by Glenn Petersen
Two widely differing perspectives, each dramatic in its own way, dominate the many ways wars are portrayed. Classically and cinematically, the violence of direct combat draws the eye. More recently, in concert with rising concerns about human rights, the suffering of noncombatants draws attention (so much so that we now hear of “compassion fatigue”). Among the many cruel faces of war, though, appear others that are more easily overlooked. One of these entails the slow ratcheting up of day-in and day-out stress that war wreaks at even its less intense moments. While they don’t catch the eye as readily or so abruptly jar our sensibilities, everyday dangers are worth attending to because they’re likely to get lost among more camera-grabbing events and the kinds of trauma they wreak are ill-understood and easily overlooked.
For many veterans of war, the sources of danger and damage are insidious, in the literal meaning of the term (“to lie in wait for”). Long-lasting effects may be products of experiences that were not seen as traumatic when they initially occurred and were therefore left untreated. To cite just one current example, we might consider the long-term impacts on those who operate the “Predators” and similar drones the U.S. military deploys in many parts of the world. Some of my experiences in Vietnam seem relevant here.
Raised in the wake of World War II on a steady diet of movies, TV shows, novels, and comic books dramatizing the war, I had an indelible grasp of what combat was supposed to look and feel like. So when I returned from my tour in Vietnam, I felt sure nothing had happened to me. I hadn’t been out in the rice paddies with a rifle company, which is where what I thought was the real war was being fought. My own experiences as a navy air crewman seemed unremarkable by comparison. For me, war mostly entailed boredom punctuated by brief moments of terror. As Robert Murphy, whose destroyer survived Japanese kamikaze attacks in the final months of the Pacific War, once put it: “Those who have had combat experience reliably report that it consists of short periods of intense danger, long periods of equally intense boredom, and continuous authoritarian discipline.” I am not claiming that art necessarily misrepresents war—sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Instead, I am simply offering an observation about how art and psychology intersect in the processes of creating our notions of war and of making war interesting. My perspective on war left me to conclude that without drama there is not much going on; therefore, there must be nothing to fear. When I enlisted at 17—still a child, really—I had incorrectly concluded what true drama entailed.
Encountering Everyday Danger
Routine tasks that are essential to the operation of war are generally not considered an immediate component of combat. These activities become so systematic as to be ignored and almost forgotten. Without glory or allure, these duties entail little apparent drama. Accounts of these activities might not be thought of as “war stories,” perhaps because they have not been sufficiently articulated or examined. Three tasks that I undertook during my time in Vietnam will illustrate my point. I had difficulty conceiving of these duties as dramatic or dangerous because they seemed so routine to me. Now I know better.
It is worth noting an odd contradiction: I did engage in some classically dramatic combat activities, but their impact on me seems, in retrospect, to have diminished. I don’t pretend to understand this, but it’s true. At some level it may be that I was better able to psychologically process the more overt hazards.
I flew as radar intercept controller/flight technician in an E-1B Tracer, an early warning, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft, off the U.S.S. Bennington in the Tonkin Gulf in 1966-67. While we were there on “Yankee Station,” I flew a seven-hour mission every day. Each mission began with a catapult launch and concluded with the controlled crash-landing, euphemistically known as an “arrested recovery.” I came under fire, intense at times, made carrier landings while losing engine power, made failed landings (“bolters”), and dealt with a range of other dangers. On every mission I carried with me stark recollections from my training in survival, resistance, and withstanding torture in the Navy’s mock-prisoner of war (SERE) camp. I had been taught just what to do if shot down in hostile territory. I was entirely prepared to crash. Quite a few times, I thought I was about to die.
At age 19, I had as many as six other aircraft under my control, and as part of “Operation Sea Dragon” I bore responsibility for attacks on enemy shipping and the ensuing casualties. I volunteered for this duty, having been influenced by both Catch-22 (which I read just weeks before enlisting) and my share of movies about flyers and aircraft carriers and aerial combat, but I am equally aware that very few enlisted men flew off carriers in Vietnam. My unit was hard-pressed to find enough men willing to fly, and that many of the other enlisted men aboard thought those of us who did fly were crazy for doing so. But again, these hazards did not have the same impact on me as the following everyday dangers I survived.
