I Reckon So

This story was written in another time and place for another purpose. But since September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I thought I would share this story with a wider audience. If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 and press 1

 

It has been said that for thousands of years, human beings have used the seven elements of the “Hero’s Journey” to tell the stories of existence via mythology, literature, and now, movies. The hero, or heroine, might embark on a Voyage & Return; maybe they go on a Quest, or seek to Overcome a Monster. There might be elements of Comedy & Tragedy while going from Rags to Riches, and often, at the end of the story, there is Rebirth.

But it has also been said that without conflict, there is no story. And so, through the history of the world, a great many of those seven basic stories have been of war:

War compels attention because war, is literally, life during death.

What, then, would be a true account of war? Many of us who have been to war and returned consider it no “Hero’s Journey.” The truths of war are subtle, and found in unexpected places. If the truths of war are subtle, then, so too, must be the truths of life after war; and found in unexpected places.

Many stories of war concern people that want nothing more than to be left alone to put the past behind them. Almost twenty years before his Western film, “Unforgiven,” won him Oscar gold, and almost forty years before “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood gave us Josey Wales; a taciturn anti-hero who said little and showed much about how difficult it can be to leave war behind.

The Outlaw Josey Wales begins with Josey Wales as a farmer in Missouri, a region contested by both the North and the Southern states in the early days of the Civil War. Josey Wales is suspected by the Union of being a Confederate partisan; his family is killed, his home is burned, and as a result, Josey Wales decides to fight on the Confederate side during the Civil War.

Back when this movie was released, it was not difficult to see the grim stare of Josey Wales in the haunted expressions of returned Vietnam veterans. During their tours of duty many of those men had seen women and children killed and villages burned; and while it may not have been their own wives or children that died, the hollow eyes of those men told how they had not come away from war unscathed.

In the movie, Josey Wales served on the Confederate side with a man named Fletcher. In the last few days of the war, Fletcher had tried to negotiate a peaceful surrender of their unit, but Josey Wales was not quite ready to forgive just yet. The same Union officer that had killed Josey Wales’ family then killed all the members of the unit except for Fletcher and Josey Wales, and forced Fletcher to lead Union bounty hunters after Josey Wales.

The movie continues with Josey Wales heading west while trying to leave the war behind. On his journey, he meets other people like himself that for one reason or another had been displaced. They form an association of those with nothing left to lose, and they head west together to find another, maybe not even better, tomorrow.

But war never tires; and war had not forgotten Josey Wales.

In the last few scenes of the movie, Josey Wales and Fletcher are in a saloon in Texas. Fletcher sees that blood is dripping onto one of Josey Wales’ boots after he was wounded in a gunfight with bounty hunters. The townspeople in the saloon refer to Josey Wales as “Mr. Wilson” to protect Josey Wales’ identity from some bounty hunters; but Fletcher knows who he really is.

The townspeople fall silent when they realize the two men know each other; these are mortal enemies who were once comrades, brothers, even, bound by the bonds of war, blood and immeasurable loss. I watched and listened as two war-weary men spoke these very few short sentences to each other:

Fletcher: “I’m looking for Josey Wales; I think I’ll go down to Mexico to try to find him.”

(Josey Wales speaks): “And then?”

Fletcher: “He’s got the first move. I owe him that. I think I’ll try to tell him the war is over. What do you say, Mr. Wilson?”

(Josey Wales:) “I reckon so. I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”

Fletcher blinked, and without so much as another word being spoken, his expression conveyed pain and loss, sorrow and guilt.

I knew those expressions well; for years, I had seen them in the mirror.

It was though different parts of my soul said those lines, and it was as though the older, hardened me that had made it home from the Gulf War locked away the younger part of me that had been bothered by the war. It was as though the war was something that younger part of my self had done; the older me had left the Army even more determined to survive whatever came after. Like the character of Josey Wales, in the time after war, I had drifted, although in a more modern fashion. I had ended up driving trucks on the road for almost twenty years and about two million miles.

After the war, the older me didn’t care that thinking about all the death and destruction caused the younger me to hurt on the inside.

