“Combat…” By George Curtis, USN Veteran

George Curtis is a Vietnam veteran who served in the United States Navy. He is writing a book about his life to give to his children.  Here he shares one chapter.

I see a line of cars, and they’re all painted black
With flowers and my love, both never to come back
I see people turn their heads and look away
Like a newborn baby, it just happens everyday

Paint it Black, The Rolling Stones

 

Combat, like life, never gave me lemons.  It has given me anger issues, anxiety, PTSD, a love of Scotch Whiskey, and a serious dislike for stupid people, but not lemons.  I was also born without claws, without fangs, and without scales, so I forged them in fire and crafted them of steel. I survived.

I summoned a will that surpassed any drive I had heretofore known in my life to endure and persist through terrifying acts that no person should ever have to witness, yet there were lessons that needed to be learned if you were to long last through this perdition.  The claws, fangs and scales that I had developed held me in good stead the whole time while I was serving.  I often thought how lucky were the people who were killed outright, for their suffering was over.  The wounded would have a life full of misery, especially those disfigured by fire or dismemberment.  But I also thought how lucky they were to have an outward sign of combat. Everyone would know just by looking at them.

I lay in bed most nights, sleepless and tired.  I keep hearing Mick Jagger singing Paint it Black, and the song seems to match my mood so perfectly.  My life seems so dark and dismal.  There is absolutely no one to turn to for help.  I can fully understand why suicides are so high among combat veterans.  There are no open doors, no place of solace or prescriptions for inner peace.  It is not like Millenials and other snowflakes who got a participation trophy.  My inner pain is very real, and is killing me slowly, yet my gender and society in general will not let me display my situations or even try to comprehend what I am going through.  I must suffer quietly and by myself.  It is like I tell my first wife about visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall.  I came into this world by myself, I will die by myself, going to the Wall is something I must do alone and by myself.  It will be as if I was born and died within an hour.  By myself.  There are not enough tears to quench the inner fires of the hell I feel.

I am told that combat can be defined by 90% idleness and 10% absolute terror and fear.  That is just not true.  I was always in abject fear of a 5″ shell coming at me and going off in my face.  While in the brown water Navy it was always a point det round, and later when I was in the blue water Navy, an armor piercing round.  It was going to go off amid ship and always right in front of my face.  The fear can become overwhelming, and to some it does.   I discovered that only people who have something to live for are so consumed with fear that they never overcome the terror.  It gave me pause to think that if God was finished with me, then so be it.  Eventually almost everyone finds a way to overcome these feelings.  The most common way is to realize that if it is meant to be, it will happen.  You just go on with a belief that it will probably never happen to you.  That is when you become the walking dead.  You really hope that it will not be you, but if it is, then “Oh well.” Nothing you can do.  This is when most combatants become dangerous and really get down to business.

I came home from Vietnam to an ungrateful nation, an indifferent community, and many people who bore me much animosity, and physically demonstrated it to me on a regular basis in so many different ways from tossing blood on me and spitting on me to open discrimination of employment.  I never felt welcome or accepted even in the American Legion Veterans hall by the existing membership.  I can recall coming home twice during my naval career.  Once I came home on a commercial aircraft.  A customs agent in Hawaii decided that he had a real druggie and wanted to go through all my luggage.  One bag I had packed in haste, and when he asked me to open up the bag, I told him he would be sorry, and he said, “not as sorry as you’re going to be.  Now get the bag open now.” So I did, and when I did open the suitcase a ton of colored slides fell out all over the customs inspection area.  There must have been at least 500 photographic slides that went everywhere.  It took some time to pick them up, and, but no one offered to help me clean them up although the lane I was in was temporarily closed, and there was a new customs agent telling me to hurry up and get this mess cleaned up.  What a welcome home.  The final time was when I had been out of the country three years and came home by ship.  I had been to a lot of ship moorings from the sea, but this one was kind of special in that I had a girlfriend waiting on the beach, my mom and dad there also.  I had tears in my eyes.  In some ways it was like when we went into Pearl Harbor.  All active duty ships render honors to the heroes still on board the USS Arizona, a ship that is still commissioned to this day.  The idea that almost 1500 men are still entombed on that vessel can be emotional to me to this day.  The tears started to flow as soon as I heard the words “Attention to Port.”

