the lifesaving, non-judgmental love and wisdom from Cynthia, my wife of now almost 49 years, I finally cracked my psychic shell and, like a little chick, I began to peck my way out into a new world, a world full of potential.
People in recovery might use the term grateful alcoholic to describe how their past—no matter how difficult, shameful, or crazy—shaped their character in positive ways. I feel that way since completing my PTSD therapy. I'm a grateful, recovering veteran. The lessons from Vietnam forged a greater appreciation for the preciousness of life, and the importance of compassion and love both for myself and for my incredible community of family and friends. They enrich my life.
A Buddhist monk who died recently, Thich Nhat Hanh, spoke to this kind of life-saving transformation at a five-day retreat I attended with him in 2003. He said:
"Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war. And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again."
Thich Nhat Hanh describes us war veterans as "the light at the tip of the candle," but only if we can "achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace." We vets can use our service experiences to become lights at the tip of our own candles so we can transform our lives and help heal our conflict-ridden world.
Michael Orange's book, Fire in the Hole: A Mortarman in Vietnam (2001), described his wartime experiences as a Marine. His new book, Embracing the Ghosts: PTSD and the Vietnam Quagmire (2021), describes the lessons he gleaned from the PTSD therapy he completed three decades after coming home.
Michael Orange has been a member of VVAW since he joined at the group's Dewey Canyon III protest in Washington DC in 1971.
Michael Orange in Vietnam.