LivelyCollage

At Home and Abroad

by Michael Lund

On a January 1967 patrol in a remote valley of the highland wilds in Binh Dinh province, South Vietnam, miles from any friendly force, United States Army infantryman Stephen Saunders screamed inside his head, “‘Nobody cough or move.’” His inner voice was trying to reach the inner ears of Ski and Hays, the other two members of three-man “pony team.” What he had just seen was a khaki-clad NVA soldier toting an SKS rifle four feet in front of and above him on a trail. Thankfully, his comrades somehow heard. He recalls that event regularly now in his Garnavillo, Iowa, home.

Trail is behind the head of Hays’ (left). NVA appeared minutes after the photo was taken
Trail is behind the head of Hays’ (left). NVA appeared minutes after the photo was taken

On May 8, 2002, in her home near Keysville, Virginia, Deanna Schwartz “woke suddenly, thinking I heard someone tell me to ‘pray.’ I looked at my alarm clock on the nightstand beside my bed. It said 4:00 a.m., much too early to get up…Without thought or question as to why I did what I was asked to do, I prayed to God, ‘Please take care of my boy [serving with the Army National Guard in Iraq]’, then slipped back into a peaceful sleep.” Weeks later she would realize that 12:00 a.m. Iraq time was the same time she had been asked to pray. “Chill bumps traveled up my arm. Did I save Dean from death by praying?”

Deanna Schwartz and her son, Dean Schwartz
Deanna Schwartz and her son, Dean Schwartz

When, in the fall of 2015, Longwood University (Farmville, Virginia) and Military Experience and the Arts put out a call to military, veterans, and family members to tell their stories, we were uncertain about who, if anyone, would respond. We named this effort “Home and Abroad” to emphasize that we wanted to learn about the personal experiences of those who served overseas in the military and those who supported them stateside. We have been surprised at the numbers of individuals who have contacted us and by the power of their stories.

In 2015 Thomas Bragg of Blackstone, Virginia, might have been hearing his own voice when he read for the first time a 1969 Newsweek story with the head-line, “Death in a Quiet Week.“ The reporter quotes “a close friend” of Edward Bartholomew Lama, from Mundelein, IL: “‘He was an unusual guy. You liked him from the first time you laid eyes on him. He could tell if you were feeling depressed or if there was anything wrong. And he could almost kid new men into forgetting they were in the Army.’” Thomas Bragg and Eddie Lama were fast friends until Eddie was killed in July 1969. Forty-six years later Thomas wanted to bring back his friend’s voice. He began by scrutinizing the photos they had taken with Polaroid cameras during their tour. Contacting members of the Lama family and childhood friends, he was able to put his fellow soldier’s story into words. He concludes in “Keeping it Lively: The Hunt for Eddie Lama” that he hopes his account of his friend’s life has made “him lively again” (25).

Eddie Lama and Thomas Bragg
Eddie Lama and Thomas Bragg

Who are the readers of these stories of military experience? One other writer can help answer these questions. Hospital chaplain and retired Navy veteran, Willie Smith, Sr. recounts a fictional version of one man’s experience of brutality, using graphic imagery in a terse, powerful poem, “The Patient.” Here a man tells “the visiting chaplain” that, coming out of the shadows, he had surprised his horse, who then turned on him: “He confessed of having only the living witness in him spared from the hoofs and massive muscles / Thrusting up and down from the high heavens, and falling upon his head, arms, wrists, groin, legs—as if all at once…“ Bearing “witness” here is not simply easing his conscience about how he has injured people he cares about but also attempting to prevent others from taking similar action. He knows he has hurt his family, perhaps not physically but certainly emotionally. And, like many converts, he hopes to prevent others from imitating his actions.

Home and Abroad authors are bearing witness to the trials, challenges, and rewards of military service. Their readers are fellow members of the military, veterans, and family members, but, perhaps more importantly, our current civilian population, which is often spared such realities. We acknowledge that there are many ways in which citizens serve the nation—as teachers, police, medical personnel, business leaders, laborers, farmers and many more. However, in other professions, individuals have the option of resigning if they feel their work situations are unacceptable. Giving up a job may cost salary, benefits, and future prospects, but members of the military do not have that option except at the end of their current time of enlistment. What they give up to protect our freedoms is their own freedom. Like firefighters and law enforcement officials, they are also volunteering to put themselves in harm’s way. And, unlike in past generations, today’s wars are carried on by a tiny minority of the nation, about 1% of its citizens. The remaining 99% can choose to take for granted what that 1% does. The hope of Home and Abroad is that many of us will agree that citizenship in a country with an all-volunteer military mandates that all understand what is undertaken to protect the nation’s way of life.

