Release of BLUE NOSTALGIA, Vol. 4

MEA is proud to present a new edition of Blue Nostalgia: A Journal of Post-Traumatic Growth, our fourth installment of the title. Blue Nostalgia is a unique publication in that it contains stories of veterans’ and family members’ stories of how they face the challenges of post-traumatic stress as well has how they grow in spite it – or even because of it.

Volume 4 contains works from the perspective of family members of WWII veterans as well as from Vietnam and  Cold War veterans. They have in common the bravery to share their deeply personal  stories in order to educate the public and let other veterans and families know that they are not alone.

Read Blue Nostalgia: A Journal of Post-Traumatic Growth, Vol. 4 by clicking on the titles in this post or by navigating drop down menu under “Publications.”

Cover image: “Where to Go From Here,” woodcut print by Brandie Dziegiel

On Telling War Stories

by Jerad W. Alexander

In a bar in the Poncey-Highland neighborhood of Atlanta, I sat across from a woman with eyes like wet iron and watched through cigarette smoke as she explained how her boyfriend had been murdered. He had been killed the previous May at a popular drive-in theater. After the movie had ended he discovered his car battery had failed him and he needed a jump. He walked to the truck next to him, tapped on the dark driver-side window, and for his troubles received a bullet to the chest which killed him as paramedics worked on him in the back of a speeding ambulance.

Her story put a zap through my spine, as I’m sure it would anyone. She cried almost mechanically as she told it. She was tough, and would later give testimony before a jury that would inevitably put the shooter away for life. But at the moment, there in the bar under a haze of beer and whiskey and chain-smoked cigarettes, was a reflection of old pains I recognized almost immediately. A savagery had taken hold, a bitterness. It was completely justified, of course, but I recognized it because I had once carried it within myself. It’s the kind of thing you can hear in the back of the throat—a sort of bile-damp gravel that curls the upper lip an almost imperceptible measure. You can see it as a hardening of the eye capillaries whenever pain creates rage; and I felt a dubious need to lay on some Old Folksy Wartime Wisdom. I had been in her world, at least in a certain psychic sense, and I wanted to offer perspective.

I told her a war story.

I told her of a lance corporal I knew in Iraq who was killed by an alpha-male nightmare and the comic error of bad driving. One afternoon, the staff NCO of the guard at our camp in western Iraq orchestrated a response drill. Basically, he wanted to see how fast his Marines would respond to a potential threat in the camp, normally a routine and completely justifiable action. However, the staff NCO of the guard, a massive gunnery sergeant with a booming voice and woefully arrogant demeanor who lead by fear and intimidation, whipped his troops into a stress frenzy. As the lance corporal rode in the bed of an open air Humvee the nervous driver misread a turn and flipped the top-heavy vehicle onto its back. The lance corporal was tossed from the bed and crushed between the roof and the ground.

I found out about it soon after from the battalion administration staff NCO who was a friend of mine. He had been called to identify the body a few hours earlier. Later, as I glumly walked toward my hooch to shed my gear I passed near the helipad reserved for the battalion aid station. Standing outside the entrance to the station were two facing ranks of Navy corpsman. A number of others, including the battalion chaplain, were on hand. Unsure of what was going on I stopped and watched. Within a few seconds a fat gray Marine transport helicopter clattered to the ground and dropped its ramp. Fine Iraqi dust flew in thick billows around all of us. The wooden doors of the aid station burst open and through the dust two corpsmen wheeled a gurney toward the back of the chopper. On it rested a rumpled black body bag. . .

Kestava - WastelandIt was at about this point in the story that I became emotional. Sitting in front of this woman in a dive bar in Atlanta my eyes welled slightly. It was an odd thing, the welling up. I had never done that before. I had told that story to a few close others, but never had I came close to weeping. And yet, even now as I write on this rainy summer night years later, I feel that same sad rush collect in my sinuses, and it makes me laugh because it’s such an old story now.

Back in the bar and next to the helipad, I shakily told her how as the corpsmen wheeled his body to the maw of the helicopter everyone gave an honest salute in good keeping with war movie clichés. But it was a bitter salute for me, and one that did not last very long. The bird revved its massive blades to liftoff speeds and sent the dust into a whirlwind. I told her how I swore it was the dust, that rotten dust that coated my eyes and inside my nose, that made me turn away and wipe the water from my eyes and beat a fist in rage against the concrete warehouse I stood near. I explained my vitriol toward the gunnery sergeant, toward the shaky Humvee driver, and toward the general lock-step stupidity. I told her I wanted to kill everything. I told her I hated the war and the marketed and bullying jingoism that put us all in that country to begin with, for her and for even you now.

But I quickly dried up and offer The Message—that I had long factored it all, come to grips with the war despite my spurring emotions, and had found peace with the war and my involvement in it, while maintaining an itch to express to others the savagery, oddities, insanities, and even the humanity of the Marine Corps and of Iraq War at large; and that hopefully in telling these things to others could expand on some larger truth that might spare us further damage, as Pollyanna as that lofty goal might be. I explained how she might have a similar opportunity when she was ready for it. She seemed to understand.

