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Home Front: Families at War

Circle in a Spiral

by MISSY COMLEY BEATTIE

"War, like a slash-and-burn fire, never dies. It simply hops from one field to the next, burning everything in its wake."

Home Front: Viet Nam and Families at War by Willard D. Gray

When my nephew Chase called his grandparents from Iraq, he would ask my mother, "Gigi, what kind of car do you think I should buy when I come home?" She believes that he was trying to assuage her fears-the worst of which arrived August 7, 2005, when my sister Laura delivered the news from our brother Mark who simply couldn’t tell our parents. The Marines had come to him in the middle of the night with the message that no family should have to bear. 

George Bush has said during a recent press conference that our troops will remain in Iraq as long as he is president, a statement denying the mounting sentiment against the war. Soon after, an announcement was made that thousands of Marines in the Individual Ready Reserve have been ordered back to active duty. 

If Chase had returned home in October, uninjured from his first tour, he could be there now. Some in his battalion are. 

"Maybe we didn’t try hard enough to talk him out of enlisting," my mother says over and over. 

"What if" is something else we ponder.

And, of course, there’s the abyss of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Would the experience of war have changed Chase? How could it not?

I am half way through the powerful book Home Front: Viet Nam and Families at War sent by its author, Willard Gray, who began corresponding after reading some of my articles. Gray’s work is a tour of duty and dedication to the truth of military combat. He tells the stories of 12 families forever changed by the experience of Viet Nam, families who either lost a loved one to death or to a war that has never left their lives. If a son, husband, father, daughter, wife, mother (It is estimated that about 7,500 women served in Viet Nam) returned alive, he or she brought the horrors of warfare home, suffering and portioning out pain to those desperate to recover what was there before war. Some committed suicide after years of self-medicating; others were diagnosed with illnesses that resulted from Agent Orange exposure. Regardless of the symptoms, physical, psychological, or a combination of the two, war was the genesis.

Take Frank Hayes. His family watched and participated in the battles he fought after returning from Viet Nam. Gray, writing about Frank’s son Joe, says, ‘He talks about alcohol and rage, abuse and defiance. He talks about no ground beneath him. About spiritual free-fall. He talks about chaos.’

In the book, Frank is quoted, ‘every day is a struggle to suppress memories and keep anger down.’

Gray writes about Frank:

Viet Nam has left him with a healthy skepticism of the U.S. government, especially its actions abroad. He’s not adverse to the occasional conspiracy theory. He makes no bones when it comes to his own country’s hypocrisy.

‘In America,’ he pontificates, ‘everything is backward. The Christians are screaming for war. The priests are molesting the flock. Dissent is an act of cowardice. Conformists call themselves patriots.’

Willard Gray, himself, is a casualty of the Viet Nam War. His oldest son served more than two years as a Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) trained medic and came home a completely changed man. Plus, Gray is a casualty of another conflict-World War II, having joined the Army in 1944 with the promise of life-time health care.

That promise was a lie:

More precisely, they, along with the other branches of the service, under the direction of the original War Department (later designated the Department of Defense), made promises they would not be able to keep except as Congress legislated.

Congress sees fit to change the law by legislation. It is the only authority with the power to insure such promises, and it has done so in a very profound way in the instance of military retirees.

In the mid-1990s, after enduring years of marginal and partial health care, Korean War vets and old-timers from World War II like myself were simply cut off, victims of budget cuts by the same legislators who regularly invoked, and still invoke, the mantra of "support our troops." On attaining age 65 and no longer subject to recall to active duty, we were told to make do with Medicare. Medicare did not even exist when I retired.

Continuing, Gray writes:

From the late Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, presidential hopefuls have been promising to make good on America’s debt to its retirees only to balk later, citing, as always, budget constraints.

I’ve paid upwards of $155,000.00 over the years in health insurance and supplements alone. This was my money which my family could have used. This is money I thought I had earned in combat and in peacetime. Medicare Part B (which didn’t even exist when I retired), Civilian Health and Medical Program for the Uniformed Services (CHAMPUS), TRICARE-I’ve outlived enough programs and acronyms to know a lemon when I taste one.

Patriotism, the trump card of the cynical and self-serving or refuge for the scoundrel, is a hollow word to those of us who gave our best only to be forgotten by an ungrateful nation.

The tragicomedy plays out the same with each new generation. A threat is perceived. A call to arms is issued. And mortal sacrifice is demanded from the healthy young, to whom we promise veneration and dignified care in the years to come. When the threat is gone and the healthy young have served their country, we turn to other things. When the young grow old and need a return on their investment more desperately than ever, the same country that gratefully accepted their collective sacrifice denies them.

While reading Gray’s words, I cannot help but substitute Iraq for Viet Nam. It is what I did when I read Howard Zinn’s chapter about Viet Nam in his book, A People’s History of the United States. And as I do this, I see our troops, returning from the long war that was packaged as a ‘cakewalk.’ Their families will be so happy to have them safe at home. But they will bring the anguish of war back with them and dispense this excruciating pain to those they love. Some will receive treatment if it’s available. Others will remain psychologically locked in Iraq for the rest of their lives. Any loud noise will be a trigger. A gentle touch may elicit violence. 

Rep. John Murtha has told us that "war sears the soul." Willard Gray says the same. Each family in Gray’s book is testimony to this truth. Read it and cry for what we lost in Viet Nam. For the almost 60,000 dead troops, those who returned scarred by what they did and saw, and the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who perished or were injured. Read it and cry that our leaders have forgotten this war that was supposed to teach us a lesson.

And imagine Iraq-the recapitulation of a horror we have just begun to see, an epic tragedy perpetrated in our names.

Missy Beattie lives in New York City. She’s written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. An outspoken critic of the Bush Administration and the war in Iraq, she’s a member of Gold Star Families for Peace. She completed a novel last year, but since the death of her nephew, Marine Lance Cpl. Chase J. Comley, in Iraq on August 6,’05, she has been writing political articles. She can be reached at: Missybeat@aol.com