St. Louis, 8:00 AM
It occurs to me that I got home from Vietnam, and out of the army, forty years ago today. Indeed, at this very hour. My major sensation is not so much sadness or nostalgia as much as — forty years! Forty years. My God, I was only twenty at the time I got home from the war. Where did forty years go …
I’m saddened, but hardly surprised, to hear that you never discuss the war with your wife, Jan. The other day, I was watching some show, and this war veteran said that he has memories he never shares. I was about to congratulate myself, thinking ‘Well, at least I’m not like that’, when, somewhat startled, I said instead right out loud, ‘Oh my god, I’m one of those guys.’ There’s just stuff I never discuss. It’s not that I can’t. It’s just too painful.
When I first got out, I thought going to the university would help me put the war behind me. But it didn’t. I just felt isolated. Anytime I would tell a story, it was usually wild, often laughable, exaggerated, that sort of thing. I never talked about the real pain. I knew my wife, Phoebe, at the time a dear friend, for four years before I even told her I was a veteran.
But, of course, the war didn’t go away. I remember one evening when it occurred to me that I had actually gone twenty-four hours without dwelling on Vietnam — and I don’t mean musing, I mean dwelling. Then I realized that evening that I had been home for three years.
One week, when I was an undergraduate at SMU, I wondered if I could remember accurately my time in the Nam. So, as I lay in bed, just before I’d fall sleep, I relived the war day-by-day. I did this for a few nights. I could recall every single day. I can’t do that anymore. But all I have to do is hear “Taps”, and I find myself, at times, overwhelmed by a sadness so precise that I know it will never go away.
Sometimes the memories are light. Like the time Nance nicknamed me “Buddha”, my Nam name, because of the way I was sitting on the ground when I first met him. Other times, like that night that guy murdered those folks in Charlie Company, in forty years I’ve talked to two people about that. You and my therapist.
Now I’ll tell you something I only told my therapist. When they finally cornered that grunt, that murderer, in that little field just below us, I could see his muzzle flashes as he held off his pursuers. He was so busy with the guys right in front of him that he didn’t know I was directly to his right. I had a clear shot. But it was so dark that I wasn’t sure who was around him, or where. I held my fire. Seconds later, this other guy blew him away.
I learned something that night, something I didn’t want to know. A lot of folks wonder whether they could kill somebody. I’m not one of those folks. And I spent the next two decades – with drugs and sex and booze – trying to unknow that about myself. That and so much more …
Finally, I did my work in therapy. I learned many things about myself. Among them, I simply learned to live with all that sadness. When I recall Vietnam, there are a whole range of feelings, from laughter to horror. But what I needed to learn was, perhaps, the simplest lesson: that whatever other feelings I may have, I will never recall that war and not be sad.