Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Did you kill anyone over there?"

This is one question it is NOT okay to ask an Iraq war veteran. I know this, although I've never been exactly sure why. Best I could figure, it is because a) that is an intensely personal question, kind of like asking a stranger if they've ever had an abortion and b) because the answer is most likely "yes" and I should know that and they probably don't want to talk about the war.

Recently I have become acquainted with an army veteran of some thirteen years, multiple continents and numerous conflicts, including Afghanistan and Iraq. Thanks to his courage to look within and work hard, he has done a lot of healing from the inevitable psychic wounds of war, and thanks to his generosity in sharing, I am learning a lot from him.

I asked this vet why the question is so taboo. He explained that, during the conduct of war, you have to do things that, in our civilian society, are unacceptable. In peacetime, killing another human being is murder, and it's wrong. In war, it is the business of war. You do it because you have to, because they are the enemy. You kill people, you see people killed, you witness horrible destruction and suffering. It is what you do in combat, yet part of you whispers that if you're doing this, you must be a bad person. Sometimes, that part becomes convinced.

When you come home, you put those things, the events of war you have lived through, into a fragile compartment in your mind and protect it carefully.

If you try to answer the question, "Did you kill anyone?," all of a sudden you are forced to dig into your mind, expose that fragile compartment, and relive it. Whether you have personally killed anyone or not, you have been at war. You have participated in the conduct of combat and now you have to look at yourself in the mirror. You want to be a good person, you try to convince yourself that you are a good person, but when you see again the scenes of combat and feel the contamination of war's aftermath, you feel like a bad person. The conflict is excruciating.

I have never, thank goodness, asked a vet that question. Now I'm sure I never will.


Sally said...

Powerful, Peg. Your friend is insightful and courageous to share this with you.

Peg Spencer said...

Indeed he is. I am very grateful.

Dr. said...

That reminds me of something said by Mrs Van Dam in the Diary of Anne Frank and I respect that.
Puti Nevins

Margie said...

I recently spent some time at a homeless center and saw many former vets from past wars there. It was frustrating to see such overwhelming need and so little resources to help. Much of which could be related to lack of mental health care and drug addiction. Reading your post made me think of how Vietnam vets were treated when they returned - called "baby killers" and such...

At this point in time, I really hope we are doing a better job of giving vets the support and compassion they need to deal with the horrors of war and the sacrifice that has been asked of them.

Thanks for shedding light on something we should all think more about.

Chuck S. said...

Part 1:

There are veterans and there are combat veterans. You don’t have to understand the difference. They know.

It's hard to get to know a combat vet. Social interaction isn't their strong suit. If you meet one and you're about their age they have three questions: When were you there? Who were you with? What did you do? Your answers will tell them all they need to know about you for now. If you don't understand the questions then you will never, ever, understand them. If you fake the answers, they'll know.

You don't hear these answers any more: “AEF, in the trenches”, “Argonne Forest”, “Harlem Hellfighters”, “Scapa Flow” or “Hat in the Ring”. Those men are all gone now. A few of them told their stories, most didn't, as always. No matter the twists and turns, achievements and disappointments of their later lives, many of their final thoughts were not of family but of men they loved during a day, a month, a year of fighting, a time that changed them forever. Combat does that.

Fewer and fewer answer those questions with “1st Cav in the Philippines”, “the 442nd in Italy”, “Kasserine Pass”, “8-Ball Express”, “The Mighty Eighth”, “the 96th on Okinawa”, “Tuskegee Airmen”, “Iwo”, “subs out of Pearl”, “82nd Airborne, D-Day”, “Stalag”, “first in at Buchenwald”. Their time is quickly passing. Ask them your questions now if you want to hear the answers from someone who was there. Pretty soon it'll all just be in books and you'll wish you had. Just don’t ask them if they killed anyone. They did. They remember.

The same for “Pusan”, “with Mac at Inchon”, “I humped out of Chosin with Chesty and the 1st RCT” and “F-86s up near the Yalu”. Their stories take a different tact, though. No ticker tape, no bands, few speeches unless you count Mac. He made a couple of fine ones, including his “Farewell to the Corps”. America was embarrassed because those vets didn't win. How could that be? Didn't America always win? Must have been their fault. I'm sure I read it in the paper.

You can still sometimes hear “A-6s off of Kitty Hawk”, “Marines at the DMZ”, “F-100s out of Tuy Hoa”, “Riverine Patrol Craft in the Delta”, “Tunnel Rat at Cu Chi”, “Chinooks, LZ X-Ray”, “Triple Nickel” and “1st Cav, Three Corps”. Their time is passing, too. No parades for them; they didn't win either. Must have been their fault. I saw Cronkite on TV.

