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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Serving Our Veterans

Calum Hayes |
November 11, 2013 | 1:55 p.m. PST


The climactic scene of Apocalypse Now isn’t meant to be watched at regular volume. It’s meant to be watched speakers up, lights down, curtains pulled and head in your hands.

We have an obligation to go above and beyond to accommodate the men and women coming home from these wars. (isafmedia, Creative Commons)
We have an obligation to go above and beyond to accommodate the men and women coming home from these wars. (isafmedia, Creative Commons)

At least, that’s how it worked in my house. 

I should take a step back; maybe explain why I'm talking about a Francis Ford Coppola movie. I was going to write a piece about veterans. The United States is in the process of coming home from wars in two countries halfway around the world, and I wanted to talk about the men and women returning to us. I wanted to look at how we don’t take care of them when they go from Kuwait to Klammath and are met by people who think life should just go back to normal. 

This was a story about flashbacks, loss of limb and coming back to a country so full of "whatevers" that didn’t exist when you left for war that it makes your head spin. This was a story about the insufficient resources and empathy we provide to the men and women we ask to literally jump on grenades for us. This was a story about veterans; instead, it’s a story about one veteran, who articulates the experience of coming home from an unpopular war better than any of those expansive terms and ideas ever could. It’s a story about my stepfather. 

Where were we? 

The climactic scene of Apocalypse Now isn’t meant to be watched at regular volume. You see, my stepfather fought in Vietnam as a member of the 75th Army Ranger regiment and the 101st Airborne. He fought in Vietnam as a sniper and went back to Desert Storm as a surgeon. But maybe we should backtrack more, start from the beginning and end in my living room.

What were you doing when you were 18? I’m pretty sure I was convincing myself high school mock trial mattered. As for my stepfather, he was a fan of fly-fishing. It’s what he’d done with his dad up until his dad died five years before this story kicks off. One of the beauties of fly-fishing is how peaceful it is. You can stand in the middle of a stream for eight hours without catching a thing and have had the day of a lifetime; so there’s a certain irony to him learning he’d been drafted after a day of fishing. They used to announce the draft numbers over the radio; my stepfather learned he was being sent to Vietnam as he drove home from the activity in this world that granted him the most peace. 

After that, it was an easy choice to enlist with the Rangers rather than be drafted into something else. Sixteen months of specialized training later, the sound of a stream was replaced by helicopter blades, machine gunfire and the absolute certainty that “this helicopter is going to get shot down before I ever step foot in Saigon.” A life in Eugene, Oregon was replaced with the code words "Operation Phoenix" and an inability to tell anyone about it. It wasn’t an inability borne of shame or a desire to hide; it was an inability borne of the government deeming the entire project classified. 

Imagine that you’re now 20, and not only was your life blown apart by a radio announcer but you can’t even tell anyone what it has become in the years since. You can’t tell anyone about being dropped in the middle of the jungle with two other guys and hiking for miles trying to keep mud out of your boots, ticks off your face and your sanity intact, all the while hoping you don’t get ambushed. Imagine walking through the jungle for three days only to have to take another human’s life, and then walk three days in a different direction to get picked up by a group of people who will pretend it never happened.

We wonder why things like PTSD and persistent flashbacks exist. We wonder why it’s so hard for our veterans to transition from such a regimented lifestyle back to a civilian world. We shouldn’t. Our negative reaction to these wars creates an atmosphere of shame when our soldiers come home. They come home to a country telling them they fought in a “wrong” war and we wonder why they don’t want to tell us about what happened to them? The best way to treat those feelings is to give the people suffering an environment in which they can freely talk about what they have been through. In what world would someone want to talk about what they’ve been through if they’ve already been told it was wrong by the people pretending to listen? 

Instead of helping the people who sacrificed large portions of their lives for us, who have been through more traumatic things than we can imagine, we confine them to a cage built of those events. We confine them to flashbacks and terrible memories and inadequate coping mechanisms that are temporary fixes at best. We confine people like my stepfather who got plucked out of a river like the fish he was chasing to evenings locked in his mind behind enemy lines terrified of being caught and tortured. We don’t need to classify things like Operation Phoenix; our actions the second we meet someone who was ever a part of it do that all on their own.


Where am I? 

What happened?

Where is everyone?

It’s three days after your 21st birthday but instead of nursing a hangover, you’re just hoping you live to see lunch from the inside of this bunker. You can hear your friends breathe, your own heart beat, the world spin. You’re 21 and you’ve already spent a year of your life as a sniper in the Army Rangers. You’re 21 and you don’t know if you’ll ever get to go fly fishing again. You’re 21 and you don’t know it, but you’re about to hear your best friends breathe for the last time.


You need the nurse to move to the left, for some reason your right ear isn’t working. 

Where am I? 

What happened? 

Where is everyone? 

She answers your questions but you wont remember that until thirty years later sitting on a dock in the Adirondacks. 

You’re in the Philippines, an RPG landed in your bunker; no one else lived. The next three months of your life are made up of that hospital bed and the ghosts of your best friends. They’re made up of uncertainty, and sadness and questions you’re sure God wont answer. They were made up of memories that didn’t exist for thirty years and even now are merely specters. Everything after that is a blur, the Philippines becomes a debriefing in Hawaii becomes returning to San Francisco with no one to meet you at the airport.  


He’s fly fishing again.

Standing in the middle of the McKenzie River back in Eugene, 23. My stepfather is finally back where he finds peace, except it keeps floating away. How can you find peace in a river when you can’t shake the men whose lives ended because someone gave you an order that they had to? His father was a doctor before he died, his father’s father was a doctor and on and on and on. Every man in his family had been a doctor. My stepfather’s dream was to join them, except now desire took a different hue. 

How do you escape the idea that you’ve taken more from the world than you can give back? How do you balance the ledger of countless drops into the Vietnamese jungle ending only when you’ve taken a life? That is the question that plagues our veterans every day. They live in an order-less world constantly reminded of the orders that they had to follow. For my stepfather, there is a feeling that the ledger remains unbalanced. After returning to war as a doctor and spending the next 25 years saving lives as a vascular surgeon, he is still searching for peace, still maxing out the volume on apocalypse now and being 21 in the jungle again. Two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Navy Medal of Valor later, and he is still searching for his river.


You may have spent the past 12 years disagreeing with the War on Terror, you may dislike the men who decided to send us to the Middle East all the way to your core and you may think everything we’ve done over there is unjust. It would hardly be the first time in this country’s history the population felt that way about a war; just go to the library and look at any ten books written about Vietnam. You may feel this country proved that we failed to learn our lesson from Vietnam the second we went to Afghanistan.

But we have the chance to learn our lesson as a society here at home. 

We have a chance, an obligation, to go above and beyond to accommodate the men and women coming home from these wars. We have an obligation to recognize that while we may not have always agreed with our country’s time in the Middle East, these are men and women feeling like they have to balance the ledger and will spend the rest of their lives struggling to find something to convince them they have. We have an obligation to wrap our arms around them as a society and hold; until they truly believe, deep down in their soul, that they have achieved that balance. We have an obligation, whatever it may look like; to help these men and women, who answered the call when asked, find their river.  


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