Everyday Danger: Three Fragments from the Fudds on Yankee Station
- Up in the radome
If the United States learned anything in World War II, it was about warships’ vulnerability to attack from the air. That’s what happened to the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, and in the Pacific battles in the Coral Sea and at Midway. You have to know where your enemy is, where its forces are coming from, and where they’re heading. With changes in the age of aviation, speed became essential as well. Radar was developed to address this need. In its early years, radar was limited to “line-of-sight.”
And so it was that the E-1B Tracer was developed in the 1950s. It was originally called a WF-2, and that designation coupled with the plane’s ungainly appearance earned it the nickname “Willy Fudd.” No one ever called them Tracers; they were always and everywhere known as Fudds, and we who flew them were Fuddmen. Its tasks were numerous, but they all centered on what was at the time a state-of-the-art radar system. The Fudd was, simply, a flying radar platform, and everything it did depended upon the massive antenna in its radar dome—or radome.
Unlike any aircraft that came before it, the Fudd’s antenna was housed not in a bubble jutting out from the plane’s fuselage but attached separately above it (and establishing the fundamental premise for today’s AWACS planes). Aerodynamically shaped, so that it lifted its own weight, the radome looked something like a teardrop sliced lengthwise, but at a glance it looked more like a mushroom that had popped out of the plane’s roof. With its radar range of close to 200 miles, a Fudd in the air enabled an aircraft carrier to see far beyond its own horizon. Its two radar operators’ primary tasks were to control the carrier’s aircraft. They directed its fighters to intercept enemy bombers long before they could approach the ship, and they guided its own attack aircraft to where they would deliver their payloads.
When I stop and think about it now, it strikes me as odd—absurd even—that although the Fudd’s radome was its reason for being, it was designed entirely as an afterthought, and almost casually slapped onto the back of a newly-designed antisubmarine plane. I guess that the last design element that the engineers were thinking was how the men who maintained and repaired the radar could possibly do the work that needed to be done within the radome itself. I was one of those maintenance guys.
Because of its aerodynamic shape, the radome’s roof was asymmetrical and higher in some places than others; at the highest point, the clearance between floor and ceiling was a bit over four feet. The antenna was an elliptical steel crescent, curving in a sweeping parabola, 17 feet from end to end, tapering to blunt points at the tips and about three feet high at the center. In order to keep the antenna on a level plane, as the aircraft itself climbed and banked, the dish had to tilt continuously up and down as it revolved. Inputs from various instruments fed into the system in order to give the antenna the necessary information to keep itself in its even plane. The machinery that accomplished this was delicate. Regularly the circuitry controlling the antenna went out of whack and had to be repaired and recalibrated. Since virtually everything in the Fudd’s radar system was fragile and in need of continual mending, we, who maintained the system, just assumed the responsibility for all the work we did on the antenna.
The only way we could be certain we had successfully repaired an antenna problem was to climb up into the radome and visually observe it as it rotated, to make sure that the dish was tilting precisely as it should. And this is why I say the entire system was designed without any thought to maintenance. There was no light in the radome—it was dark up there in broad daylight, though minimal light filtered in from the hatch in the floor, and it was pitch black at night or when the plane was on the carrier’s hangar deck. The floor was crisscrossed with a series of metal struts to bear our weight while we worked up there. The only way to know if the dish was tilting properly was to watch a simple gauge—an arrow pointing at a ray of lines marking the angle of tilt—as the antenna revolved. And because it was dark, the technician had to use a flashlight.