More information about Home and Abroad can be obtained from Michael Lund, Professor Emeritus of English at Longwood University and writing workshop director for Military Experience and the Arts at lundmc[at]longwood.edu

 

(Feature Photo: Thomas Bragg and Eddie Lama in Vietnam)

Giuseppe Pellicano / Left. Left. Left, Right, Left (2) / The Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 3

Unfinished Lives

by Lieutenant Colonel (P) Zoltan Krompecher

We live in an age where some confuse heroes with entertainers, role models for charlatans, but remembering Americans who died in distant lands places perspective in sharper relief.

As a boy, I spent afternoons dashing around the neighborhood playing “Army” with friends.  Tree forts became castles, and passing cars were tanks to avoid at all costs.  Somewhere in our minds we were aware of Vietnam, but the neighborhood sheltered us until two names came to personify the war: Corporal Frank Miller and Lieutenant James Francis O’Laughlin.

Frank was the uncle of my best friend while James O ‘Laughlin was the father of another classmate.  Both Soldiers died in Vietnam.  Each representing link to Athens.  Every Memorial Day, I thought of them.  Decades later, I visited the Wall in Washington and etched their names.

Iraq and Afghanistan are my generations’ wars.  One autumn day I was told my friend Dave was killed in Iraq.  I was to escort him home.  I reflected on our time together at Fort Bragg. Fighting was the melody he danced to, and Dave knew the steps well, but he had a clean heart, too.  Ever the consummate warrior-scholar, Dave was a well-read Green Beret who helped children wherever he served, but life shifts in an instant. I remember how he set his jaw in grim determination when challenged and suppose that’s the look he had on the final day of his life when the sun boiled.  There was no manual instructing me what to say when his wife threw herself onto his casket.  The experience skinned my insides.

Some nights I stare at the stars and think of Bill, Laura, Ted, Justin (who grew up down the river in Coal Grove) and Drew.  They were the brave ones willing to lay it on the line when things got rough and now remain eternally young, preserved in the minds of those who knew them best.

When visiting their graves, I don’t blunt emotions or debate the logic behind the wars in which they fought…that is for other venues. What I see are patches of grass containing dreams of what might have been—Daddy/Daughter dances, games of catch, first days of school, walks down the aisle, and reunions.  Their unfinished lives moor me to the past while whispering the warning not to allow life to grow stale.  The cemetery is a confessional where secrets to my friends leak out of my mouth and the past grafts with the present.  But what of graves with no names and few visitors?

Just off to the right of the Fort Myer entrance to Arlington Cemetery stands a stone with a simple epigraph:

#8067

Unknown US Soldier

 

Behind this grave is number 8429.  Behind that stone is 8443.  Flanked on both sides are others.  Who knew these brave souls “Known but to God”? 8067 is buried in one of the Civil War sections.  Did this Soldier know my Great-Great-Uncle Eli who joined the Union at eighteen, saw action at Shiloh and died soon after?  I can only wonder.

On Memorial Day I try to make my friends’ sacrifices worthwhile by evaluating relationships, determined to fill the in-betweens of my life by doing better.

Each one of us has the capacity to make a difference: surprising our children at school lunch; calling old friends with whom we’ve lost contact; inviting neighbors or clergy for dinner; visiting retirement homes to listen to stories of times that disappear with each breath; or spending the day with a spouse.  Maybe it’s a simple “Hello” to one who least expects it.  Showing kindness and empathy to fellow Americans—even those with whom we disagree—is the least we can do for Frank Miller, James O’Laughlin, Soldier #8067 and others who left behind unfinished lives.

And so what’s the cost?  A moment of our time, that’s all.  And what some wouldn’t give for a moment.

 

 

Lieutenant Colonel (P) Zoltan Krompecher is an active-duty officer from Ohio.  He served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now lives near Washington D.C. with his family.  These views are his own.

 

(Featured Image: Giuseppe Pellicano / Left. Left. Left, Right, Left (2) / The Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 3)

Steve Beales  /  In Duty Comes Honour & Excellence / The Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 2

Post Traumatic Narrative Disorder

by Kyle Larkin

War writing is paradoxical by nature. Historically, veteran authors have claimed that war cannot be understood unless it is experienced firsthand, but this claim is always made within the very writings that attempt to help readers understand wars they did not experience. Some writers seem oblivious to this contradiction, while others explicitly acknowledge that they don’t expect readers to understand them. Philip Caputo ends his Prologue to A Rumor of War by conceding that his writing “might, perhaps, prevent the next generation from being crucified in the next war. But I don’t think so.” Deep ambivalence is a central aspect of war writing, but we write anyway, knowing that it will change nothing, because the purpose, above all, is to share our experiences—to simply tell. These shared experiences, written by veterans, have formed unique and definitive narratives of each war.