For years I figured other veterans shut up about their service because of some latent trauma. Perhaps I’m woefully naïve, but it never occurred to me they might stay silent because of the response they might receive. I don’t talk much about the military anymore, at least not in casual conversations or in detail with folks I don’t know very well. The subject has a tendency to spray a social gathering with what seems to be an ultrafine shit-mist, regardless of whether I’m talking about a wild barracks party during a hurricane or a day in Iraq when my buddy and I laughed and shoved each other like schoolkids as we lugged a machinegun to the roof of a building taking sniper fire. There’s often an unspoken assumption that I’m somehow damaged, that because I’m telling some wartime anecdote I must certainly be in the grips of some flashback just shy of some violent boiling point. While wildly inaccurate, this certainly accounts for all the stories of human resources managers and job recruiters who’ve skipped over veterans’ resumes because they don’t want to have a real life John Rambo (or their fearhead image of one) sitting in the breakroom with the regular squares during lunch break.

The sad truth is that while I’m completely comfortable telling honest war stories, I often wonder if the audience that needs to hear them the most—those who have built their understanding of the wars on dubious political or social perceptions—are simply unreceptive, or unavailable.

The Written Word about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has been shuttled off into easily digestible camps. There are the hero/war porn tales filled with soul-wounded sniper-death-kill memoirs, Navy SEAL vignettes, and whatever jingoist G.I. Joe/Greatest Generation war stories that pack up the Great White neocon newsfeeds. It’s the land of the battle hardened operator, the bonafide ‘Merican hero above reproach who makes the flyover states feel a little more comfortable in their dubious notion of American Exceptionalism. Alternatively, there is the often well intentioned-but-retreaded literary war fiction that feels beaten into the MFA copy of the Novel of the Last Big War while desperately trying to squeeze out Tim O’Brien for a spot in the next generation of high school English text books. They do a better job of portraying the battlefield, from both physical and moral standpoints, but they’re packed with so much wartime woe that any uneducated reader is bound to be chased off by the suicidal demons that crawl off the pages. The running narratives of these wars are wrapped up in either politicized chest-beating or as the showroom models of damaged goods. Veterans tend to favor the former while civilians edge toward the latter, if they’re inclined to go anywhere at all. Neither of them are completely accurate and we’re all suffering because of it.

As the night progressed in the smoky bar, and as she asked me questions about the war, her tone darkened. After downing shots and beers over loud Tom Waits and Johnny Cash she looked at me through cigarette smoke and her old bitterness churned alive. She looked sprayed with the aforementioned shit-mist, but for some atavistic reason kept wading through it anyway. After a while it felt more like an interrogation than a conversation. Finally, she interrupted me—

“You were a minion,” she said.

“I’m sorry?”

“You were a minion, ok?. You did Bush’s dirty work. You’re a murderer? I’m sorry, but I can’t help it. I don’t believe in any of it. How could you even do all that? It makes me sick.”

The music softened. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe I thought it did. Somewhere in the back of my frayed auditory cortex a concerned synapse must have turned down the worldly volume because everything focused on this one precise moment. All the recording devices of my mind clicked on as if I had tapped into some bizarre historical conduit too foul to let slip by. I had read of veterans returning from Vietnam with similar stories, but always assumed they were limited to the time period. And yet here it was: bold faced, stark, dry, and very real.

I know many combat veterans who would have gone completely sideways at mere notion of having anyone bounce such prejudices their way. A few might have ripped the table from the floor and broke the wood down to splinters. Others still might have even been tipped enough to get violent with even her, regardless of the state where her statements came from (which can only be half accounted to trauma). As for me, I pride myself on a certain level of emotional wherewithal. There is no perspective one can offer to assuage the emotional amputation caused by a violent death of someone close, or in some cases even nonviolent. Its only remedy is time and time alone. Even now I have to routinely remind myself of that fact. There is no other fix. Nevertheless, I quickly paid and washed my hands of the whole rotten scene. I was too stunned to do otherwise. Sometimes I wonder if shattering a few pint glasses on the way out might have been worth it, if only as a punctuation mark.

Are veterans obligated to Spread the Word out to the congregation? Is it worth wading across the divide between veterans and civilians? I know for me it is, at least in a certain respect, but walking out of that bar those years ago I had to rationally wonder if the waters are simply too high to cross.

The Kill Switch

Somehow it’s a dirty little secret that the entire purpose of war is to kill human beings. That vastly important fact is becoming more well-known thanks to the work of authors and journalists like Phil Zabriskie, a former foreign correspondent for Time who has also written for National Geographic, The Washington Post Magazine, and other notable outlets. He’s more than a war correspondent, though. He’s made a study of the subject of combat. He fine tuned that study with an in-depth exploration on killing in war in his latest book, a Kindle Single called The Kill Switch.