Now comes the tricky part. This hulking antenna unit rotated at six revolutions per minute. Period. It turned either at full speed or it was stopped, nothing in between. No one inside the radome could run alongside it at six RPM while still watching the gauge. Our solution, in order to “walk the antenna,” which is how we described the process of checking its operation, was for one man to sit below in the aircraft, at the antenna motor’s on-off switch. The man up inside the radome had to signal his partner to switch the antenna motor on and off at a speed slow enough for him to scuttle alongside the antenna while gazing intently at the gauge. Lacking any built-in technology, we signaled with a series of stomps on the floor of the radome. Under optimal conditions, this was fairly effective, but because aircraft engines were constantly roaring everywhere around us as we worked, it was often impossible to hear clearly. It took enormous concentration simply to turn that little switch forward and back at the right pace.
The attention of the man up in the radome is directed entirely at the gauge as he tries to keep his flashlight pointed at it. The huge and powerful antenna threatened at every second to go too fast. Additionally, he has to stomp his foot at the right pace and rhythm to keep the antenna turning at a rate that ensures he can move with it. But the radome roof is low and asymmetrical, and so he is bent over, at some points nearly in two, as he scrambles beside the boom. And the floor is a hash-work of exposed metal struts, any one of which can catch his foot as he scuttles along, curled into a near-fetal position. There in the dark, with his entire concentration focused on the gauge, while keeping his flashlight aimed at it, he danced over the struts grabbing at his feet.
If the antenna starts turning too quickly, it will smash into the man walking it. Since it is massive, the antenna can easily kill him. While we were on Yankee Station, a sailor on our carrier was killed when one of the ship’s antennas crushed him against a steel bulkhead. We knew about the danger, but what else could we do? The Fudd was only as valuable as its radar, and the radar simply wouldn’t work unless the antenna was reliable.
One day I was at the controls inside the plane, and my buddy Gene Warden was up in the radome. I missed the signal as he stomped and let the antenna revolve for a split second too long. It gained speed and momentum, and Warden saved himself only by diving headlong into the narrow space at the trailing edge of the radome. He was fortunate; if he’d been at the front or the side, there would have been no place for him to leap to, and he would have been smashed. When he clambered down, he blasted me for my incompetence, which had nearly killed him. I don’t know what happened, whether I couldn’t hear his stomps above the roar of a jet engine beside us, or if I had momentarily dozed off—a much-too-frequent occurrence since I often worked around the clock, sometimes for days on end. But it scared me so much that from then on I refused to work at the controls, insisting instead that I be the one walking the antenna up in the radome.
On one occasion while I was in the radome, I was a bit late stomping the signal to halt the antenna’s rotation. My foot caught on a strut on the floor, then jammed against it, and the dish came to a stop pinning me in place. I could not move. Had the dish revolved any further than it did, it would have ripped off my leg before it hurled me through the side of radome. It took three men to pull the antenna backwards (there was no way to reverse it) far enough for me to slip my foot out.
I reflect on this now: There I am, up inside that black hole, curled nearly into a fetal position, attention riveted on a gauge illuminated by my flashlight, scrambling around sideways, trying to time my stomps properly to keep the antenna slowly rotating, all the while dancing over metal struts I can’t see in the dark. My attention is focused on the task at hand, making sure that the antenna is tilting properly as it revolves. Only a portion of my attention is concerned with stomping at the right pace to signal the man at the controls below, who can see nothing of what is taking place above him. And nothing but the most residual pieces of my attention are left for maintaining the proper crouch and avoiding the struts grabbing at my feet.
The darkness, the confinement, the crouch. All of my consciousness devoted to the job at hand. The womb and the tomb, literally united there in the radome. E-1 radomes were designed explicitly for their mission, with no consideration or concern for men who had to maintain them. And so to climb up into one and walk the antenna was like crawling into a womb that was womb-like only in its confinement. I can feel, as I write, the terrible hunching over, the need to shrink myself for safety’s sake, the utter confusion about how to keep all my attention focused on the gauge while still trying to preserve myself; this was my every day work.