When a ship comes into port, it is considered “moored” when the first line is heaved over.  On the bridge, they blow a whistle, and the Bos’n of the Watch announces, “Moored, Shift Colors”.  From there the colors on the Main Truck are struck (taken down), and the US Flag is run up on the flagstaff aft and on the Jack Staff, a union Jack is raised on the bow.  That was the way I knew I was home.  The pier was full of civilians who were all glad to see us, but soon we had to go to the gates of the North Shore Naval Base.  It took me about a half hour to get ready to leave, and then I hopped into my dad’s car and we headed to the main gate.  We were stopped there and told to leave by the north gate because there were too many protesters.  There was lots of blood and broken glass to go a long way, so I was just as happy to leave by the backway.  I did not want to fight with my own countrymen.  I survived.

I never try to blame anyone for the failures in my life.  Good people will give you happiness, bad people give you experience, worse people give you a lesson, and the best people give you memories.  But do not cross my bow with malintentions. I would much rather you just say “Fare thee well” and go your way, and pray you never darken my doorstep again.  I prefer the solitude of my own making, safe and secure from those who, for their own greedy needs, seem to take some sort of sick satisfaction sucking the life blood out of such people as me.  I will survive.

I was hoping that the claws, fangs, and scales might fade after leaving the combat zone, yet after the four constant years of fighting when they were developed, much like a bad habit, I realized they were to be with me the rest of my miserable life.  I came to rely on them as much as I did eating.  It was not too long after coming home that I soon realized that many of the survival techniques that I had learned unwittingly were still with me as much as I tried to suppress the ugliness.  I recall a time I was driving home from somewhere and a young Asian woman cut me off while I was making a turn.  It was only about a block from my house and the safety of my sanctuary.  My anger got the best of me.  I pulled in front of her car, pinning it between my car and the curb.  I got out of my vehicle with a hammer.  I yelled several vulgar remarks, while also cursing her ancestors, and them commenced to rearrange her sheet metal on her car.  I left without doing any physical harm to her, but I recall the incident frequently and regret it, but yet feel no remorse for the episode.  Fits of uncontrollable rage, sleepless nights.  I survived.

I was given some advice from a fellow veteran who was not in combat.  He suggested I go back to school.  I took his advice and enrolled in a very low profile school in Sacramento where I earned my first degree in Electrical Engineering.  Later, after learning how much fun could be had by Marketing people, I earned my second degree, a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration at the University of Redlands.  During this time I realized that working with stupid people was getting the better part of me.  I knew I had to collaborate, but I usually did most of the work myself and left the grammar and other mechanical corrections to those who worked with me. I felt myself being drawn into a dark place where I believed I might not come back.  The downward spiral seamed to continue after graduation, and I researched and designed various items on my own from chemical weapons delivery to a nuclear bomb. I discovered that it was not so very difficult to make killer gases and liquid.  Mustard gas could be made with very little effort, and simply separating water could make a virtually untraceable bomb that could level a city block.  Even sawdust became a basis for a weapon if need be.  With a nuclear bomb, the only thing missing was fissionable material.  I needed a centrifuge and some uranium, but that was hard to come by, but then where would I store it?  It all ended when I was referred to the police and the FBI for communicating a death threat to the killer of my six year old son.  I was turned in because I was seeking help from a therapist who promised to keep the information confidential.  I still survived.

I later withdrew into a seclusion that started a few weeks later and lasted for several years.  I bought a cabin in Big Bear where I could retreat on any given weekend and enjoy my family.  I still enjoy the quietness and reclusion of my home.  Not having many friends, I do not get out so much as it is my choice.

And when I do venture out into the real world,  do not mistake my loud voice, my over-consumption of alcohol, my brash demeanor, my crude jokes and raucous actions as a maladjusted upbringing, but see it for what it is.  It is a relief to be alive and free while deep in my soul I know there is a place for all of my brothers who never will be joining us at this table in this life again to enjoy such a celebration.  If it makes you uncomfortable, if it embarrasses you, if my actions seem disrespectful to some segment of our population, then please try to garner up a wee bit of understanding.  It is okay to look at me in disgust as I have had that look many times.  It is okay for you to speak to me in angry tones as I have heard them all before.  It is fine to shun me as I have had that experience too many times, but please do forgive me as I celebrate.  I did survive.

