No More Star Spangled Eyes

I’ll never forget the day my dad came back from Vietnam. It was in February 1970. I was fourteen and opposed to the war. My mom, some neighbors and us kids had made a banner saying Welcome Home. We drove to BWI airport near Baltimore, unloaded the banner and some balloons and headed to the terminal gate. The actual moment I saw him was somewhat surreal. He didn’t look much different, but he certainly seemed different. After hugs and handshakes (hugs for the girls and handshakes for us boys), our family headed to the parking lot and the drive back home. The first couple of days were uneventful in terms of my dad being back in the house. Within a week, however, a certain tension became apparent as my father attempted to assert his previous authority over the household–an authority that in his mind was not tempered by his tour in Vietnam. However, it had been. It was apparent to us kids in his sometimes irrational lashing out for seemingly petty reasons. I can only imagine what my mother was going through. We were among the lucky ones. His family and makeup prevented him from going over the edge like many of his fellow returnees. Within a year or so he had put whatever demons the war had unleashed back wherever one puts such demons and was more or less the same man he was before his tour in Vietnam had begun.

A buddy of mine we called R, spent a year in the Navy off the coast of Vietnam begrudgingly helping the US launch jet planes to strafe the people and countryside of Vietnam. He joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War as soon as he got his discharge papers. He and I spent many an hour talking politics, books, and women over the years. One conversation occurred when we were somewhere in California’s Central Valley on Veterans’ Day. As we sat in the shade of some trees in Salinas and sipped surreptitiously on a quart of Rainier Ale, R began talking about friends of his from his Navy days. After all, noted R bitterly, this is our day. He continued by noting how much better vets were treated after they were dead. Shit, he said, you even get a decent burial. And a freakin’ American flag to go with it. When you’re in their goddam uniform, you ain’t no better than a maltreated dog who they’re trying to kill. If you get out alive, they just want you to go away. Especially if you have an ailment that can be attributed to their war. R eventually married and helped raise two children. When he was around fifty he was diagnosed with a disease related to the war that was exacerbated by his reckless lifestyle in the years immediately following his discharge. He met an untimely death a few years ago while waiting for a transplant. He did get a decent burial. And a freakin’ flag.
There are many more men and women who were in the military with their own stories. Some have better endings than others. No one makes it through unscathed. Some just hide their scars better. That’s what a friend who did veterans counseling before he died told me. Washington’s latest wars have produced a new crop of these men and women. Although the wars may be different, the wounds are equally painful.

Often left unsaid when the media writes about returning veterans and their trouble adjusting to civilian life is how a veteran’s loved ones are affected. If one wishes to maintain the vocabulary of modern war, then the appropriate label for the lovers, partners, parents and children of the returning soldier would be collateral damage. Think of a cluster bomb. If the returning veteran is a casualty of the explosions that occur on original impact, then the veterans’ families and loved ones would be those who are the casualties that occur from the bomblets that detonate later. Of course, this scenario of injury and death is also replicated among those whom the imperial army has attacked many more times over.

Gologorsky_ThingsWeDoToMakeItHomeAuthor and antiwar organizer Beverly Gologorsky wrote a book a couple years ago titled Things We Do To Make It Home. This book was recently released in paperback by Seven Stories Press. It is a beautifully wrought story of a group of Vietnam veterans, their lovers, families and friends set in the 1990s. Twenty years after their return from the jungles of Nam the world they live in is still littered with the veterans’ experience in combat. Like so many of their real-life comrades, the men in the story have left much damage in their wake. Simultaneously, there is a love that binds them all together. That same love reaches across the lines between suburb and city while it tears relationships into remnants barely held together by threads of memory. There is no blame here, despite the desire to find somewhere to place the despair and anger resulting from the demons that define the lives these men have lived. The women who have loved them despite their better sense, the hopelessness the men hide with drugs and alcohol and the children who wonder where there father really is even when he’s sitting in the same room are portrayed with an emotional and spiritual depth the reader won’t find in newspaper reports about veteran suicides and PTSD statistics. There isn’t a lot of hope in this novel, despite the optimism voiced by some of its characters. These are men who know they were screwed and can’t seem to figure out how to get past the war they were sent to fight. Nonetheless, they go on living life as best as they can while often unaware of the pain they cause–a pain directly related to the guilt they feel because of the injury they caused to those their commanders called the enemy while fighting Washington’s war.

I had another friend named Loren. Like so many others, he was drafted into the Army against his will. When he got his orders to go to Vietnam, he took a truck from the motor pool where he worked and ran it through several gates and a couple of parked cars in the Officer’s Club parking lot at the Colorado Army base he was stationed. He did six months in the stockade and was thrown out of the Army. He celebrated by going to a rock festival and ended up in Berkeley. His father didn’t speak to him for years, but it was worth it to Loren just to have avoided the war. After reading Things We Do To Make It Home, one wishes once again that more soldiers would follow Loren’s example and just refuse to fight.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on November 15th, 2009 at 10:16am #

    Ruling classes have been victimizing young men fro millennia. They are also victimised by priests, ‘educators’, but not as much as by warlords.
    At least one person had noted that people who cotrol symbols control the rest of the people and no amount of revolting will change that control.

