Warrior Diary: An Intimate View

by Deborah Grassman

Opus Peace

When I would hear parts of veterans’ stories about the Vietnam War, I’d think scornfully, “Those are just excuses. The war’s been over for years. They need to get over it and move on with their lives.” I wasn’t alone in my thoughts; other staff would join me in banter about Vietnam veterans’ dysfuntionality. We knew they had been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but we trivialized their condition.

I also thought these vets had brought their troubles on themselves. They were often noncompliant. It was more evidence they purposely abused themselves and wasted my time. When I muttered a disgusted, “I don’t understand these guys” statement to a colleague, I was more honest than I knew. I didn’t understand, and I wasn’t going to bother trying. I had better things to do. My time was in high demand. I walked fast and could dart up and down long hallways faster than a bullet from a high-powered military rifle.

I was at my usual breakneck speed when I decided to pop in to a display of Florida veterans’ artwork at the Medical Center. I had perfunctorily surveyed about half of the displays. Suddenly I was stopped in my tracks, struck by a painting of a soldier’s face. I was surreally transfixed in time, unable to move. I was seeing what that soldier had seen, and it seemed like I was feeling what he felt. In his eye was a reflection of what he was seeing: suffering in the form of a burning hut. Though there were no people pictured, I knew they were inside the hut, dying. More importantly, the soldier’s response portrayed tears of blood running down his face, signifying his loss of vitality. The painting was entitled, “Burning Vision.” It was burning my vision too, igniting smoldering veteran prejudices, searing the filters from my eyes.

The same realness that had leapt off the canvas was evident in other paintings by the artist. Each gave me a perspective I had never experienced. Each drew me deeper into a world I didn’t know. Each touched me in a place I wasn’t sure I wanted to be touched, shedding light on those ugly places of dark, judgmental attitudes toward Vietnam vets.

Frozen images of tattoos, long hair, alcohol abuse, divorce, joblessness, and homelessness melted before my eyes. “Why can’t they get their acts together?” I’d always asked. Here was my answer. In that protracted moment where time and my deeper self stood still, the painting spoke.

eye

(Burning Vision by Tommy Bills)

I had a hard time going on with the rest of my day. I didn’t know how to explain the change I had experienced. How do I describe going about my own business one minute and in an unguarded moment be healed of my prejudice? How do I explain that my carefully shielded-from-war world had just been shattered? How do I put into words how differently the world feels when arrogance and aloofness are replaced with understanding and connection?

The painting continued to haunt me. I decided to track down the artist, Tommy Bills. Hesitantly I phoned him, telling him of my interest in his artwork. Tommy talked excitedly about his paintings and his healing. Finally (and reluctantly), I told him about the effect his painting had on my prejudice. Tommy assured me he was used to the prejudice expressed toward people with PTSD. He also described his many years of struggling with his addictions and dysfunctions while none of the numerous mental health care professionals he had seen ever delved into his history as a Vietnam veteran and its possible relationship to his problems. He himself had never brought it up because his disassociation with his painful past was so complete that he never correlated his bizarre behaviors to his Vietnam experiences. He began doing paintings and sculptures that seemingly had no connection to the war. Then a new psychologist saw the correlation and was able to help him begin dealing with it by painting about his experiences.

Tommy mailed me the diary that he had written as part of his recovery from PTSD. Now that my heart had been opened, I was ready to listen; I could bear witness to the suffering he had experienced.

I read it carefully. Like an old barnacled oyster shell pried open to reveal a luminous pearl, Tommy’s diary exposed gems of understanding that lie beyond crusty, hardened surfaces. Here’s what he wrote:

“It was sometime in 1965…the latter part of the year. There was this tea plantation by Pleiku. The convoy drove through the place where those Green Berets held out for so long. My God…there were skeletons everywhere! Even the jeeps had skulls on their hoods…until the Colonel ordered their removal. I could feel their ghosts.

I was digging a foxhole out on the perimeter. Then I was told the fire team leader was to take my place because I was needed to stay near the jeep. If we were hit, I was to spirit the Colonel away. I left my foxhole and went over to the aide tent to see what was going on. A doctor told me to hold a compression bandage on the sucking chest wound of a young soldier who had a neat, round hole in the middle of his chest.

The doctor told me I was to keep my charge occupied “over there” because there were others who might still “make it” that he needed to work on. I kept assuring the sucking chest wound attached to the desperate soldier that we had the best medics anywhere…that these were the doctors that would help the Colonel if he were shot.

