Holidays through the looking glass

I’ve seen most of the movies that try to depict the Vietnam war and only Platoon seems to call out to me. It’s like frozen orange juice made from concentrate; there’s pulp in there but it’s still orange juice.  It shows the snakes, ants, leeches and the other cast of supporting characters, plus it taps into the hysteria that adrenaline can contagiously infect a group, taking them way beyond the borders of what they would consider unacceptable in the ‘sane’ world outside of the war.

I can’t help but find my mind drifting back to a technicolor reliving of an incident I see paralleled in the movie. The memories of the war are so strong that they blank out all the rest of my time in the military, save one. That was patrolling Washington DC after the assassination of Martin Luther King. I recall it because some of the attitudes and orientations of the war reared their ugly heads. The incidents were lightweight compared to Vietnam, but the fact it was happening in the US Capitol made such a non-sequitor. I’d gone to Vietnam to fight in a foreign land to keep it all away from our own country, yet here I was, armed with the very same weapons, patrolling on foot or in jeep with orders to fire on looters. Other Americans who were stealing, but it seemed a harsh punishment for what people normally would do a few years in prison for. But strange times bring strange situations.

by the time I got home, little of the negativity I encountered had a lot of impact for me.  had become blase towards violence and the pain that armed conflict could produce in wholesale quantities. i could feel myself slipping more and more into the edge on reactions of offense when my orders came through that sent me to Frankford Arsenal. A good thing, not just because of Washington, but because I stood out like a neon sign in the darkness, comparing my uniform insignia to the totally inexperienced soldiers who country clubbed their was through the wartime military at a 9 to 5 job in a plant where civilians did the cooking, cleaning and yardwork that grunts were routinely assigned to on regular military bases. My biggest conflict was with my CO who didn’t believe (regulations be damned) that an enlisted man should have more acknowledgement of real military service than he, and subsequently the other GIs assigned there.

Of course, I gave him leverage for his complaints by talking to him man rather than subordinate to superior. “Call me Captain, goddammit!’” he was heard to say when I called him by his first name; John. I also had a screw this attitude and so I shunned assigned quarters for my home in a month to month hotel three blocks from the post. That also meant I was late to arrive and early to leave. What was being done at the arsenal was unimportant and we all knew it. The place was being shut down and it’s time remaining in the military was five months to my three. I arrived a sergeant E-5 and left a private E-1, the victim of multiple Article 15 infraction conferences with my CO. When I was discharged early, the personnel review board called bullshit and reset my record, leaving only the fines I’d paid as my cost of doing last minute business with Uncle Sam.

Today, caught in a heavy down pour, gun ranges and hikes through trailless country seem to be the only thing that makes me feel the shakes of adrenaline, but still, it’s been what? 40 years and I still can’t get rid of those reactions or the occasional nightmare that makes me relive this or that thing that happened.

In Vietnam my Thanksgiving dinner was fed me through a tube and my entertainment was a personal visit from Raymond Burr, my hero, Perry Mason. It took me a bit to recognize him with a burr haircut and 20 extra pounds around his middle. But I felt honored that he came to see me. Actually pulled up a chair and talked for an hour with me before going off to spend time with more of the guys.

It took three weeks to get my health back to where I started when I arrived in country. The last week in the hospital was in the wards without air conditioning or even ceiling fans, and when the chopped flew me back to my unit I was dropped at the bottom of the steep hillock upon which the tactical ops center sat, directing traffic of the fire teams and supplying artillery support. The was up was part of my conditioning and it kept up for a month as I got send with every day patrol that monitored the TOC perimeter.

We got lit up heavy the night before I was due to find a ride to Tan Sun Nhut airport and onto a charter 707 to take me home. Home to Ft. Bragg and riot patrol, then home to Philadelphia and Frankford arsenal.

Lots of things remind me of the war; the smell of dirt caught in dust devils, the smell of soaking old growth forests, the way an ovehared conversation would remind me of whispered confessions of desperation between guys who want out of the war and back to the world badly enough to self inflight an injury. Few ever went that far, but I know some did. It’s just a matter of numbers.

The holiday season depresses me because of this, recalling how I spent the last of 1967 and the first of 1968 earning the contempt of former friends and even strangers, especially the ones angered that I came bck alive when their friend of loved one didn’t.  These people don’t make me angry. They make me feel relieved that that don’t know the horror of war and how the VC were only one of the enemies we had to fight to make our way home. The rest of the enemies were inside us, like a parasite that would never be flushed from the system, but eat away at us until we died.