I survived doing what my country asked me to do.  I went to sea because of exotic names of places I could only dream about in high school.  Places like Manila, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, and Tokyo.  I soon discovered new places such as Saigon, Da Nang, and Hue.  I discovered people who did not like me for no other reason than I was in their country at the request of their sovereign government, and I was in their way of imposing a communist regime in an area that did not want it there, yet was restricted by daily changing rules of engagement by the government that sent me there.  As Ronald Reagan would explain in years to come, “Freedom is never more than a generation away from from extinction.  We didn’t pass it down to our children in their bloodstream.  It must be fought for, protected, and handed down for them to do the same.”  Now it was my turn to fight for and protect that freedom.  Yes, we heard all the good words that went with it like honor, duty sacrifice, and deliverance.  I fought for your right to have a barbeque on Memorial Day, a right for government workers to have Veterans Day off while I went to work, the right to not only vote for whomever you wish, but also the right to criticize the one you did not vote for.  There are hundreds of freedoms we each take for granted each day, and I am proud to have had a small part in keeping them alive.

And even to this day I still have episodes and fits of anger.  I have problems dealing with anxiety.  When I go into a public place, I cannot sit where there are people at my back.  I can only sleep through the night with the help of drugs, but some nights sleep eludes me and I toss and turn for a long time.  I get out of bed almost every night to see if the doors and windows are closed and locked.  I have problems on hot humid days doing anything physical.  Not because of the heat, but a feeling of dread comes over me.  I still have nightmares, and I have had episodes when I have had some drug reactions that keep me hospitalized for a while longer than it should.  I try to avoid crowds or large gatherings.  I seem to be all right if there is plenty of room between me and others, but please do not push me too far together.  I have stopped getting real angry and hitting cars or doing damage to others or their property, but the urge is still there always, and I know that if provoked, it can always come out.

Recently I took a very fun vacation to Florida and Walt Disney World.  It was not the first time I had been there, but it was Ann’s first time.  We were at the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) in the northern part of the part where they have a lot of pavilions dedicated to different countries.  I was in one store, peacefully shopping and not looking for anything in particular.  I was overwhelmed by a sudden fear and anxiety.  There seemed to be no way out of the shop.  My whole body started to tremble, and I felt an urge to run somewhere or duck down under a cabinet.  I at least had the presence of mind to tell my wife.  As usual, she guided me out of the store where we found a bench to sit on until this all too familiar feeling passed.  I sat there about 15 minutes talking about what I do not know.  During this blither I became very embarrassed.  I know that not everyone was looking at me, but those who did look at me I am sure did not understand.

I now realize what a blessing to our nation that most people do not know what I am going through.  But I also realize that no one will ever know that high price paid by some of us in the society for securing the blessings of freedom albeit what some may deem a losing cause.  We did it out of an obligation to our country that gives us that freedom, yet demands so little in return.  Both the Military and the VA toss us out to the general public and tell us to go out and act normal.  And we can until something sets us off.  I cannot put my finger on exactly what will set me off (stupid people being an exception), but I know that somewhere there is a time bomb waiting to go off and eventually it will as it always does.  With the help of my counselor, I did not throw a fit or create a scene, yet those feelings are still there with me each day.  Forty-five years later, I survived.

When my time is over on this mortal ground, please speak these few words at my grave. “Our heavenly father, please accept this sailor’s soul into your presence in Paradise as he has served his time in Hell.”

Paint it Black, The Rolling Stones

I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors anymore I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goesI see a line of cars and they’re all painted black
With flowers and my love, both never to come back
I see people turn their heads and quickly look away
Like a newborn baby it just happens ev’rydayI look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door and it has been painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is blackNo more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue
I could not forsee this thing happening to you
If I look hard enough into the setting sun
My love will laugh with me before the morning comesI see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors anymore I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes

I wanna see it painted black, painted black
Black as night, black as coal
I wanna see the sun, blotted out from the sky
I wanna see it painted, painted, painted, painted black
Yeah

Songwriters: Keith Richards, Mick Jagger; Paint It Black lyrics © Abkco Music, Inc.

George  is a 62 year member of the Sons of the American Legion, and a 38 year member of the American Legion.  In 1965 he was elected to Detachment (state) Commander of the Sons of the American Legion for California, and he currently serves as the Detachment Parliamentarian.  Currently a member of American Legion, Pasadena, Post 13, George has served in many capacities from Executive Committeeman to Commander.  He holds a bachelor’s degree in  Electrical Engineering and Business Administration, a Masters of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Business Administration.  He has taught school in Germany, England, Canada, and India.  He has built scoreboards in Montreal, Oakland, Seattle, Buffalo, and Munich, and  he has built airport information systems that went to Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Brazil, and Holland.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Reading and Books and The Military Family” by Sandra Squire Fluck

Note from Blog Editor: 

This piece was originally published in The Storytellers: Veterans and Family Members Write About Military Life, available at amazon.com.