- Changing a scope on the flight deck
Each of the plane’s two radar scopes weighed 113 pounds. When I began maintaining the full radar system in the planes themselves, I learned how awkward it was for two technicians to carry a scope together. On land, at the naval air station, it could be done. However, aboard ship, where we moved continually up and down steep, narrow stairs (or “ladders,” as sailors call them), it was nearly impossible for two to efficiently carry a scope. And at sea, where there were only a small handful of technicians in a Fudd detachment, I quickly learned how to back up to the plane’s hatch or the workbench, squat, heave the scope up onto my back, stand, stoop forward, and rest the weight against my shoulder and upper back. Then I would climb the ladders from the shop to the flight deck, my left hand free to pull me up. In the Tonkin Gulf we operated in battle readiness conditions that kept the carrier’s flight deck pitch dark at night, which was normally my shift.
The seas were not particularly heavy, but we were always underway, and the deck pitched and rolled. I would climb onto the flight deck somewhere aft, hunched over, scope on my back, and start forward along the center-line of the deck. Carrying the scope along the flight deck of the rolling ship forced me to move pretty much like a drunkard, weaving from side to side as the weight and inertia prevented me from keeping a straight course.
The easiest way to locate a Fudd was to feel for its tall vertical tailfins, one rising up from the end of the horizontal stabilizer on either side of the plane’s tail. On any given night, I would reach the point on the deck’s centerline that I thought was parallel to the plane. I would then face to the right, hoping that I was facing the plane. There were no railings on the deck, and the catwalks running alongside were well below its edge. I would have a massive radar scope perched on my back, and I would be bent nearly in two beneath it. I would then begin to creep slowly toward the edge of deck, my left arm stretched out ahead of me, waving back and forth, searching for the plane’s tailfin. The ship was usually pitching and rolling, and I would have to use much of my attention just to steady myself. As I move closer to the edge of the deck, my steps would get shorter and shorter. So planes won’t slide off the deck in rough seas, they are held in place by “tie-down” chains, which stretch out between fastening points on the planes and anchoring points recessed into the deck. I had to move cautiously so that if I encountered one of those tie-down chains, I wouldn’t trip over it.
Moving blindly, all I can do is feel for the tailfin. If I miss the plane and keep moving ahead, I’ll come to the edge of the deck, which I won’t be able to see. I won’t know it’s there until I’ve stepped off and vanished into the night and sea. (Other men simply disappeared while working on the flight deck in the dark.) Trying to find the tailfin, I would have to continue waving my left arm, shuffling forward, not at all sure how close I was to the edge of the deck. Finally, if I concluded that I missed the plane and am about to plunge off the side of ship and into the sea, I would have to stop, turn around, and walk slowly and carefully—avoiding tie-down chains—back toward the centerline. When I sense that I’m well inboard, I move a few feet forward, face right, and repeat the process. Slowly I head toward the edge, arm waving, body hunched under the scope, moving sightlessly, feeling again for the tailfin I hadn’t been able to find. Perhaps this time my hand will brush against the tailfin, or maybe not. If not, I start again. If I find the fin, I face left and begin to move toward the plane’s hatch, climb in, drag the scope along the floor, mount it, hook it up, and check it.
Nearly all of the aspects of work up in the womb of the radome have their equivalents out in the open air of night on the flight deck: the utter blackness, the hunching under the weight of a scope, the shuffling feet, feeling for tie-down chains. Instead of focusing my concentration on the tilt gauge, though, now I’m feeling for the tailfin. And instead of trying to keep out of the way of the massive, sweeping antenna that could crush me, or hurl me through the side of the radome, I’m trying to avoid stepping off the edge of the flight deck and plunging into the sea. I cannot do the job if I focus my attention on my own safety.