The older me told the younger me that in war, there are winners and there are losers; and to just suck it up and deal with his doubts or pain.

The older me didn’t care that the younger me wondered if anyone even understood how he felt; if anyone else wondered if life was even worth living anymore in a world where so many human beings had tried so hard to kill each other.

And, as so many of Clint Eastwood’s Western characters do, after he had said his piece, Josey Wales rode away, wounded both in body and in mind: And, just like in real war, the audience only knew part of what had happened, and little to none of what may come. I stared past the screen as the credits rolled, and thought about how just like it had done to Josey Wales, war had resisted my efforts to keep it in my past.

War never tired as it followed me through the trackless nightmare wastelands of what passed for life in my world. War had not forgotten me; and was always ready to call me out into another dusty street for another showdown.

But time passes, and my war fighting youth was long behind me. I was older, slower, and …weary. Just how much, I had learned in my own home one day when I ended up in a room with a gun, a phone, and a choice.

I do not remember all of the minutes that ticked away the hours I spent in that room; and I don’t remember all the reasons why I put down the gun, picked up the phone and called the V.A. Crisis Line.

I do remember telling the therapist who answered the phone that the effects of the war were more than I could handle on my own. The admission that I thought might destroy me, instead lifted a burden from me, as I began to allow myself to believe that others shared this particular struggle for life.

Through the efforts of many caring and concerned people that I met after that phone call, I found a renewed sense of  purpose; and I like to think I’ve gained at least a little of the hard-won wisdom that was portrayed by characters like Josey Wales, and yes, even Fletcher.

And now, I share my story of the life after war with others. I try to find the light in life not just for myself; but for my war fighter brothers and sisters that might still be lost in the wasteland. And every time I see some small flicker of hope in their eyes, that there can be life after war, I think of someone I lost a long time ago in all the miles and the years.

I want to find that younger me, and tell him that even though it has been over for a long time, we still carry parts of our war with us.

I want to tell him I wish I wouldn’t have ignored him when he tried to explain how the war had hurt him on the inside. I hope he can forgive me for all the times I told to just suck it up and deal with his doubts and pain.

I want to apologize to that younger me for all the times over the years I looked in the mirror, and watched the light in his eyes slowly dim.

And most of all, after I ended up in a room with a gun, a phone, and a choice, I want to tell that younger me how sorry I am I didn’t listen when he tried to tell me that he wasn’t sure he wanted to live anymore in a world where so many human beings have tried so hard to kill each other.

So even if it takes me twenty more years and two million more miles, I’ll find him. I’ll keep looking until it’s just the two of us; that younger me, and the old man that I have become. When I do find him, he’s got the first move. I owe him that.

And I hope he’ll believe me when I tell him that now, I understand:

I guess we all died a little in our own damn wars.

 

This story is copyright Traveling Soldier Media, LLC.

“The Outlaw Josey Wales” copyright Warner Brothers Entertainment.

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Grief Is An Echo Of What We’ve Lost

Through reading the work of Dr. Alan Wolfelt, specifically, “The PTSD Solution: The Truth About Your Symptoms and How To Heal,” I have become familiar with the concept that an aspect of Post-Traumatic Stress is “Complicated Grief.”

Complicated; because there are many elements and a lot of depth to this grief. The one most people are familiar with is, of course, the loss of friends, buddies or comrades—call them what you will.

But there is another loss behind all of those, and that is the loss of the person we used to be.

It could be said that is one of the most difficult losses of all. For no matter how close you come to another human being, we began this life with ourselves—and to lose something that is such an integral part of our own self is akin to having part of our soul cut away.

Many people do not want to perceive grief in this manner. For many, what might have been is a place they don’t want to go, and who can blame them? The person you used to be is gone—and the person you might have been, had you not went to war, is someone you will never meet. In this situation, grief can occur in the hints of what that life might have looked like had we not gone to war.

For those of us that experience grief in this manner, it is an echo of what we have lost.

