War shocks the soul in ways that are unimaginable. You can teach the kid to pull the trigger, but, you cannot teach him how to deal with the moral injury that follows.
I grew up in the Central Valley of California in Fresno to parents who were Eisenhower Republicans and Episcopalians.
My grandfather served in the First World War in France, my uncles served in the Air Force and the Marines in the Second World War. I recall visiting my grandparents in San Jose, Ca. when I was 10 years. My grandfather walked into the dining room where he opened a door to the buffet, poured himself a glass of scotch and waited for the clock to strike 11:00. It was Armistice Day, I didn’t understand what that meant at the time. He told me that this was our secret.
While attending Santa Rosa Junior College in 1965, I came down with Mononucleosis, lost my student deferment and was drafted into The Marine Corps the day after I turned 20. After boot camp and infantry training, I was assigned to First Recon, Alpha Company Third Platoon in Chu Lai, Vietnam. During the next 13 months I saw things that took me decades to be able to talk about and to make peace with.
When I came home, my mother said I was angry and she was right. I was angry about what I had seen and knowing there was nothing that I could do in any real sense about these events. The experience of combat, putting our Corpsman in a body bag and seeing civilians gunned down, numbed me emotionally. These events also created an emotional landscape for me that was very defensive and quick to anger. Upon reflection, what seemed to be true was that I took any criticism as a personal attack. I had the equivalent of an emotional flak jacket.
My experiences in Vietnam taught me to keep my feelings stuffed down below the surface, never talking about what happened and never revealing any vulnerability.
When I came home from Vietnam I busied myself with school, anti-war activities and draft counseling. I didn’t want anyone else to have to be sent off to Vietnam. I had learned to keep my emotions tamped down but those feelings would always find a way to seep out, sometimes sideways. This translated into relationships with little emotional communication and absolutely no expression of emotional intimacy and trust.
We send our kids off to war and they experience awful things and then we expect them to reintegrate into society when they get back as if nothing happened or at least nothing we really want to know about. I suspect many of us have an uncle, a brother or other relative who went off to France, Vietnam or Afghanistan and never ever spoke of what the experience was like for him or her.
Some veterans keep it all bottled up inside, some self-medicate, some commit suicide and others keep busy like I did. I was committed to my work, had a family and was a competitive runner. Keeping busy was working for me. I was tired at the end of the day and could always sleep.
My thinking is that the things one experiences in war have a way of getting under your skin, like a sliver, and they just don’t go away unless you work at it, sometimes for years, until you can expose it to the light of day.
Once I reached the point that I couldn’t ignore the way I was being with myself and in the world I began to look for ways to slowly work at that sliver that hadn’t seen the light of day in fifty years. With the help of friends, family and a loving and accepting wife I slowly began to work through the residuals of that experience. I have become close to several fellow Vietnam vets and we are able to do some good in the world by working at The Dining Room and building Conestoga huts with Community Supported Shelters. We may be making amends for the past, I don’t know. What I do know is I trust these guys, can share things with them – and we are building and not destroying.
— Emmet Band, Vietnam, 1966-76
This content is sponsored by Community Alliance of Lane County (CALC) and Veterans for Peace Chapter 159