My passion for books began in my childhood. I remember it like it was yesterday, savoring the book I was reading as we drove across the United States on our way from the East Coast to the West Coast, where my father would be stationed next.  We were a military family and we went where my father, a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy had received new orders.  These orders were always on the coast–east or west–along with a stint in Hawaii before it was a state.

We moved often during my childhood, our residences Quonset huts, apartments, duplexes–one time a so-called house resembling a hut for a year, two or three months, a few weeks, or sometimes a couple of days.  When we returned to the states from Hawaii, our living quarters weren’t available, so we camped out for two weeks at Yosemite National Park.  When I was eleven years old, my father was transferred to Coronado Naval Air Station, San Diego, and my parents bought our first home.  I didn’t realize stability meant something other than packing up and moving and leaving friends–none of whose names I remember to this day.  By the time I was twelve years old, I had attended sixteen different schools.

My education as a child didn’t happen only in the classroom.  I have my father and mother to thank for that.  My father drilled me on my arithmetic tables, the roll call of states and their capitals, and important historic dates and events, and he enlivened my imagination with colorful stories about the places he had visited around the world.  Then there was this beautiful land of ours.  My sisters and I watched captivated, as we traveled across the plains, through the desert, and into the mountains.  It must have been during these trips when I fell in love with the desert, sensing that I had found a peace in the austerity of the heat.  We also observed the people in different regions of the country.  We bought our food supplies in grocery stores or at stands along the way, and ate our lunches and dinners in parks and on the side of the road.  As I remember it, we never once ate in a restaurant or stayed overnight in a motel.

Books took me away from myself, sparked my imagination, and nourished my mind and soul.  Even with the back-and-forth between my father and me, the stories he told, and the games my mother and sister and I invented to try to trick each other, I still needed books.  My mother took care of this for me.  She was adamant about giving us the best education she could, even as our classroom experience was transient.  You could say the books she bought me saved me during these trips–and beyond.  Although I didn’t know it then, books were my escape from the instability in my life–moving from place to place often and enrolling in schools for maybe just a day or a week.  I was an introverted, shy, girl, and it couldn’t have been easy making friends with the other children when I didn’t know how long they and I would be together.  I thought my life was normal, that other families moved around as we did, but it didn’t seem to matter then.  I had my books, a circumstance precisely made for me.

I immersed myself in books, read them as if they were my best friends, poured my heart into them.  Sometimes at night when my father or mother had pulled over to the side of the road to sleep, I took out my trusty flashlight to read the last pages of my novel in the dark that surrounded us.

Sandra Squire Fluck, writer, poet, educator, graduated from U.C.L.A. with a Bachelor of Arts and  Master of Arts in English Literature.  She also has a Master of Arts (Religion) from the Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.  She has taught English Literature, Creative Writing, English Composition, and Technical Writing in colleges in California and Pennsylvania.  She is the founder of bookscover2cover.com, LLC, and the senior editor at thewritelaunch.com.

A Veteran Finds Serenity: Rich Hoppe’s Story

Vietnam Veteran Rich Hoppe was the featured speaker at the SGV Front Line Casual Speaker Dinner in October 2016.  As a result of the NAMI SGV Front Line program publicity, California’s Each Mind Matters initiative invited Rich to be a guest blogger on their site in honor of Veterans Day 2016.  This is the blog post Rich published with Each Mind Matters.  In his speaker program with us, he shared this and much more. 

It is  chilly February 23rd at 11:37 p.m. and I am falling slow motion to my knees.  I have been cursing at God for the last rage-filled hour.  Despite 11 hours of drinking, I am sober and clear minded.  I realize I am dying: mind, body and soul; rotting and decaying from the betrayal of myself.  As I make contact with the floor I plead, “Jesus, if you exist show me how to live.”

It wasn’t always this way.  In the beginning, I had big dreams and even realized some of them.  That was before I received my draft notice at the age of 18.

In Qui Nhon, Vietnam, I stood at the desk of my commanding officer.  He pointed to a pair of boots, rifle, and helmet liner, and informed me I would be replacing him, a forward observer in a bastard artillery outfit connected to the 101st airborne.  My life expectancy was now under 7 seconds.

“Welcome to the war,” he said.

Six days later, in an overnight barrage of machine guns and mortar assaults, three soldiers lay dead next to me.  That scene would play itself out many times over the next year, constantly moving about the hot spots in ‘Nam and into Cambodia.