- In-flight scope repair
All the elements of the Fudd’s complex radar system merged together in the radar indicator, the scope. The aircraft carried two, one for the radar officer and one for the enlisted flight tech. Their round, green radar screens were about a foot in diameter, set in the center of the unit’s face, which was about 16 by 24 inches. The entire black box, roughly 32 inches deep, slid into a deep recess directly in front of the radar operator’s position. A dozen or so cables attached to the rear of the scope. Because of the way the scope slid so tightly into its casing and pressed up against the pilot’s back, it was nearly inaccessible. When a technician installed or removed a scope, he had to reach his arm through a narrow slit at the rear of the sleeve and connect or disconnect the cables entirely by feel and memory. It was impossible for him to see what his hands were doing. An exacting task, it took much time to complete because it was so easy to make mistakes.
When radar images failed to properly display, a technician had to troubleshoot the entire radar system in order to determine whether the problem lay with the scope itself or in one of the many other pieces of equipment integrated with it. The scopes themselves were fragile and commonly the source of the problem. When it was clear that the scope was causing the problem, it had to be removed, repaired, and replaced. Normally a technician pulled it from the aircraft after the plane had returned to the ship, hauling it to the avionics shop, where it was hooked up to a work bench. An experienced bench technician could often identify simple problems merely by looking at the display on the screen, but other failures could take hours to diagnose and repair.
These scopes used vacuum tubes, technology most people alive today have never seen. A dozen or so circuit boards, each fitted with five to ten tubes, sat on either side of the giant cathode-ray tube that was the radar screen. While capacitors, resistors, and a multitude of other components often broke down, it was the fragile glass tubes that most commonly failed—not surprisingly, considering the enormous forces the equipment was subjected to during catapult launches and arrested landings, along with ceaseless vibrations from the two powerful aircraft engines. There were so many tubes, though, and so many types of them, that even if the technician knew that a problem was likely to be caused by a failed tube, it often took much careful trouble-shooting to figure out just which one had to be replaced.
Several circuits and types of tubes were more prone to failure than others. An experienced bench tech could sometimes narrow the problem to a specific circuit merely by observing the behavior of the various components of the scope’s screen display. Of the five flight techs who flew my squadron’s five daily sorties, only two of us also worked at repairing the scopes in the avionics shop and understood their circuitry well enough to diagnose the more common tube failures while we were still airborne.
As I grew increasingly familiar with the Fudd and the entirety of its radar system, I learned which types of tubes and which circuits were most likely to fail, as well as what symptoms would appear on the radar display when they did. I began stuffing spare tubes into the pockets of my flight suit so I could make repairs to the scopes in-flight. Without being able to put the scope on the workbench with all its testing equipment, diagnoses were still partly guess work. Repairs had to be done entirely on a trial-and-error basis. Sometimes a malfunctioning scope could be fixed and put back into service fairly quickly, but more often it took several attempts to locate the problematic tube. While the tube itself could be swapped once the scope was withdrawn from its narrow sleeve, it took a lot of time to disconnect the scope from all its cables, pull it out, fix it, slide it back in, and reconnect the cables. The entire process might have to be done multiple times before the appropriate tube was detected. But the radar was useless without the scopes, so we had to make sure they were working.
At some point during our tour of duty in the Tonkin Gulf, after months of constantly operating, repairing, and maintaining the radar, I assumed such a sense of responsibility for our missions that I began doing something that in retrospect was especially reckless and foolhardy. No one stopped me, though, so I went ahead with it on a regular basis. When a scope malfunctioned in flight, and I could see that it probably needed only to have one or another of its tubes replaced, I would do the repair while it was still hooked up to the system and operating. This meant pulling it part way out of its sleeve and exposing the first circuit board or two. I would then slide my hand and arm down inside the scope, curling my fingers back to locate the tubes most likely to have failed. Pulling a red-hot tube loose, I would slowly withdraw it from inside the scope, then thread my hand back down inside the scope and insert a replacement into the empty socket. A glance at the radar screen would tell me whether it had begun working properly. If it had not, I repeated the process until I had either fixed the problem or run out of options. I could then slide the scope all the way down into its sleeve and put it back into service.
