by Thom D. Balmer
As we break for lunch my wife and I retrieve our food from the serving line and find two open seats at a table. With quick introductions I learn we are three Vietnam veterans, the spouse of a Vietnam veteran, and two buddies from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – six warriors living with injuries that only war can inflict. Just judging by the precise way we’ve all laid out our plastic wear and napkins, we seem more alike than different.
As volunteer disability service officers for groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans, we are front-line resources for veterans applying for benefits for service-related illnesses and injuries. This training conference, hosted by the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs, helps us keep up with changes in the rating system, but it also provides us two days of rich conversations and heartfelt fellowship.
To my left sits a retired sergeant major with two deployments to Vietnam in the mid-1960s. “I made the mistake of drinking a beer before retiring last night,” he tells me. He points at the scratches on his neck and recounts the dream that came to him: The enemy had him by the throat, choking him; he pulled his hands to his neck to release this invisible grip. “That’s how I got the scratches,” he says, adamant that “beer and nightmares occur together.” He looks down at his food, sips his diet soda and looks at me again. Only this time he seems younger, different. He has clearly found a part of himself that still walks the jungles of Vietnam.
To my right sits a Vietnam veteran who served as a helicopter mechanic during a tour in Dak To in 1969. He tells us of the twenty years he has worked with civilians and veterans in the Texas and Oklahoma prison systems. With sadness and anger he recounts the many veterans behind bars because of events caused by their post-traumatic stress. He tells us of one inmate who was in Vietnam the same year he was. “The only difference is my wife stood by side during my sleepless and violent nights,” he says. “This young man journey following Vietnam was filled with alcohol and self-abuse until he was sent away by his family and his spouse. He received no help from mental health providers, ended up on the street, and now he is saddled with a twenty-five-year sentence for attempted murder.” He pauses, then continues, his voice softer now: “That could have been me.” He stops talking and shifts in his chair, his mood now heavy and sullen. I use this time to scan his body. He has scars on his arms, head, and neck from surgery to remove skin cancer caused by Agent Orange exposure. He also suffers with diabetes, and heart disease, also effects from Agent Orange, he says. He begins to speak again, but now he is more distant, as if speaking from a far-off place.
The conversation spurs memories of my own service with the 82nd Airborne. Our missions included searches in Southeast Asia for prisoners of war and those missing in action, and humanitarian deployments to the Panama Canal Zone and to Boston during the school riots. I ponder the parts of me that may be missing–innocence, playfulness, relaxation, hope for the future – the parts left behind, or the parts just too scary to integrate into who I am today.
Seated across from me are two buddies who joined the Oklahoma National Guard, together, two days after the 9-11 attacks. John and Jim. They trained together, deployed together, and are healing together. Both wear military-issue desert-tan shirts. Both lost friends to IEDs and ambushes. Both had been “blown up” multiple times during convoys, and both struggled with coming home early because of their injuries, while their unit remains deployed.
John, the extrovert, makes jokes while he shifts back and forth in his chair due to severe and chronic back pain. Sometimes, when he speaks about the convoys, his face goes blank. He stops blinking, the color drains from his face, his energy dims, and he appears to fade in and out of the room as he recounts stories from Iraq and Afghanistan. Jim, seated to his right, keeps his head down. He listens intently to his battle buddy, and chews slowly with a jaw clearly affected by a war injury. I watch Jim intently; he is processing his own pain silently, yet he does not lose contact with the story his buddy tells. When he struggles to swallow his food, I wonder if part of his pain comes from his jaw injury and part from hearing the stories.
Next to me is my wife of thirty-nine years, my best friend, my “battle buddy,” and the one person who has heard, felt, and experienced my recovery. Her war came second hand, through me and through her father, who served in Korea and Vietnam. With a smile and inquisitive questions, she draws out the men at our table. She has a soft and tender way about her. She invites them to tell their stories, and listens intently, mindful that in speaking about their experiences they might find further healing.
This feels like group therapy, not with a paid professional, but built on the spontaneity of the moment. It feels good and awkward at the same time. I’m off guard by the impact of our sharing, and I suspect the others feel the same.
As I listen to these stories, I wonder: Do most Americans know of the daily struggles these battered warriors experience? Do they really know the daytime, nighttime, all-the-time costs that are paid and the weight that is carried for their freedom?
We begin to wind down, having told some of our story and connected for a few moments. Lunch ends and the two days of training resumes. We have come to learn how to better serve our brothers and sisters. We have come to give back, just as others had given to us. We have come to heal, in fellowship and solidarity, to march on with new missions and new orders.
(Copyright 2015 Military Experience & the Arts, Inc.)