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Zabriskie delves into the phenomenon of killing with considerable skill. He expands our understanding of the concept into the societal and institutional context and contracts it into the personal. It’s perhaps the latter that gives the book its stark, chilling nature. The author chronicles the lives of several participants of the Iraq and Afghan Wars to illustrate the powerful psychological forces at work in the act of killing and the impact of the moral injury that killing causes. His coverage of these men over roughly a decade paints a clear picture of the entire process of learning to kill, applying those lessons, and attempting to find peace with that act. For instance, we learn about a Marine, Ben Nelson, who struggles with the times he killed and the times he didn’t. We learn of a Marine officer who bears the emotional burden of ordering men to kill as well as taking lives himself, and how the strict enforcement of the rules of engagement protected civilian lives as well as the combatants’ humanity. We see them in war. Then we see them in their living rooms. We see their pain with a clarity that speaks highly of Zabriskie’s expertise in recording the grim truth of war.

To his credit, Zabriskie lets the subject and those who lived it speak for themselves. But he’s packaged those voices in a concise and fast-flowing narrative, one that is buttressed by interviews with psychologists and research into relevant scholarship. It’s an engaging, educating read.

Although the book is short, it is long on authenticity and insight. Zabriskie has created a work that offers real-world examples of some of the ideas first explored by Dave Grossman. He has made a clear argument for the fact that killing is one of the most traumatic experiences of combat, and it is the very essence of war. How we treat that haunting truth – that we collectively flip a kill switch when we go to war – is up to us as a society, but Phil Zabriskie has done a remarkable job of defining it for his readers.

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(Review contributed by David P. Ervin)

The Price We Pay

by Travis Switalski, Sr.

The places where we fought are more than names on a paper map. They are more than colored areas between black lines on a globe. They are real places where we struggled and poured sweat in the blazing heat. They are places that we loved to hate but fought for anyway. Day in and day out we went out on foot in these places, surrounded by danger and far from the comforts of home. We were told that we were doing it for freedom, for the people, for America – to avenge her honor. Despite the rhetoric of our noble cause, people in these places on a map fought us to the death. We were doing the most important thing that we would ever do in our lives. But after a while, it went unnoticed by many, save for the ticker across the bottom of the screen and thirty second sound bites. The wars lasted longer than the American attention span.

September 11th, 2001 was the day that America bought stock in the Global War on Terrorism. Flags were unfurled, speeches were delivered, and promises of justice were made. Hundreds of thousands of Americans lined up to join the military. We were all in. We were united as a country, out for blood and revenge. When the President said that we would go after terrorists and those who harbor them, everyone cheered him on. We were in this together, as a nation.

We invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq. The American public and media were still very much a part of the “we” who invaded those far-away lands. We watched the bombing of Tora Bora and the tunnel searches of “Operation Anaconda.” America held its breath waiting for Osama Bin Laden to be killed or captured. The war had top billing on every news channel all of the time. Then waited while Sadaam Hussein let the clock run out and “Shock and Awe” began. Vast columns of tanks and trucks crossed the desert and wiped out Iraq’s Republican Guard. America “liberated” Iraq. We had accomplished the mission. Soon after, the glamorous spectacles were over. The wars were not.

An insurgency began in Iraq. They were faceless, borne of a complicated political situation. People without uniforms, generals, or regard for their fellow Iraqis attacked us. Roadside bombs caused horrific wounds. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen came home in flag draped metal coffins in a relentless, steady march. It got uncomfortable.PriceWePay1

America had been told that the mission had been accomplished, that it had won. An insurgency is not what they’d bargained for. Gradually, flags were put back in closets and bright yellow car magnets that said “Support Our Troops” faded to white. Rather than try to understand, many who had the option tuned out like it was a television show that had lost its luster. They had the luxury of choice.

But the military kept paying its dues. We were subjected to multiple tours of duty in combat. Back-to-back without breaks we flew to the desert to fight. America thanked us for our service but let us and our families carry the burden of war alone. Top billing went to celebrity dance shows and singing contests as our fights and our losses went unnoticed. The nation that had come together had become indifferent. America was war weary. America was tired.

America has lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The political and social steam that launched the wars ran out quickly. The Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen who fought the wars won the battles, but ultimately the sacrifice and the fighting was for not. America’s unwillingness to finish what it started, to make payments on its investment, has given rise to new threats. They are the spectacles on the news today. They are born from the threats we didn’t have the stomach to fight yesterday.

The enemies we engaged have occupied the places on the map where we fought and died. The people there suffer still. They, the veterans who fought there, and the families they came home to (or didn’t) can’t change the channel. They can’t cash out so easily. They’re still paying. The burden of that investment has, until recently, rested solely upon them. The chaos of the Middle East won’t go away because we tune it out. Eventually, everyone will pay. Maybe it will be in the form of another, nastier war, fought in those same real places.

Soldiers will always fight when asked. Likely, they’ll fight another enemy that’s little understood, in a place most can’t point to on those colored maps.

History repeats itself. And these wars, like others, have an impact that’s felt long after the beat of the war drums fades away. The dividends of war are terrible. Far from an abstract idea, far from a segment of the news that grows wearisome over time, wars are fought in real places. Real people suffer. If we want to learn from history, this is the time. The real evil that’s been unleashed in those real places represents the steep price we pay for not having paid attention to history.