The problem of course, was that all of these circuits were live. The scopes ran on high-voltage, high-amperage electricity, and they had no on/off switches. They were energized on along with the entire system. The radar transmitter’s power had to be raised and lowered slowly; thus the system could not be readily powered off and on, and being so, I had to work on the scopes while they were fully operational. I could not see where my hand was maneuvering, and I had to direct its movements entirely by my recollection of how the circuits were laid out. However, if I touched the wrong part, I would be electrocuted.
Undertaking this risky procedure was entirely voluntary on my part. It was my own idea, and I pursued it on my own. No one was ordering me to do it. In fact, if any of my superiors in the avionics division had known what I was doing, they would probably have had a fit. I was so eager to save time and to make my aircraft as effective as possible, that I was willing to risk electrocution in order to get the radar operational as quickly as possible.
On Exposing Oneself to Danger
None of these situations were momentary episodes, rare occurrences, or responses to sudden attacks. They were everyday tasks—the work I did each day, sometimes several times a day. I tried to ignore it, and still try, and yet at the same time, the sheer power of these physical experiences continues to impress itself so strongly and deeply upon me that I cannot entirely ignore it. At the time I didn’t think much about it, didn’t acknowledge it, yet years later, it hasn’t dissipated. It is here, etched more permanently into my body than any tattoo. It’s part of my flesh. I can call these events, these tasks to mind, and I can see them, but even now as I write them down I can barely call the fear—the terror—up into consciousness. I have submerged and embedded those feelings now as it was then. I couldn’t have performed my duties if I had allowed myself to be cognizant of what it was doing to me. Now I seem to have no way to reclaim that which I so successfully suppressed.
I find myself likening the impact of all these events to thinking about how my spleen feels or my endocrine system’s working. They’re there, and I have every reason to believe that they’re functioning, but I cannot know them first hand. I can’t feel them—my knowledge of these things is purely theoretical. And those repeated stress events, and others, seem to occupy similar places for me. I can reasonably believe they exist, but I can’t call up the terror. Perhaps that’s no longer entirely true, though, because as I write these passages I can so clearly visualize the scenes, and feel my body hunching, feel my neck tautening, feel my breath shorten, feel the tension in my body, see my hands shaking. I just can’t cleanly open the connections between the images I describe and the state my body is in. I know the connections are there, but I haven’t been able to get access to them. The same evident strengths and hidden emotional wrangling that allowed me to hide these from myself then keep them concealed now.
It strikes me that there’s a close connection between my willingness to take these risks, the absence of any dramatic impact (as I understood it at the time), and my curious failure to come away afterwards with any sense of what I’d exposed myself to. This leads me to ponder such risk-taking, something others have considered as well. Though it seems not to be something widely celebrated, it is in fact fairly well established that in combat men are more likely to be concerned with preserving their own lives than with taking others’. In his pioneering work, Men Against Fire, a first-hand study of American infantry in World War II, S.L.A. Marshall claimed that in most direct engagements with the enemy, less than 25 percent of riflemen fired their weapons. As they begin to come under hostile fire, troops head “individually to whatever cover is nearest or affords the best protection.” “A few of them fire their pieces,” but “others do nothing.” While some fail to act because they don’t know what to do: “others are wholly unnerved and can neither think nor move in sensible relation to the situation.” In analyzing his data, Marshall concluded that a man’s failure to fire comes not so much from a conscious desire to avoid exposing oneself to return fire, but “is a result of a paralysis which comes of varying fears. The man afraid wants to do nothing: indeed he does not care to even think of taking action.” Training has since been redesigned to train combat infantrymen to overcome these natural tendencies.
Bernard Knox, a classics professor who served with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) directing French resistance forces during the Normandy invasion, offers a related observation. The problem with deploying men in advance of an invasion, Knox writes, is that “they may do the obviously sensible thing: go to ground in a safe hiding place, do nothing to attract attention to themselves, and wait for the arrival of friendly troops.” In selecting men for his unit, the intent was to find “men psychologically incapable of remaining quiet—troublemakers, in fact.”