    I do not think s/he offered a solution for the problem. Perhaps by pointing out to people that the symbol such as “defending US interests” is not a valid symbol we can change peole’s thinking.
    The above ‘symbol’ symbolizes “defending interests of some people” and not all americans. Wars benefit or appear to benefit warlords more than any other layer of society.
    Else there wld be no wars of aggression. “Enhancing US security” is another false-to-fact symbol.
    The three k dead of the tow towers prove that it does not greaten security of all americans. And 13 slain US soldiers at fort hood also to prove it.
    Add to that some ks soldiers maimed and about 6-7k soldiers losing their lives in afgh’n and iraq also prove it.
    Returning soldiers commiting suicides and commiting mayhem also proves that the ‘symbols’ “defending US interests” and “enhancing security” have a fictive values.

    Even US flag or any other is imbued with false symbolic value. So is “education”, “media”, “public service”, “serving one’s country”, “greatness of america” [and with ist slavery?], “hallowed constitution”, “best system of rule”, etcetc.
    “Best rule ever” means that no empire or land had to date developed a rule for control of lower classes than US has. The control is indeed astounding and getting daily stronger. tnx

  2. russell olausen said on November 15th, 2009 at 11:24pm #

    I had a buddy who dodged Vietnam by coming up to N. Alberta in 72. He could not adapt to the climate or his exile, so in the cruel winter of 74 with a severe recession making earning money next to impossible, he simply froze to death. I suppose things are better now, he probably would not make Canada due to our closer security ties with the U.S. and I can’t go to the States because Greg (his name) happened to have a roach on him when pulled over by our own zealous security types, somehow bestowing the dreaded drug Charge that can never be forgiven by the land of the free. Greg from Lansing, Michigan lives in me for his laconic spirit who faced up to the rock and hard place.R.I.P. Funny thing , by the time G.W.Bush took over, I got to know the ropes well enough to insure that I do not freeze to death. I suppose even faint praise for Bush will get me tarred here but thats war.

  3. Jim said on November 16th, 2009 at 3:41am #

    I remember when my father, already a veteran of WWII and a civilian mercant marine engineering officer, was about to leave for Vietnam in the early sixties. A sister ship of his shipping line carrying weapons and other war materiel to Vietnam, had just arrived for repairs from there, the superstructure having been shot full of holes, an even never reported in the US press. Dad’s ship was next.

    We were standing by the kitchen sink as he told me of the damage. He leaned over the sink and vomited, then resumed talking to me as though nothing had happened. A sort of cold horror entered, and I began to understand the nature of war. He’d been a rageaholic, alcoholic whose memories of the sea battles in the Pacific during WWII often caused him to suddenly start and choke off a yell as he sat in his chair after dinner. He drank himself to death by age 47. My clearest memories were of him chugging bourbon direct from the bottle on the half-hour. To this day I am sure only my athletic ability to run like the wind saved me from beatings or perhaps even death, so out of control he was at times.

    So today a childhood filled with abuse by a father living always on the edge of violence, raging at the slightest disturbance, has left me with a level of PTSD easily equal to that of any veteran. Only meditation combined with years of therapy has brought any healing, and an education as a psychotherapist working with vets understanding for my poor, damaged father. At age 67, I still weep at his memory. And there’s no doubt that the fact that my grandfather and great-grandfather were also combat veterans added their contributions, through my father, to my condition.

    I’m no vet, but I have war in my very bones. Where are my veterans’ benefits? Where is my Purple Heart? I don’t blame vets, as they too are victims, but there are very many like myself, children of war, whose lives are filled with pain and sorrow. Perhaps more than there are veterans.

  4. Annie Ladysmith said on November 16th, 2009 at 4:26am #

    There is of course a time to fight, there are of course things worth fighting for and that time for many of us might be just around the bend.
    Nam was of course not this type of fight.

    To show you how corrupt this ‘war’ was, at any given time during it, there was never more than 3% of the families and relatives of the Capital Hill US government in the war. The Senators and Reps sons just did not go to the carnage. It was a trully terrible mess and Kennedy would have ended it BUT THEY DIDN”T WANT THAT. (Another betrayal, another carnage)

    I believe that Vietnam fractured our country into broken peices and there was no healing because there was no repentance on behalf of the gov. Here’s a kicker, the CIA did drug experiments on gi’s in Nam. When they finally had to high-tail it out of there a lot of those guys were left in their cages.

    You see, this is what i try to get across. Your government dosn’t give a crap about the troops.
    The government does not care about your future welfare, if you come home maimed or with your mind blown, they don’t even want to hear it.

    It was just ‘classic’ when Boy-Bush went to see the guy who got burned up in the Pentagon, ya know after the fake plane crashed and left a ten foot hole, the betrayal was unsconscionable and that idiot Bush sat giving his fake condolences. So sorry your burned over 80% of your body, BUT YOUR A REAL BRAVE SOLDIER AND WE’RE GO’NA GET THOSE TERRAISTS.

    It is not anyway for a free country to treat it’s free people, but we can see and understand that it is the way the totalitarian tyrants treat their people. We have had all the warnings for many years now.