My best friend was an Army Ranger with the First Cavalry Division. We likely crossed paths in Vietnam. I was an ordinary grunt. He was elite. These days he heads a construction company; way back he married a rock star, carried on in jet set circles, learned the music business, worked like a demon, played like the devil. Divorced, he entered into the time honored trade of drug smuggling. At first he grew the stuff in camouflaged fields, then mastered the art of hydroponics, the logistics of secret transport. My war pal, a fan of the film “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” set tiny speakers in a clandestine green house. His crew harvested pot to the clinking ice cubes in glasses held by tipsy Liz Taylor and soused George Segal. “You’re all crazy,” says George to Liz. ‘Clink–clink.’
Some one ratted my buddy out, or the feds were hip, or he screwed up. I don’t know. He’s evasive on that. Busted big in Reagan time the Feds gave him twenty years. First day in Leavenworth, two inmates demanded his money. Said they were coming to his cell to fuck him up. But my pal was ready. With a lead pipe beat them to a pulp. He got two months in solitary.
After the first month, he flooded his cell by continuously flushing the toilet. The water rose knee deep. A goon squad, clad in body armor, brandishing clubs and riot shields, rushed in. My pal fought back as best he could. “I went for their throats,” he said. But clubbed, beaten, manhandled down, the goons dragged him to a new cell, stripped him naked, strapped him to a steel table in what is known as the ‘four point position.’ Left him naked and cold for three days. He went mad. When finally freed from the Hole, the inmates applauded; a show of respect for the new guy.
A counterfeiter taught my friend how to paint (two years ago the Getty solicited his work). He initiated self help groups. Got on the good side of various legendary lifers, pumped iron six days a week, read ferociously. Doing hard time, he made the best of the worst our penal colonies could throw at him. After ten years, the law changed and he got out.
Recently his bookkeeper tidied up his combat medals, stashed in a drawer. I knew he walked point, but the sight of the Distinguished Service Cross (second only to the Medal of Honor), Silver Star, two Bronze Stars for Valor, Army Commendation Medal for Valor, Air Medal, Soldiers Medal, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, three Purple Hearts, and Good Conduct Medal left me stunned and humbled. My pal never mentioned this stuff. Never. His modesty overwhelmed me.
A day later I told him that. He listened quietly. The following morning we chatted again. He had thought about what I’d said. “Life has taught me to measure a man by the in-betweens. By what a person does without being asked–without thinking.” He said his best friend, a medic, had been killed. He knew I was a medic. “I have lots of respect for you,” he said. I went quiet. Couldn’t speak. Choked up. Did he see that? I don’t know. “Well, no need for that sentimental shit,” he said. Then laughed, and was gone. Alone, I wept.
Why the tears you ask? Because I love the guy and he meant what he said. And because I’d just finished reading Trish Woods’ book What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers Who Fought It. Here are riveting, relentless, unputdownable voices of real combat soldiers: not talking heads, not flat footed generals or CNN-costumed colonels, and not, for the most part, unquestioning patriots. I was shaken by the brutal elegance of their testimony, their sense of brotherhood, of selflessness, fighting for the sake of their buddies. So many voices saying, “Mission?
What mission? We’re soldiers. We’re just trying to stay alive.”
About this time a local activist sent me an excited email. “Hey! The high school teacher is very keen to have you speak in class. She says Iraq is really in the news now and wouldn’t it be great if you spoke to the students again about Vietnam!?!?” Politely, I said, “No.”
I told her about my pal. Told her about Trish Woods. Told her, “You need to get Iraq vets in the school. They’re fresh from combat. Let them tell their stories; not us grey haired geezers. Iraq vets, Afganistan vets, male and female, wounded or shocked out, they’re the one’s teenagers can relate to.”
The well meaning activist nagged, “But you don’t understand…all wars are the same…you’re a good speaker…you have so much to say…you can’t just…” She didn’t get it. I sent her the web site of Iraq Vets Against the War (IVAW), and links for Trish Wood’s remarkable work. Like the general in Full Metal Jacket I told her to get with the big picture. I’m happy to report she did.
I told all the above to a shrink met by chance at a cafÈ. A well meaning VA shrink who worked with combat vets but didn’t know about infantry platoons. “But if you were a medic,” he said, “Why would you know a machine gunner?” Slightly caffeinated, fast, down and dirty, I said, “You got your point man, he walks first in line. Any step might be his last. Your slack man, five meters back, he is also shitting bricks. A couple of rifle men, the machine gun team, the lieutenant and radio man, the medic, more riflemen, the last man makes sure we’re not being tailed. That’s a platoon. Got it?” My voice was not pleasant. He smiled. “No one ever told me that before. Thank you for sharing.” I could have smacked him.
But then came the gold. A ten foot pile of gleaming solid gold. Shrink said at the clinic where he works he’s seeing lots of recruiters. Walk-ins who need to talk with someone real bad. I said, “Are you shitting me?” “No,” he said. He explained: the recruiters were stressed out from constant pressure to find new recruits. He said he didn’t ask but it seemed they had plenty of moral guilt too. I shook my head in disbelief; in sorrow. We shook hands, said our good byes.
Recent news report indicate the underfunded VA is breaking under the increasing load of returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets seeking mental health and medical services. “…Nearly 100 local VA clinics provided virtually no mental healthcare in 2005… Today, the average veteran with psychiatric troubles gets almost one-third fewer visits with specialists than he would have received a decade ago.” (McClatchy New Service, Miamiherald.com 11 Feb 2007)
Yet on sound bite cue, the VA higher ups and our cowardly politicians say all is grand, and all vets are heroes: “The VA did a very poor job of taking care of the Vietnam vets. The VA now, I think, is trying very hard not to make that mistake again.” Dr. Maria Llorente, Miami VA Health Services System, Miamiherald.com 11 Feb 2007. In reality, returned GIs are forsaken to the fog of bureaucratic battle. Their horror stories are legion.
However, thanks to authors like Trish Woods, to films like The War Tapes, The Ground Truth, Purple Hearts, to activist groups like IVAW, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, to advocacy groups like Vietnam Veterans of America, Veterans of America, to internet efforts like The Pledge of Resistance, and many collective and individual veteran voices rising, there is hope that today’s tattered domestic and foreign policies will change, and that all combat vets will be cared for with the dignity they deserve. And yes, even broken recruiters who sealed Faustian pacts deserve our respect. There is much hidden power in the voice of the people and the people are speaking out.
MARC LEVY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org