And along those lines, there are times when we as humans are privileged to encounter profound thoughts and ideas. I had one of those experiences a few days ago when I read “5 Things Grief Would Say If It Could Speak” from Monique Minahan.

When I saw the title of the post, I wondered what would the conversation with grief would look like, and Monique’s insightful writing expanded on the experience of grief in a compassionate, understanding and beautiful way. I was deeply affected–as I read further, I saw where much of what she had written fit in the spaces in the history of my own life.

 A lot of people don’t want to deal with grief; or in an attempt to remain strong, many people do not acknowledge their grief. For some people, the grief of others can be too much for some people to bear. As a result, so many people hide grief away—not only for their own emotional well-being, but to try not to make other people uncomfortable. Quite often, we are uncomfortable not only with our own grief, but that of others. When we see another person experiencing grief, how much of our aversion is really an instinctive turning away?

Does this aversion take place because we are fundamentally aware of the nature of life, and we know that while it may not be us grieving at that moment, our turn is coming?

The experience of grief is to acknowledge one of the givens of our existence: To love is to lose. Behind every “Love Story for the Ages” are people that lived, loved and lost in the one lifetime we are all granted, and often, it is the grief of the one left behind that frames the narrative:

When it comes to love and loss, you cannot have one without the other.

Grief can intrude in our lives when we least expect it to, disturbing whatever equilibrium we may have reached regarding whatever losses we might have sustained in life. The intensity of grief seems to hijack our minds, and this loss of control over our emotional state is often not well received in a culture where everyone is supposed to either be happy or in the pursuit of happiness.

But to experience grief is not to wallow in self-pity. Our lives consist mainly of what we mean to others—and what those others mean to us. And to grieve someone or something is to believe that what a person might have lost was worth knowing or having in the first place.

In essence, grief is an acknowledgement of meaning, and that is worth a little emotion.

Like I said, I was deeply affected by Monique’s writing, and as I read, I wondered if grief could speak, would I want to hear what it had to tell me? After all that I’ve been through, and all the people I have known, I think I would:

Because if my grief could speak, it would whisper in the voices of all those I have lost.

Thank you, Monique Minahan, for your beautiful words.

The Journey of Two Million Miles…

Traveling Soldier- yeah, that’s the story of my life. The first sentence in my essay, Million Dollar Baby, pretty much sums it up: It seems as though I was born on the road.

I traveled a lot before I went in the Army; a lot while I was in, and a WHOLE lot more after. After the Army I was in trucking and heavy equipment rental, sales and transport, and I covered more than two million miles across the U.S. and Canada.

That kind of time on the road gives a person a lot of time to think.

I thought a lot about where I’d been in the Army. The tour in Korea in ’89-90, and right after that, deployment to the Middle East for the Persian Gulf War. When I say, “Right after that,” that means; “fifty-nine days from landing at LAX to leaving from the airfield at Fort Benning, Georgia.”

After thinking about it for a while; I started writing about it.

So, what does a Traveling Soldier travel with? First of all is the rucksack from the surplus store. It has held up surprisingly well, considering the $50 price tag. It has gone to LA, San Diego, on Operation Freedom Bird, a trip to Vietnam, and more veteran events and meetings than I can count. It is getting a little hammered; but that’s the way it goes.

What does a Traveling Soldier write with? This is the part that usually cracks everyone up. I do most of my written work on a 2005 IBM T60 ThinkPad that I bought for $100 on eBay. It runs XP, I put Office 2003 on it, and it works like a charm. If it took a dive on me, got ripped off or whatever; I would just buy another one. I back up all my content on these Gorilla flash drives, and back up the flash drives. This machine does not go on the Internet; no antivirus necessary. I don’t watch videos; I don’t surf with it.

I write with that $100 computer.$100 Laptop I write hard and fast with it, and I carry a spare battery for it to avoid having to plug in. (With the side benefit of pissing of all the places that remove or block access to their plugs.) I have a regular and extended-capacity battery that I carry for a total of about seven hours of writing time.

After seven straight hours of writing, I need recharged more than the computer.