For just a moment, I let myself look beyond the gaping and the sucking. He had an all-American face and body. He had to have been my age – maybe even younger. No hair on his chest. Maybe he didn’t even shave every day yet. A solid build…probably played some football in high school.

The air gurgled in and out more loudly. With renewed determination, I increased my pressure on the bandage. If I pressed hard enough, surely I could make it stop. The gurgling became more muffled but no amount of pressure could muffle his pleas. He called out for his mother; he called out for God. Grabbing my arms, he pleaded “Please don’t let me die” – not just once…not just twice…but, over and over again. Each desperate plea increased my own desperation.

I can’t remember if I actually called to the doctors for help. I remember more wounded brought in…one after the other. I remember the doctor telling me to “just keep him quiet so he doesn’t upset the others too much.” I don’t know (and don’t know if I want to know) whether he died then or just passed out, but they carried him away. Part of me wanted frantically to be carried away too.

There was still shooting around us. I remember crawling out of the building and seeing the Sergeant-Major sitting on my jeep – just sitting out in the open with all this firing going on. I made my way to him to see if he knew the name of the guy I had been caring for.

“Doesn’t matter,” he told me. “There’ll be lots more dying before this is over.”

The next day, we loaded several body bags into choppers. My fire team leader who had taken my place in the foxhole was one of them. I was told he was the first one to die with the initial incoming round – it had hit right on my foxhole. Another bag held a body whose chest wound was no longer sucking…at least for him…because it was still sucking and gurgling in my mind.

Over the years, my memories have been of the contents of those two bags: the fire team leader who had taken my place in the foxhole who was the first to die as well as the guy who so desperately pleaded with me to not let him die…who also died. Maybe these two memories were all my mind could handle. Maybe there are other memories that had to be shut out.

I do still have vague memories of the convoys…the dust of the roads…the kids lining the streets with their hands out for C-rations we would throw to them…the four-year-old kids with cigarettes in their mouths – trying to see if we would pay to screw their sisters, their middle fingers pointing skyward, the few words they could speak in English: “Fuck you GI”…the kid they wired and sent up to the convoy – the explosion took out four of us, but the kid…I can’t forget that kid blowing up!

In my letters home, I told my family it was like camping out in south Florida when I was a kid. Can you believe it? I actually told them there was enjoyment in doing what I did! God, I was good. I led everyone to believe I was so well-adjusted. I still have trouble remembering the time we got hit in the field. That was the one and only time I got stoned. It was the place where we captured two Viet Cong and hung them up in camp. They were dead and some guys were having target practice with their knives. They told me to get up closer to have a look, but I found some reason to go to the other end of the compound. It would be many years before I could “get up closer to have a look” at any of my experiences…or any of my feelings…or just about any other part of “me.” I could always find a reason to “go to the other end.” I could always find a reason to run and hide from myself. I was so afraid – not that I would have admitted it. You see, on a military base, what everyone says is “It don’t mean nothin” – as we struggled to shut out those “nothins” we were feeling.

One of those “nothins” I’m supposed to not feel was the unforgivable actions of one of my officers. He ordered that we take this hill that had no strategic significance; he knew the Vietcong body count would be higher than our own; this would show his combat prowess so he could gain a promotion. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, we’d then be ordered to abandon the hill, so he could do it again – and even a third time! If any of us would have reported him, we would have been shot. I shudder every time I think of the lives sacrificed – all for his glory. But, I lock this up too. Some people call it “the thousand yard stare;” I call it “puttin’ on the face,” and I became very good at it. I built a wall like Ft. Knox: it was easy to make deposits but seemingly impossible to retrieve anything from behind it.

It wasn’t just on a military base I was taught to not feel what I was feeling. In my family, we were to hide our feelings under a stoic mask of “I can handle anything because I’m a man.” I would start to feel what was happening and shove those feelings down…doing what I saw everyone else doing. I wasn’t going to be called a “sissy” or a “chicken.” My father was a World War II veteran. I was raised on John Wayne movies. Pilgrims, settlers, adventurers, and soldiers were examples of what a man was to be.

When I was nine years old, I was told I would now be allowed the privilege of standing in the duck blind with a shotgun alongside my Dad. I anticipated this rite of passage with fear and loathing, yet acted as if I were delighted. When I knocked down my first bird, I was praised…and I died a little inside. As I was shooting, I was concentrating on hitting a moving object – like in skeet practice. So, I shot the “skeet” and plucked its feathers and ate it when we cooked it. That was when my concentration shifted into not feeling anything about what was really happening.