Today's vets are winning, sort of, and good for them. They have their own slang and references, just as their dads and grandpas had. They were there in “OIF-3”, the third year of Operation Iraqi Freedom. “Baghdad, '05”. “Kirkuk.” “Diala Province.” “Tora Bora”, “the border mountains”. They called home between patrols, texted, told lies about how things were, listened to tales of life and love and longing back home. They emailed their pictures and told stories of life in a combat zone, sometimes odd stories that people at home couldn't quite understand. I saw them on Fox.

Part 2 follows.

Chuck S. said...

Part 2

You can spot combat veterans if you know what to look for. Men and women who buy groceries late at night or very early in the morning so they can avoid people, avoid you. They are the ones just a little older than everyone else in class, trying to catch up and already aware that they may never make it. He’s the burned and maimed guy who is consumed with guilt because he lived through the IED and his buddies didn't. The 60-something guys who show up at The Wall. The ones whose thoughts drift when they shouldn't, physically here but mentally... there.

They don't complain about food much. They know mess halls and SOS, C- and K-rations, LRRPs and Meals Rejected by Ethiopians. The least fortunate of them have eaten maggots and grass to hang on to life for one more day... for you.

There were enough cross-over WW II/Korea vets that members of the various service organizations (VFW, American Legion and so on) didn't discriminate vets from one war or the other. That wasn't always the case later on. Just ask any vet who's been told “That wasn't a real war.” Today's service clubs are less visible than before and have less social impact. Maybe that's because military service is no longer compulsory and veterans are a smaller slice of society. That makes it a lot easier not to notice... or care. It's easier to denigrate their service if first you believe that they aren't like you.

Today's press will help you believe that. War coverage is less today than it was forty years ago and no one notices. Maybe we had war overload at home during Vietnam but at least we had regular news reporting. It was the legacy of Walter Winchell, Eric Sevareid, Ed Murrow and Hayward Hale Broun and at the very pinnacle of their genres, Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin. Guys who knew, guys who had seen the elephant. There won’t be any more like them.

Part 3 follows

Chuck S. said...

Part 3:

Combat veterans are haunted by memories that they don't always understand. What drove a sober Alaskan teacher, 25 years after he came home from Vietnam, to get a full-sized, full-color 1st Cavalry patch – the largest and brightest-yellow patch in the entire Army -- tattooed on his left shoulder and a silver-and-blue Combat Infantryman's Badge tattooed on his left breast... all on the same day? He'd never had a tattoo in his life. He couldn't explain it, seemed as surprised as everyone else. But he did it. Had to, he said.

“A factor of eight.” That's what one study of combat vets reported. They suffer negative events – divorce, suicide, alcoholism, addiction, you name it – at eight times the rate of non-combat vets. They have their own peculiar troubles, too: soldier's heart, shell shock, battle fatigue, PTSD, Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome, trench foot, frostbite, malaria. Suffering that is rare-to-non-existent “back home” has always been the combat veteran's daily grind. That's a high price to pay, especially considering what they have already paid… for you.

They get angry about things you don't even notice. One can't get over a Memorial Day sermon about why it's not a day to remember America's fallen warriors but rather to remember all those whom we have cared about who have died. That preacher would deny even one single day of dedicated memorial. Other things irritate them. Jane Fonda, of course. John Kerry -- “We were all war criminals”. Japanese and German cars. POWs left behind... for nothing. McNamara. The shapes of negotiation tables. Henry Kissinger – “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” -- and his Joey. Preening politicians who never served or sacrificed. The needless and repeated sacrifices of the soldiers who served after them.

Whatever fragile peace and security, whatever tentative sanity we enjoy today, we owe to combat veterans, folks like Henry Allingham and Bob Wallen and Ed Cherry and Larry Swarbrick and Chance Phelps and millions of others who fought for you. We owe the smiles of our children to men and women like them. We owe the grace and dignity of our freedom and the future of America to men and women like them.

Our debt is too big to repay and too big to ignore but you can start. It doesn’t have to be about money. Find your own way. Say thank you.

Peg Spencer said...

Chuck S,
Thank you for your very eloquent and thoughtful comments. I hope you publish this or something like it somewhere! Your passion is inspiring.

Anonymous said...

Chuck S,

Thanks for having the ability to say what some of us can't, or won't.

Larry T
69-71 Hai Van and points north.
3rd Bn, 1st Marines

Chuck S. said...

Thank you Larry and welcome home, brother. There's a pretty good new video tribute to you and us at

Chuck S.
North Flag 26

jh5201 said...

Thank you. It's been over 35 years since I returned from my tour in Vietnam and I still "tense up" in converstaions with civilians anticipating they may ask me that question. Crazy, huh!


evision said...
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Anonymous said...

thanks to those who served in Nam for commenting here.
We don't talk about it. It is a taboo thing. Don't want to talk about it, remember it ot hear about it.
I am sure that the new "brothers" coming home now feel the same.
Blessings to all of us.

Peg Spencer said...

I believe that telling your story, no matter who you are or what your story, is important. I'm sure it matters to whom you tell it and when and how, but to hold it inside always...that has gotta hurt.

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