OK, that’s it for now. I look forward to getting to know any of you that come by.

Fathers-in-Arms: My Journey on Operation Freedom Bird 2014.

 

Fathers-In-Arms

Copyright 2014

   Travis Burns

 

 

November 9th, 2014. 20:30 hrs, Operation Freedom Bird: Washington, D.C.

 

We had talked on the plane, just like soldiers will do on the way to a war zone. And as we talked, I saw the echo of the young people that these men had been back in Vietnam. On all of their faces now were many of the same expressions that had been on their faces a long time ago when their story was still being written; a mixture of apprehension, resolve, and yes; of hope.

Upon our plane’s arrival in Washington D.C., and then onto a bus; those that had not yet been to the Wall listened to the ones that had made the trip. But even if any of these men had been here before, it was different now; for none of them had gone to war alone, and tonight, they would not go to the Wall alone. In truth, we had all gone to war alongside others, in our own times and places, sure; but we had not gone alone.

As our bus traveled through Washington D.C., I listened to the murmur of voices around me, looked out the window and thought of the debt I owed to this generation of men for the time they had spent training me and other younger soldiers to stay alive in war by passing along their hard-won knowledge to us. I recognized the expressions on their faces from my own time at war; and the subdued conversation quieted even further as the bus continued down Constitution Avenue.

The bus stopped, and in the thoughtful silence, I saw reflected in the bus windows the expressions on the faces of the generation of men that had trained me to survive in war. I remembered a day in 1990, when I was on my first overseas tour, in Korea; I had opened a copy of the Stars and Stripes newspaper, and saw, for the first time, a copy of a painting by Lee Teter.

“Vietnam Reflections” is a picture of an older, graying man leaning against the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and supporting himself with one hand. His head is bowed and he is weeping; he is obviously in a great deal of pain. In the reflection of the Wall, there are images of people looking out of the Wall at him; his comrades and friends that died during the war.

The people looking out of the Wall reach to touch the hand the weeping man used to steady himself. He has aged, but the Reflections are still young as he remembers them then. Can the man leaning against the Wall see them?

Perhaps the man touched the Wall to reach back through the years to find them again, as though touching the names of the Reflections will bring them back to him for just a moment.

In Korea, in 1990, as I looked at the picture of “Vietnam Reflections” for the first time, my heart literally stopped in my chest: When looking at the picture, it is possible to see the expressions on the faces of the Reflections when they look at their friend and the pain he feels as he remembers them. Any of us that ever served would recognize that pain in an instant; whether that person had served in Valley Forge, or on down to the present time. Those whose service is yet to come in a hundred years will recognize it then.

In 2014, my reverie was interrupted as the bus door opened, and these men that had done what they had to do back in Vietnam did not hesitate now. I got off the bus into that misty night with men of the generation that had trained me to stay alive in my own war; they accepted me as one of their own, I stepped into their ranks, and I walked with my fathers-in-arms toward the Wall.

 

 

 

Earth.

 

Air.

 

Stone, black stone:

 

And loss.

 

All of the elements are there.

 

You walk down where the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is cut into the earth. You stand in front of the headstone for the dead of a generation, and you face them on their terms. You don’t look down, then away; you learn much of what it means to be below the ground while without a word being spoken, 58,272 names explain what it means to be gone from life.

What drives people to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, to look for the name of a friend or a loved one, and to finally touch the black stone for themselves?

The Vietnam War was different than many wars before it, and so, too, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is different than many other war memorials. Just the fact that the Wall was even built drove home the stark contrast of a nation seemingly bent on embracing and denying its Vietnam veterans at the same time.

At the Wall there are no statues of men on horseback waving a sword; there are no decommissioned cannons or antiaircraft guns that now have no enemy to point at, and sit rusting quietly while the weapons that replaced them are polished, maintained, and …used.

At the Wall, there are no charts that show how much money was spent, how many planes were manufactured and helicopters were shipped during the Vietnam War. There are no paragraphs on the merits of winning hearts and minds; and no explanations on why that strategy failed, and there are no flow charts of kill ratios vs. ammunition expended, and enemy body counts. There are no attempts to gloss it over by focusing on the strategies and objects instead of the people.