When I returned from the war, I had some episodes that helped me understand that something wild inside of me lived: I had untreated PTSD.

I recall that once a fortunate son of a prominent doctor passed me on the street.  “Where have you been?” he asked. “Haven’t seen you in weeks.”  “Nobody missed ya!” was his reply.  I had to be taken off him by three men or I would have killed him.

But my true epiphany came in 1988 when I sat at the bedside of my brother who was dying from complications of AIDS.  He led me to God over nine months of care and teaching.  Over the past quarter century, I have become a husband, father, grandfather, teacher, prison minister, and most proudly, the pitcher for the legendary King and His Court barnstorming softball team.

My name is Rich Hoppe, the pitcher and the painter, and I am happy to say I have not had a drink since that chilly February day, 24 years ago.  I never miss a day of praying on my knees, writing a letter of thanks to the One I called that night, reading from a litany of spiritual books, and mostly being of service.  He did for me what no man could do: lifted my madness, rage, and loss, and filled my massive hole within.  If in any way a veteran is in need of anything I have, I’m all in: anywhere, anytime.

If you or someone you know is in need of help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Veterans press 1.  

Vietnam veteran Rich Hoppe is the author of The Pitcher and The Painter, his true story of finding his way back from addiction, suicidal thoughts, and of his relationship with his brother that taught him serenity is possible. Rich was the baseball pitcher, his brother Robert the successful painter, and a man who’d found faith.  As Robert lay dying of AIDS, he said to his brother Rich, “pitch me a painting every night.” Rich Hoppe took up a paintbrush for the first time and became an artist himself.  He found his way out of addiction, and into helping others. 

The Pitcher and the Painter is available at lulu.com.

“Embracing the Lessons of Resiliency” by Debra Mendelsohn, Military Spouse and Deputy for Military and Veterans Affairs for Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger

Six weeks ago my husband was in Afghanistan.  Today he is building a bed.  Well, sort of. He’s building a platform to support a memory foam mattress similar to the one I shipped to him when he was deployed.  Six weeks ago he was in a combat zone.  Today he is building a bed.  I know that seems mundane.  I know it doesn’t sound too difficult a task, but consider that while undertaking this task he’s 500 miles away from our home in an apartment we’re renting where he’ll live during the week for the foreseeable future for his work.  Other than a tape measure and a hammer, he doesn’t have his tools from his home workshop -no saw, no drill, no level, no workbench, and no truck to haul lumber. Remember, six weeks ago he was at war in a foreign land. Building a bed was the furthest thing from his mind.

As I type this he is on his third trip to the hardware store, and we are hours into the project.  Some would have given up long ago or caved in and shelled out hundreds of dollars for a pre-fabricated IKEA bed base.  Some wives might have pitched a fit by now as this seemingly simple project has grown more complex by the hour.  But much like when he was deployed, he is focused and determined, and I am doing whatever I can to encourage and support him.

It all started when we picked up the keys to the apartment that will be my husband’s home away from home.  We were under the impression it included a murphy bed.  It was a studio apartment in the same building where he’d rented a similar place just one year ago before his before his California National Guard unit was deployed to Afghanistan.  We walked in, and it was the same layout as the apartment he’d had before with one exception.  Behind the closet doors  there was no murphy bed, just an empty closet.

This set my husband in motion, analyzing the situation, developing a plan of action, executing the mission.  He was in his element, and even when things didn’t go right, he adapted, developed a new plan, persevered.

As I sit here typing and trying to mostly stay out of his way as he struggles to stabilize the frame and achieve his vision, I realize this construction project is an allegory for how we live our lives as a military couple and and family.

I’ve learned over the 14+ years my husband has been in the National Guard that life as a military family is about perspective.  It’s about perseverance.  It’s about being flexible and resilient.  It’s about making plans but understanding that sometimes even the best laid plans go awry.  It’s about keeping a sense of humor.  It’s about recognizing that when a soldier goes away things change (like the missing murphy bed), and people change too.  It’s about adapting to changes and driving on.

Adapting to changes and driving on have become my mantras during deployments.  During this past year when my husband was in Afghanistan, and through the many other deployments, mobilizations, extended training and schools he has gone through I have often found myself faced with unexpected circumstances that tested my resiliency.  Each one was made more difficult by the cloud of anxiety surrounding our separation.  But in meeting these challenges I heeded the same mantra my husband was demonstrating in building his bed frame: adapt to change, and drive on.

