Soldiers of Another War

He took his life on the fourth of July.  Independence Day.  She was deeply saddened by his action, and grieved to her core to have lost him again and at last, and in so final a way.  But she was not surprised at the timing of it, or at the simplicity of his self-execution:  a single bullet to the head.

The only surprise for her was his suicide note.  She had expected none, had expected him to die in the same isolated solitude that he had lived these last several years.  Not even she, his wife, had been allowed into his personal hell, except for unexpected, unguarded, terrifying glimpses.

The soldiers from the Persian Gulf War were returning, basking in their rightful acclamation.  The Independence Day parades had been long planned, and joyously delivered in a surge of patriotic frenzy.

He had scanned the newspapers with apparent satisfaction, reading the news analyses which compared this homecoming with that of his conflict, Vietnam.  The Vietnam veterans were vindicated at last, the papers said.  The homecoming, the celebrations, would wash away that black cloud of shame which had hung over the country for twenty years.

In a rare moment of sharing, he had wondered aloud if the Persian Gulf veterans would carry the unhealed scars of a war as did he and his comrades.  Would the support of the country make their wounds easier to bear than those of the Vietnam vets that had been left raw and unhealed by derision and blame?  But generally his mood had been light as if it were he who was coming home to the heartfelt outpourings of a grateful nation.  At last.

His suicide note was simple.  She was the only one who saw it for what it was.  Welcome home, it said in his familiar, even scrawl.

Welcome home.

*   *   *   *   *

He had come back from the war – that strange, terrible war that wasn’t a war – ostensibly undamaged.  But his apparent wholeness was as deceptive as the foreign land where he’d endured thirteen months, and in spite of his unscathed appearance, he was a dark and bitter shadow of the young man who had left.

As for her, she was just grateful to have him back after the long months of waiting and dread.  No one had warned her of hidden scars or festering, poorly-healed wounds that could not be made well.  She had married him just before he had gone away.  And whether it was out of stubbornness, or of pity, or of anger, or of commitment, she had stayed with him when he returned, white and shocked and staring into nothing towards a horror the likes of which she could only guess.

And so, not knowing anything better to do, she took him home.  But indeed, he was a stranger.  She could not wake him from a sound sleep without danger of his leaping from the bed in a cold sweat, vicious and ready to fight.  She could not go to the city with him, because the fighter planes from the air base might sweep overhead leaving him clench-fisted and shaking, fighting the instinct to throw himself to the ground.

For a while, she had been hopeful.  At first he seemed willing, even compelled, to talk about it.  His tour had been remarkably complete; he had seen most of the country.  His first three months were spent as a river rat, running patrol boats up and down the murky jungle streams.  When he survived the ninety-day life expectancy for that assignment, they transferred him to Chu Lai.

And he had talked on, raging, incredulous.  The isolated, solitary horror of being one of the last few men holding Chu Lai when the rest of the military had pulled out after the devastation of typhoon Hester.  Being on the radio to a frantic helicopter pilot who could have stopped an ambush if given permission to attack, an order that his radio commander refused to give in time.  Hurtling into waking, screaming in the night, the blood on his hands not that of the hidden, unidentifiable enemy, but the blood of his own comrades.  The terrible, helpless anger that drove him to the whiskey for a few hours of peace and a drugged sleep.  From Chu Lai, north to Da Nang.  Rocket City, under fire from the Cong every night.  Sweet dreams, baby.

But then, after awhile, he refused to talk about it, became an expert in repressing it, in laughing at it.  Chu Lai would be a beautiful place to vacation, he said.  The white sands were warm and clean, and the blue waters of the South China Sea were so clear you could spot a manta ray twenty feet below the surface from a boat.

She tried to make him face it.  You could see it again, she told him.  Some of the vets returned to Vietnam to make their peace.  Would you go?

He sneered.  Hell, no.  Why would I want to go back there?

She pushed a little further.  Some of the vets meet in the city every week to talk about it.  Would you go?

He was sarcastic.  Hell, no.  A bunch of losers sitting around the room reminiscing about thirteen wasted months out of their miserable lives.  Thirteen months that happened more than twenty years ago.  What’s the point?

Then east from the sheltered valleys of the green Oregon mountains to Washington D.C. she took him, searching for answers to questions he refused to ask.  The Wall.  Would you go?

For once he met her eyes and she caught a chilling unguarded glimpse of his bottomless hell.  Oh my God, no.  No.  I can’t.  Don’t ask me to do that.  I can’t.  I won’t.

So they went instead to Arlington National Cemetery, past Jack Kennedy’s eternal flame where he stood silently but as always, without tears.  They walked up the steep, green burial hills, coming to the tombs of the unknown soldiers.  World War I.  World War II.  The Korean War.  The Vietnam Conflict.

His eyes were still dry, but the rage burned in him like a wildfire through a summer-dry forest.

The Vietnam Conflict.  The bastards.  They can’t even call it what it was.  A war.  It wasn’t a conflict.  It wasn’t a police action.  It was a goddam war.