As I grew up, I felt confused and conflicted about animals (because some you loved and cared for and others you shot) and about how to “act” when I was hurt, sorry, glad, or sad. As a teenager, I discovered alcohol was a good anesthetic. Numbing feelings was a good prerequisite for Vietnam. It was in Vietnam that the myths blew up – though that didn’t keep me from “shoulding” all over myself (about how I “should” have acted and reacted).

In Vietnam, all of the hunting and killing I’d learned over the years took on a whole new perspective. The “animals” I was supposed to kill were two-legged “animals” and I’m taught new names for them – “gook,” “slant,” “cong,” “slope,” anything that sounds less human. And now, there’s an animal who can kill me!

But when I let myself really look, I see a simple Vietnamese people who just wanted to be left alone so they could tend their rice fields. I was thrown into contact with these “people” (can they be “people” during the day and “gooks” and “animals” at night?). They, too, were trying hard not to show their feelings (and failing). Shooting small birds and my military training just haven’t prepared me for this.

A part of me thanks God I had the early training to block out the bad stuff…and a part of me is terribly sad I missed all of those opportunities to be “real.” But I’m not sure I’d even be here today if I had a slip of “being real” while on the battlefield.

"Loss of Innocence by Tommy Bills"

“Loss of Innocence by Tommy Bills”

When did my “loss of innocence” begin? As an infant watching the “big boys” and my male role models? At nine years old in the duck blind? At 19 in the boat to Vietnam? At 20 holding a dying youth my own age? At 25 with my first wife or 35 with my second or 45 with my third?

Twenty-five years after the war, I’m still piecing together all of the damage done. I came back to a country who didn’t know what to do with me. The Veteran’s of Foreign Wars wouldn’t even let me join: “Vietnam wasn’t a real war,” I was told. That cut me like a knife. But now I’m able and willing to look at what society, family, peers, and the military has done to a shy, sensitive kid who just wanted to like everyone and have everyone like him.

Between marriages, drug and alcohol addictions, homelessness, and bouts with liver disease that brought me to death’s door a few times, I began to dabble in art and sculpture. On the surface, the images didn’t seem to have anything to do with war. It wasn’t until several years later that a psychologist viewing my artwork, saw what it was hiding. With his help, as well as the support from a Vietnam Veteran group, I began to let these paintings and sculptures emerge naturally and uninhibited. And what gradually revealed itself was Vietnam. This time, I let myself feel my trauma…the fear…the pain…the anger…the helplessness…the loneliness…the guilt…the uncertainty. And I began to heal.

Now, I can really feel what happened to me as a child, as a soldier, and what is happening to me as a man. With this freedom, comes the ability to laugh and cry…to be playful and happy and be me naturally. Now, I’ve had the walk in the woods with the wounded warriors.”

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After I read Tommy’s diary, I wrote my own – in a crude sort of way. I mailed it to Tommy because I wanted him to know how his story had changed me:

“Dysfunctional vets bear no scars, you know” my shallow selves jeer…

My deeper self counters that
these soldiers’ wounds are much deeper.

Shallow selves persist: “No one can see their wounds.
The doctor can’t measure the wound.
Where is the wound for you, the nurse, to bind?
The war is over…20 years past.
No more horror…no more terror.
Back in the States. Back to safety and security.
Where is the Pain? ‘Big boys don’t cry’ you know.
Fear?
Being strong and fearless are what makes ‘a few good MEN’…right?”

My deeper self knew what it had experienced and could not be convinced:
“Feelings are.
They have an energy that is real… whether we acknowledge them …or not.
Anger…fear…pain…guilt…helplessness…loneliness…uncertainty
They’re like orphans no one wants…
They lurk…haunt…betray…smother…
Soldiers wall them off as fast as they can …”

My shallower selves were still not deterred:
“Embracing negative feelings only makes soldiers feel bad… What’s wrong with walling them off…behind hardened stoicism…into unconsciousness…. where soldiers don’t have to look at them…or feel them…where they can’t touch them… where you don’t have to fix them… Do you? Can you?”

My deeper self could now answer:
“I can’t fix them… But I can be with them. My heart is willing to suffer their sufferings.
I’m willing to confront the stoic wall they hide behind. I’m willing to learn how to walk in the woods with the wounded warrior.”

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