You see, the only common thread I have seen during my husband’s deployments is that as soon as he leaves, something breaks.  Once it was a hot water heater, another time the car.  Right after he left for Iraq I broke my foot, but this past year was perhaps the most impressive twist as the main line backed up and our home was flooded with raw sewage.  I was forced to pack up all our belongings and move out while remediation  and reconstruction took place over three months.  It was extremely difficult to balance my life as I struggled to be there for our children, meet the demands of my job, deal with the insurance company and multiple contractors and still maintain my composure in the rare moments my husband and I had to connect over a scratchy internet video chat.  I worked hard to find the silver lining and the humor in the situation,  although I admit there were many times I resented the fact that I was faced with the daunting task of rebuilding our home alone.  Nevertheless, I adapted and drove on, embracing the lessons of resiliency along the way.

I found lessons in the case of the missing murphy bed as well.  The incident reminded me that as hard as deployments are, reintegration can also be challenging.  To survive we need to be supportive of one another, to be creative to find solutions to problems, and to keep our sense of humor handy.  Most important, it reminded me to appreciate the value of ordinary things such as spending time with my husband even if it just walking up and down the aisles of a hardware store.

P.S. As I put the finishing touches on this blog entry, my husband is peacefully snoring as he lays on top of, you guessed it, his newly completed bed!

Debra  Mendelsohn is the Senior Field Deputy and Deputy for Military and Veterans Affairs for Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger.  For more than a decade Debra has volunteered as a Family Readiness Group (FRG) leader for the California Army National Guard, dedicating herself to working with military families and soldiers at the company, battalion, brigade, and state levels of leadership. 

In 2012 Debra and her family were named as the AUSA Army National Volunteer Family of the Year in recognition of their volunteer service to “improve the well-being of Army families and the local community.”  In addition Debra has been awarded the Department of the Army Commander’s Award for Public Service, Department of the Army Achievement Medal for Civilian Service, the California Commendation Medal, and the U.S. Army Quartermaster Regiment’s Catherine Greene Award.   

 

Armistice

This piece began as a response to a writing prompt in our writer’s group, The Deadly Writers Platoon.  It was a few weeks before Veterans Day, and our group leader asked us to write something on the subject of veterans day, and what it meant to us, and the prompt included the word “armistice”.  What crossed my mind first was that my father was alive at the end of World War I, and that he was a World War II veteran, so I wrote a short, unedited piece about that in the twenty minutes we were given.  We read our pieces, and folks in the group suggested I take that home and write more about my father.  What follows is the piece I wrote at home, and I read it in the 2017 Returning Soldiers Speak event in Pasadena, hosted by SGV Front Line at American Legion, Pasadena, Post 13, on November 7th, 2017.  

Armistice

November 11th, 1918, Armistice Day, marked the end of the First Wold War between Allied Forces and Germany.  My father was a little boy then, born to poor immigrants, the grandparents I never knew because they had died before my father married.

I like to imagine there was hope in that Armistice Day, a sense of relief, rebuilding, and an optimistic intention that there could never be another war like that.

I imagine my father was a good little boy, fun and cheerful, because he was a good man.  He loved playing with me and my two brothers, and all the kids in our neighborhood.

He had a tough growing up though. His German and Polish mother had to hide to pray her rosary while his father, who hated prayer, ruled the house with anger.  He had been a street tough and a bank robber on death row when he was young, but through some act of mercy or opportunity for redemption he’d been released from prison and had a family.

I never saw the pain of that childhood in my father who adored all of us kids and our mother.  He never talked about his parents except when he used the occasional German phrase his mother used to use.  His favorite was “ach du liebe zeit!”, usually uttered with an exaggerated sense of exasperation and a hint of a smile.  It meant something like “oh my goodness”, or “good heavens”, and it followed events of our childhood such as one of us bringing home a big lizard, or stepping in a cow patty at Uncle Joe’s farm.

I learned about my grandmother’s rocky marriage on the day of my father’s funeral when some of our older cousins told us family stories we’d never heard.  They told me the first Sunday after my grandfather died, my grandmother Lula Rose picked up her cane and hobbled with her arthritis to mass.  Her husband had never permitted her to attend church or raise their children in a faith.

My father had a natural spirituality and wanted to belong to something.  As a very young man he went against the counsel of his naysaying Baptist relatives and decided to become a Catholic like his mother.  He had to sneak around his father to take the lessons, and my grandmother helped him do it.