The unprecedented scale and horror of World War I coincided with Modernism to produce the first great outpouring of work by disillusioned veterans. It is the narrative of trench warfare and Shell Shock—some of the earliest attempts to understand traumatic stress. World War II, the deadliest and most widespread conflict in history, led to a wide range of writings from authors all over the world. It is remembered as a justified war, the triumph of Good over Evil, the overthrow of Fascism by Heroism. The lack of iconic literature about the Korean War tells its own story—the absence is itself the narrative. It is the Forgotten War, in which more than thirty thousand American deaths were overshadowed by a world still recovering from the immensity of WWII. Vietnam brought Americans to the jungle in the midst of a countercultural revolution, forming a narrative of protest and anti-war sentiment in the face of political corruption. Veterans became victims of both the draft and the demoralizing treatment they received upon returning home, which initiated the controversial stereotype of the Broken Veteran.

What, then, will be the narrative of the Wars on Terror? For the first time in history, we have troops who, before they even deploy, are already familiar with terms such as “PTSD,” “re-experiencing,” “trauma studies,” “triggers,” “Veteran Suicide Rates,” and “hyper-vigilance.” After their tours, veterans come home to a ready-made post-traumatic lexicon waiting for them to use for interpreting their experiences. The lens of pre-reflective awareness that is now brought to war, and the very real dangers these traumatic terms represent, have both had profound influences on the way war is experienced and written about. A great passage in Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato explains how the protagonist, through television and magazines and newspapers, anticipated the ugliness and poverty of war, that “he had seen it all before seeing it,” which caused his experience to seem muted and familiar, a simulacrum. We now have soldiers who expect to be broken by war, are acutely aware of the breaking as it happens, and then return, broken by the war but comfortable using terms such as “my trauma” because they have come home to the tools and vocabulary with which to explain their experiences—they “had seen it all before seeing it.”

This is an important shift in the history of war writing, and, as a result, it has lead to an abundance of stories told retrospectively by self-proclaimed Broken Veteran narrators. The problem with this is that it tends to produce narratives that interpret experiences before explaining them. When veterans expect to be broken by war, and then their expectations are met, it can translate into writings that simply trace this arc backwards—the veteran begins their novel or memoir or short story by explaining they have been broken by the war, and then they explain how this happened. This narrative can portray a one-dimensional archetype of the veteran-as-victim, which seems borrowed from the draft and the Vietnam experience. War writing can be therapeutic, and there’s merit to that aspect alone, but the Broken Veteran should play a role in the modern narrative and not be the narrative itself.

Despite the abundance of attention it receives, the current hyper-focus on trauma only constitutes half of the contemporary war narrative. Frustration makes up the other half—veterans are frustrated with multiple deployments, frustrated with fighting an insurgency of indistinguishable enemies who seemingly vanish into thin air, frustrated with the disconnect between society’s proud, emphatic Support The Troops platitude and the large number of veterans who nevertheless are struggling, frustrated with the struggle of re-integration into society or with families (the ubiquitous and unchallenged use of the term “re-integration” is telling), and, maybe most of all, frustration with the possibility that personal sacrifices (and the sacrifices of the dead and wounded) were for nothing.

Veterans are granted privileges now that they did not have after previous wars. The Every-Service-Member-Is-A-Hero mentality that took hold after 9/11 has created an environment where it is blasphemous to question veterans. Critical analysis is strictly forbidden if you haven’t experienced war firsthand. Only other veterans are allowed to ask important, uncomfortable questions, but they usually don’t. These conditions have helped create the cocoon in which the prevalence of Broken Veteran narratives and over-traumatized writings have formed.