A frail shell of an old soldier with a VFW uniform approached him as he stumbled blindly away from the long rows of grey granite markers.  Was he a veteran?  Would he care to become a member and to march in their Memorial Day parades?

She cringed.  Oh, no.  Watch out.

He spoke through clenched teeth, his desperately suppressed anger boiling to the surface like a volcano a few seconds from eruption.

I am not a Veteran of a Foreign War.  I am a Veteran of a Foreign Conflict.  So Foreign that it was alien even to the country that sent me there.

She took his arm and pulled him away, walking quickly.  She spoke through her burning tears, her blind frustration causing her to trip as she hurried him along.  Did you have to say that?  He was just an old man trying to be nice to you.  Couldn’t you have treated him decently?

His voice shook.  No, I couldn’t.  Why didn’t he just leave me alone?  My welcome home was not a ticker tape parade.  It was a fight in the SeaTac Airport where some bastard called me a baby-killer.  I fixed his face for it.  The cop who responded let me go because he was a Vietnam vet himself and he understood that I was on my way home.  I’d have fixed his face, too, if he’d tried to stop me.  He must have seen the irony – the patch on my arm that said, “Vietnam Veterans Against the War.”  Even so, I fixed the guy’s face for saying to me – and to my uniform – only what I knew to be true.  There was no pride in what we did, no pride in coming home.

So, resigned and spent, again she took him home, and this time she resolved to keep him there.  She sheltered him, patient while he raged, careful during his nightmares, angry at his unwillingness or inability to endure, to come to terms.  She held her silent fury when friends and family frowned at his long periods of listless inactivity between frequent job changes.  She couldn’t believe that no one else could see the scars, as real and damaging and paralyzing as if they were jagged crimson marks across his hard face.  He was as much a casualty as the men whose names were burned into the cold shrine of the black-mirrored wall of shame.  And only she could reach out to him and touch his pain, his open wounds, knowing that she was as much of a casualty as he.

But for the most part, she held to her memories, remembering what they had been together and how she had loved him, when she had loved him.

*   *   *   *   *

The minuscule, grey-timbered restaurant seemed a part of the wind-broken rock onto which it clung.  Rugged fragments of boulders with their shabby dressing of skinny evergreens provided a fierce backdrop for the frail building.  The rolling, heaving northern Pacific surged precariously close to the wooden foundations at high tide and then foamed back, leaving the sand shivering naked except for black, streaming rocks and a scattering of broken shells.

The big window faced west, framing a few docked boats which moved ceaselessly, tugging at their moorings, urged to freedom by the seductive sea.  Though the scene would be a peaceful one if captured in a painting, the constant motion imparted a feeling of restlessness, of inevitable change.

She sat with her back to the window, denial her only defense against the changes, her coat pulled around her shoulders in an attempt to block the seeping late autumn chill.

Across the small table, he leaned forward and cupped her chin in his hand.  You’re beautiful, he whispered, putting his finger to her cheek to be sure he had memorized the softness of her familiar beloved face.  She touched his hand with her own, and he knew she was recording memories, too.  Running her fingers along his wrist under his coat sleeve, she looked into his brooding face.  Her eyes matched the desolation of the wild ocean surging behind her, grey and remote.

Mired in his own crushing impotency, he felt helplessly drawn to her, to a closeness he had never before experienced, one he knew he would never experience again.  He wondered if it was breathtaking or stifling, and nearly gagged with the power of it.  You’re beautiful, he repeated, half to himself, relieved to hear his own voice in the stillness.

The waiter brought more coffee, and then they were again alone.  Alone as if they were sweeping out to sea with no anchor, no radio, no lifeline.  He put his hands around the cup to steady himself and to soak in the warmth, and stared into the muddy brown depths.

God knew it was hard on her.  But he hoped she wouldn’t break down, at least not until in the morning after he left.  Because there was nothing he could do but hold her close and try to shut out the shadows, and finally tell her goodbye.

She smiled across at him, a brave, insincere smile.  But her lips trembled and her eyes were threatening tears.  He shook his head, imploring her not to do it.

Her voice was no more than a whisper.  I can’t bear it.  I’ll never make it.

Baby, don’t.  It’s only for a year.  Thirteen months.  It’ll go fast, then I’ll be home with you for good.

He had said that before, and knew it echoed with the same dogged insincerity as her tremulous smile, probably because he did not believe it himself.  But he said it anyway because he didn’t know what else to say.

His mind slipped ahead to tomorrow.  He would be in dress uniform, his orders for Vietnam folded in his pocket.  And she would be dressed in loneliness and dread, with that same smile trembling on her lips.  God help me, he thought, an unfamiliar bitterness rising like acid in his throat.  I will come back from this thing and make it right.

He rose slowly and helped her with her coat, adding a tender kiss for memories’ sake.  Christ.  Only twenty-two years old, and already living for memories.  In memories.  He put his arm around her to draw her warmth closer, a warmth that he would need to take with him to stave off the coldness of hell.  They walked out of the restaurant hand in hand and were swallowed up in the misty shroud of the late afternoon fog.