Years after her husband died, my grandmother Lula was sorting through old boxes when she ran across the letter from my grandfather that had led to their marriage, a letter she’d only read once, and then not thoroughly.

Lula Rose sat in the attic and re-read the letter, “Yes, we’ll get married in the church to please your parents…” She’d been elated, and they did get married in the church, but on the first Sunday after their wedding my grandfather forbade their going to mass. This was a root of their fighting until he died, and a part of the every day war in the home where my father grew up.  Now reflecting, Lula read the letter again.  She turned it over and read the back page, the part of the letter she had not read before: “…but after we get married,” wrote my grandfather, “we’ll never set foot in a church again.”

The newspaper reports about my grandfather’s trial for armed robbery say there was a young woman sitting in the courtroom every day in support of my grandfather.  I think that was our grandmother Lula, and she must have believed in him.

One thing I remember about my childhood is that when we were little our parents, or maybe it was mostly my mother, always told us, “Your father was in the Navy.  He fought in the war.” My father was forty-six when he had his first child, and the war they were talking about was World War II.  My father was in for the whole war, in the South Pacific and at the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach.

He didn’t talk about the war, but he talked about the Navy a lot. He told us which side of a ship was port, and which was starboard, about how to tie different kinds of knots, and about learning navigation by stars.  He used to say, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight, and red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.”  He told us about crossing the equator for the first time and getting his Shellback.

Dad told us he’d wanted to join the Navy a few years before the war, but was turned down for active duty because his vision wasn’t good enough, so he enlisted in the Navy Reserves.  Dad said it was amazing how fast his vision improved when the war broke out.

One of my brothers remembers our father sharing this one thing about D-Day. After the landing some of the wounded marines were evacuated onto Navy craft into the bunks of sailors, and this one sailor came up and yelled at the wounded marine for being in his bunk.  So my Dad yelled at the sailor, “What’s wrong with you man? Where’s your milk of human kindness?”.  This phrase, “milk of human kindness”, stays in my mind as the essence of my father, although I never heard him say it.

Gradually through school, books, and movies, we learned about the Holocaust and about concentration camps.  Years later I was stationed in Germany as a young Army officer, and our unit ran PT in formation in the mornings near the graves of a few German university students who had been my age when they were executed for their efforts at resisting Hitler and the Nazis.

I learned about these resistance fighters, about what they had done, and how in their heroic way they were fighting the same thing my father was fighting.  They’d been given a death for traitors, a death by guillotine one afternoon in 1943 at the prison that still stood just around the corner from my bachelor officer quarters.  I think about those students often. Their courage is an ongoing reminder that standing up for truth and for the dignity of humanity is worth it, and that life should be dedicated to what matters, to truth, dignity, and to kindness.  Yes, the milk of human kindness that my father possessed no matter the circumstances of his upbringing or the conditions of war.

Dad told me one time that after the war he didn’t like being in the Navy as much.  He said the Navy was kind of like your parents.  They give you your clothes, and your bed, and your chow, and your job, and after the war there didn’t seem to be as much of a purpose.  He wanted to get out in the world and make it on his own.  Thanks to the GI Bill he was the first in his family to go to college and get a bachelor’s degree.

After graduation and still single, he went to work at first  painting houses with his brother’s crew. My grandfather had been a painting contractor too.  Along with telling us how to tie knots and estimate the distance to the horizon, Dad taught us how to paint, how to hold the brush, how to cut in with a straight line at the ceiling, and how to care for the tools of the trade. He painted the rooms in our house growing up, and I’ve painted most of the rooms in my house too.

One day a man watched my father painting houses on my uncle’s crew, and noticed how hard he worked.  He said, “That’s one hard-working young man. He should have a better paying job than that.” He hired my Dad for the sales force of a publishing company, in the textbook division.

And that’s how we became rich in America, my brothers and I.  My Dad loved books and learning,  children and schools, teachers, our neighbors, and his own family above all.  He had a genuine deep faith in the divine nature of the world.  He saw every field and every sky as beautiful and as the evidence of God’s existence.  Our house was full of books, samples of literature books, science books, and science kits with little microscopes and slides and various experiments that went along with the science books.  We had flashcards with animals on them, and every educational thing the company produced, we played with it at home,  excited about discovering how things work.

I don’t have any sense of knowing who my grandfather was, who he became after he got out of prison, or what he thought or felt.  I didn’t hear the stories about the good of him.  All good stories have conflict, and it was the conflict my cousins shared with me.  But I do know that he and Lula Rose gave me the gift of my father.