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, that rip in the earth and the stark black wall of inscribed names, the glory of war is laid bare as the myth that it really is, and there is no escaping what is lost when a war is fought. In this place, at the Wall, removed only slightly from the seats of power where the decisions are made and funds are appropriated, there is no escaping the sobering truth of the real price of war:

 

In a place like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, you learn who it cost.

 

At the Wall can be found some of the Collateral Damage: The mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers of those that died in the Vietnam War; there might be found a wife here, remarried, maybe, but not forgetful. But their numbers diminish every year. After all, the world moves on and time waits for no one. Volunteers walk the black stone; keepers of the history of both the War and of the Wall.

At the Wall can be found an Army nurse: Young then, but older now; far beyond her years. She is there in a fatigue jacket. She touches the cold black stone and the names whisper past her hands like the living people that they were then; the lives that seemed to slip through her fingers so long ago. She can still see the bloodstains on her hands and uniform from her first day in the madness, blood that no amount of scrubbing will remove. When the nurse looks in the mirror and sees the grey in her hair, it seems like so much time has passed; but really, it was only yesterday that she stood at a field hospital and heard the sound of slick helicopters bringing more incoming wounded.

I’m sorry, the nurse’s hunched shoulders and brimming eyes seem to say. I’m sorry we couldn’t save you. Please understand, you were too badly hurt and we did the best we could.

The nurses come to the Wall years after all that they did, all that they gave, and only they know what their service did to them. Only the nurses know what it did to them as they saw so many young lives cut short or changed forever; and perhaps the thought that they saved so many other lives may help the nurses find a measure of the peace that they might have come to the Wall to find.

 

The Wall at night:

Subdued voices come out of the darkness; overheard are brief snatches of talk not so far removed from the nameless, faceless voices of men heard over the hiss and crackle of a long-ago radio net. Maybe only a few words are gotten out before emotion overpowers speech, and fingertips on black granite speak what there are not words enough to say.

 

Hey man, do you remember-

 I’m sorry-

 I miss you-

But still, these people had found their way here. Even mute, their very presence all said the exact same thing; to each their own names upon the Wall:

 

I have not forgotten.

 

Some might think that after all this time, that so much cannot be said in so few words, but to believe that is to not understand the concise, restrained speech of the Vietnam veteran:

After all, these men had first been trained by their country’s military to speak the business of war with short, precisely arranged groups of words; and then upon their return, these men had been trained by much of their country’s non-military to speak of the business of war not at all.

Some had finished speaking, and at last, turned away from the Wall; many of these held the stories behind the names on the black granite as treasures in their hands. Some would see a unit patch on the fatigue jacket, hat or the vest of another Vietnam veteran.

“When were you there, man?” Those, and similar questions murmured out of the dark. At one Wall burdens were shared, other walls came down, and two strangers became brothers.

And there was laughter; yes. In the all-consuming wasteland that war can be, sometimes the only sanity left is laughter; and it was no less so in the life led after. Even in this somber place, there were those that were finally able to celebrate the shared intensity of the abbreviated lives of those they knew whose names are on the Wall.

If you wonder what could bring a veteran or family member to the Vietnam War Memorial, just ask someone who has served or who has lost, and has ever been to a place like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, or Arlington National Cemetery.

Ask them, and maybe they will tell you about the faces of their friends that only they can still see from a time that only they shared; or the nameless, faceless voices of men heard over the hiss and crackle of a long-ago radio net.

Ask them, and maybe they will tell you about standing at a field hospital and hearing the sound of slicks bringing more incoming wounded.

Ask them, and maybe they will tell you what it is that could drive someone to a Wall many years later to look for the name of a friend or a loved one, and to finally touch the black stone for themselves.

So if you are curious about coming home, the life after war, and the years of loss and pain, and only if they really trust you, ask them, and maybe they will tell you what only they know:

 

There are souls in that Wall.