Ron Kovic’s climactic account of the firefight that left him paralyzed vividly describes the two different types—those hell bent on trouble and those who think better of exposing themselves—in a single action in Vietnam. “I was yelling to the men,” he writes. “I kept telling them to hold their ground and keep firing, though no one knew what we were firing at. I looked to my left flank and all the men were gone. They had run away, all run away to the trees near the river, and I yelled and cursed at them to come back but nobody came.”
Then Kovic is hit in the foot. “A great surge of strength went through me as I yelled for the other men to come out from the trees and join me.” But he “seemed to be the only one left firing a rifle,” and as a corpsman bandages him, he realizes, “The whole thing was incredibly stupid, we were sitting ducks.” He nevertheless continues firing and then receives the wound that has left him paralyzed from the chest down ever since.
I recall watching a football game in about 1976 or 1977, with a friend who’d also served aboard aircraft carriers, as a Navy recruiting ad appeared on the screen. It was set entirely on a flight deck, with jet engines screaming, men in brightly-hued sweatshirts dashing about beneath the taxiing aircraft, radio communications squealing in cockpits, blast deflectors swinging into place, last-moment salutes, and catapults hurling fire-belching jets off into the waiting skies. I turned to him and said, without irony, “Man, does that look exciting! Why don’t I remember it that way?” Film directors, editors, and television advertising directors long ago figured out how to tell the story of carrier operations in compelling fashion in order to sell their product. But none of these artistic telling’s captures much of the real experience of those on a working flight deck during round the clock combat operations, because everyone working on a flight deck is concentrating entirely on just two things: getting their jobs done as effectively and efficiently as possible and staying alive.
I can still feel the catapult launches and arrested landings quite viscerally in my body, but their ratcheted-up intensity lasted only a few moments at the beginning and end of each mission, and only sporadically re-asserts itself these days. What I feel so much more of the time is the dull, aching, continuous throb of the danger and fear I dealt with when I wasn’t in the air—when I was engaged in the seemingly mundane maintenance of the aircraft.
At the time, though, even as I was aware of the danger, as shown by all of the actions I took to minimize it, I didn’t, or couldn’t, integrate into my consciousness what was happening to me. It simply didn’t fit into the images I’d formed of what combat was supposed to look like. Despite the clear threats to my life, my mindset and mental preparation told me that in order to be meaningful, danger had to spring out of dramatic conflict, especially direct and immediate engagement with the enemy; in the absence of something resembling this scenario, the danger was meaningless. Without meaning, it was nebulous and transient. It seems there was no way for me to consciously hold onto that danger, and I almost immediately lost track of it.
Nevertheless, everything I experienced remained with me, hidden away and out of sight for decades, until the emotional energy I had been using to repress it was steadily directed elsewhere—toward my family and my job, in particular—and those experiences, along with their emotional content, reasserted themselves. I returned from the war feeling that nothing had happened to me. I thus ignored what had happened, told myself that nothing happened, refused to acknowledge what happened, closed off some of the most powerful experiences I have had in my life, and in doing so left myself wide open to a lifetime of struggling with things I didn’t comprehend.
At age 40, when my daughter was born and the emotional energy I’d devoted to keeping the war at bay was redirected, the worm turned. The war slowly re-asserted itself and over the course of the following decades it fought to gain control of my emotional balance. I was, to put it simply, overwhelmed by the war’s return. Various treatments worked for a time, and then they didn’t. At times the raw terror and near-paralysis have swelled almost to the point of trapping me inside my home. Now, at age 67 and nearly 50 years away from the war, I still seek a daily reprieve. And I’ve no reason to imagine it will be much different for the latest generation of vets.
I see little likelihood that the men and women who’ve fought in Afghanistan and Iraq will be spared the distress that my own generation of vets continues to bear. The military and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs claim to be addressing these issues, but they seem to focus almost entirely on the immediate and the obvious. My experience tells me that much of the damage, and the danger, lie in wait, hidden from everyone by the traditional focus, in art, literature, and film, on the dramatic. Deeper and slower impacts, I fear, await today’s vets.