Our parents both worked hard, enjoyed having kids, were fair-minded, and kind to their friends.  Their gratitude for what they had and for having us far out-weighed any complaints they had about where they came from or how hard life could be at times.  We had everything we needed to have a good life.  These are the gifts they gave us along with their love.  To see the world as more good than bad, to be hopeful, to carry our own weight, and to help others when they need help.  To be able to smile after tragedy, to sense that even in the worst of circumstances truth will overcome falsehood, and to sense that love will overpower hate even if it takes longer than a lifetime.  These are the gifts that matter.  These are the gifts that help us reconcile after war and the gifts that help us carry on as a nation.

Lucy M. Meseberg

The Deadly Writers Platoon meets weekly at Wellness Works, GlendaleReturning Soldiers Speak holds annual events and workshops and has published anthologies of veterans’ writing.

 

 

 

“I Have PTSD, So What?”, by Patrick Ignacio, USMC veteran

I have PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  I am one of millions who are affected by it each and every day.  Millions of men and women have varying symptoms yet manage to maintain a normal lifestyle. I, along with my cohorts, have been classified as a potential powder keg just waiting on that spark to set us off into a murderous explosion of ire.  This is not the case, as I am just as normal as you.

At the end of each and every day, I lay my head down in an attempt to sleep.  That in itself is no different from you. But when my eyes close and I should be drifting off into a peaceful bliss, my mind takes over, and I am tormented in my dreams with a vivid and exaggerated version of every combat encounter witnessed.  There has been nary a night when I do not experience this, and I have not had an uninterrupted night of sleep for years.  Yet in the morning, I rise with the consistency of the sun, roll out of my sweat soaked bed, and shake off the remnants of the nightly battles and start my day…just like you.

I am functional in society, but I am a little more vigilant than you. I am always on the lookout for danger, avoiding large crowds and loud places.  But somehow, I can still manage to go out and eat, shop for my clothes, and drive my car.  I pay close attention to those around me.  I see the drug deal that just took place on my right and notice the people who just don’t belong in a certain situation.  You may not have evil intentions, but I will notice nonetheless.

I have guns and weapons.  As a matter of fact, I just about always have one on me. Or at least I used to have one on me at all times, especially when I went on a shooting range.  You see, even though I have PTSD, I am still a Sheepdog watching out for my flock.  I don’t brandish my weapon, and most of the time you won’t even know I have it on my body, but it is there.  I used to carry a large knife in my pocket, one that could cause serious injury or death if used improperly, or used with properly in self-defense. Now that I have a wife and a young daughter, I simply carry a pen and my keychain with me all the time.  I have never used any of my weapons in a malicious manner and I never will, but in my duties as a Sheepdog I will not hesitate to draw on you should the circumstance warrant it.  I may be armed, but I am not dangerous.

There are times when I am extra medicated.  My PTSD comes in cycles, and when things get bad I need that extra chemical push to regulate me.  I accept this and because of it, I do not drink alcohol or coffee or even caffeine-free anything.  I have other physical problems that could easily warrant an addiction to painkillers, but just like most of us with PTSD, I avoid them.

I have never committed violence in the workplace or in public, just like the vast majority of those who suffer with me.  My co-workers as well as family and friends know I spent time in the military, but they do not know of my daily struggles, and they won’t because I do not want to burden them.  When I was working I could still communicate with my subordinates and supervisors in a very clear and concise manner.  Up to this point, I have not gone berserk or “really” threatened anybody around me.  I have never physically assaulted anyone out of anger or rage.

It pains me when I listen to the news, and every time a veteran commits a crime (or commits suicide) their action is automatically linked to, and blamed on PTSD.  Yes, there are some who cannot control their actions due to the wounds in our souls, the imbalance in our heads, the injuries in our bodies, but don’t put a label on all of us as if we are incorrigible.  Very few of us are bad.  There are more of us out there who are trying to do well than the lesser alternative.

Do not pity me.  I know who I am and recognize the journey that has shaped me into who I am.  I have no regrets about anything I have done in the past and look forward to many wonderful years in the future, most especially, since I have a loving wife and beautiful daughter.  I freely take every step of life during the day, knowing that there is something that will haunt me at night.

Note from the blog editor:  This piece and more by Patrick Ignacio can be found in  The Storytellers:  Veterans and Family Members Write About Military Life, available at www.amazon.com.