The risk inherent in this type of writing is that the modern war narrative could end up being defined solely in terms of post-trauma, rendering it generic and repetitive. When experiences are interpreted before they are explained, it replaces the ambivalence that is central to war writing with a bland certainty. The Post-Traumatic Wars deserve a narrative that is as complex and definitive and enduring as they have been. Great war writing seems to tell the reader, “War can’t be understood unless you’ve experienced it,” a statement intended more so to draw attention to the gravity of the subject matter than to be taken literally, but it also crucially implies, “but let me tell you about it anyway.” This is where some modern narratives fall flat—instead of telling, they seem to say that war truly cannot be understood without personal experience, and therefore they tell readers what should be understood (and in what terms it should be understood) before any experiences are described. The modern narrative could use a shift back toward ambivalence, which allows readers to interpret experiences for themselves. The purpose of war writing, after all, is to share experiences without expectations for change—to tell without interpretation, as Erich Maria Remarque brilliantly states in his preface to All Quiet on the Western Front, “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”

 

 

(Featured Image: Steve Beales / In Duty Comes Honour & Excellence / The Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 2)

Tif Holmes / War / The Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 2

Adjusting Fire: Redirecting Veterans’ Verbal Energy

by Travis Switalski, Sr.

Vietnam had O’Brien, Caputo, and about ten dozen others. World War Two had James Jones and Korea had Hornberger, to name two of a hundred with ties to those wars. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have no unified, enduring voice outside war porn authors or the newest Medal of Honor recipient’s ghost written book. So far our voice consists of social media posts and rantings related to political candidates using us as bait and pawns to meet an agenda. We need our own voice, and we can develop it into something lasting.

It would be unfair to say that there aren’t any voices for us out there. Plenty of outstanding writing has been done by OIF and OEF Veterans. David Ervin’s non-fiction, Leaving The Wire: An Infantryman’s Iraq, and Jerad Alexander’s novella, The Life of Ling Ling are two fine books born from the true voice of experience.  Short stories like Kyle Larkin’s “Minarets” and Christopher Lyke’s “These Are Just the Normal Noises,” or articles like Sean Tyler’s “The Other Side of the Gunfire: Life in a Battalion Aid Station,” or Brian Mockenhaupt’s “I Miss Iraq. I Miss My Gun. I Miss My War” do render the voice of our war. Organizations like Veteran’s Writing Project and Military Experience & the Arts don’t use “war porn” or publish Special Operations’ narratives, but instead showcase art, poetry, non-fiction and fiction works by ordinary people who lived through extraordinary circumstances. There are literally thousands of works by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans – art, poetry, fiction, non-fiction all done by those who fought in America’s longest military campaign. Why are good works being drowned by rantings on Facebook?

Social media has been detrimental to the veteran experience. We are so flooded with articles, posts, memes, rants and groups that there is little time to actually read what is presented. We’re inundated with war porn and hero worship to the point that we have grown numb to our own experiences and the experiences of our fellow veterans. We live in little, fragmented, online groups that separate us from each other and from the rest of the American population. We label ourselves as disgruntled or dysfunctional and participate in causes that amount to little more than online “slack-tivism.” We “like” or “share” pages and articles without reading them, and we have little interest in actually educating others about our time in the service. The shame is that no one is going to scroll back through years of memes and online articles to try and understand what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. If they did, the information they would find wouldn’t be representative, rather it would be based on the bravado of a select few whose experiences are not in line with the majority of American veterans.

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried was published in 1990, a full 25 years after the Vietnam War ended. Today, high schools teach the novel for its historical and literary value. O’Brien has (probably unwittingly) become the voice for his generation of veterans. O’Brien’s generation had two sects of veterans, the “Lifers” those who joined the military of their own accord and planned on making service a career and the “draftees” those unfortunate souls who were forced to partake in combat as a result of conscription. The Things They Carried was written by a draftee infantryman and transcends the “Lifer” and “draftee” mistrust by the illustrating how both groups bore the moral weight of sustained missions of attrition in Vietnam. Today’s high schoolers pick up an actual book, bound with paper pages, and read about the experiences of those who fought in Southeast Asia fifty years ago. Perhaps twenty-five years from now works by Ervin, Mockenhaupt, Alexander, or Larkin or a host of others will be the voices of our contemporaries speaking to future generations of American veterans. However, the formation of that type of bond will face significant hurtles given the desensitization brought on by social media. Social media has given us a technologically induced lobotomy.  The “vet voice” on social media doesn’t talk about having beers with Vietnam veteran uncles or grandfathers and laughing as veterans always do together.

Social media is not leaving American culture. It will only evolve further and continue to dilute our experiences.  It seeks to categorize us all as PTSD riddled psychopaths. It doesn’t have to be this way. If we as a community begin promoting our veteran artists, poets and authors, if we focus on our actual experiences as opposed to caricatures of them, if we foster the idea that social media is a forum to promote our true experiences as opposed to a medium to further alienate us from the rest of the world, we may emerge with a voice that speaks to who we are as a generation of combat veterans and humans.

 

(Feature image: “War” by Tif Holmes, originally appearing in the Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 2)