December 19, 2004
Each in his own timeBy Dave St. John
The current war in Iraq and operations in Afghanistan, my personal recollections and the television interviews with veterans from wars past remind me of the adage that the more things change the more they remain the same.
There is an incredible outpouring of support from the home front to our men and women under fire way over there. Bumper stickers, websites, and Herculean efforts from organizations and private citizens have all converged to send support, love, prayers and badly needed personal comfort items to our warriors. Don't think for a minute that these efforts are not deeply and personally appreciated by each and every one of them. It is what gets them up in the morning, to strap on web gear, check weapons, radios, intelligence reports, load extra ammo, do the required maintenance on their vehicles, issue or receive their operation orders and head out into the lair of the beast one more time.
Here's a classic depiction of the degree to which they are grateful. A couple of days ago, I caught a brief clip from a cable channel that had an 'embed' dogging a young Marine on patrol about why he thought he was there, etc. The Marine was completely forthright and responded something like, 'Look, I'm not here for these people, I'm here to make it easier for the folks back home...save them from all this'. I am paraphrasing a bit, but you get the idea.
Ask a Marine a question and you WILL get an answer. The 'embed' appeared dutifully impressed by the response. I have a sense that he was hoping for something a bit more metaphysical, but the Marine had his head in a much more important endeavor right at that moment.
To him, it was really simple: stop these bastards here so we don't have to go through this drill at home. That's why they bleed and that's why they die and that's why we are in awe of them. They get it!!! For them, war is an assignment for which failure is not an option. The rest of us can cut ourselves some slack now and then. They can't and won't.
Then there's the other Veteran who was briefly seen on the talk shows of December 7th. He's older and grayer and he's part of a dying breed. See... he was on the ground at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese nailed our battle wagons, all snugged up to piers or anchored like sitting ducks in the harbor. He was close enough to feel the concussion and shock waves from the bombs they dropped and see the round red markings on the underbellies of the attacking dive bombers. He'll never forget the fear that caused the taste of bile to rise up in his mouth as he realized that we might lose this one before it even got started.
He struggles to get many of his comrades to attend the annual Pearl Harbor reunions any more. They're dying off and are less able to be there because of health and other reasons. He knows that their fate awaits him as well and it is only a matter of time. He wonders aloud why it is so difficult to get any one interested in the events of December 7, 1941 any more. Does the passage of time really dull our memories that much? Do they still teach anything about it? Will the memories of the events of that day go with him to his grave and will there be no one else who will give a credible, ongoing testimony that this is a dangerous world and the bulls eye on the side of our great nation gets bigger and bigger as do the numbers of those who would shoot at it?
He remarks that one day, the events of September 11, 2001 will also fade from our collective recall. There is a slight hint of despair and stoic resignation in his eyes as he makes this dire prediction on national television.
As I watched his interview intently, I could not disagree with him. He was right. Sometimes, America has been grossly derelict in recalling the recent past as a means to avoid the mistakes awaiting us in the not too distant future.
Veterans don't forget the wars in which they have fought. When called upon to do so, they can recall the most vivid details of events that tested their mettle in the crucible of combat. They all share that common bond, the mucilage that holds men together even though they may have never met one another. It doesn't really matter what war and when it was fought or why it was fought. We come out of it touched and marked in exactly the same way. Those young warriors trudging through the mazes of Fallujah and a hundred other Iraqi towns and Afghanistan mountainsides will soon have their memories to haunt and warn them. Their time will come and for some, it has already arrived.
I have a good friend, who like me and thousands of others, served in the Marine Corps and also pulled a tour in Vietnam. His name's Robert. He and I were at a friend's house the other night. Our friend is dying of cancer and a group of us went there to have some supper with him, say a rosary with him and offer what solace we could to a man whose time left among us is very finite. It was a setting that caused you to be honest and reflective about important things. It was no time for bull, light conversation or false bravado. A few feet away, a friend, a good man who had already made his peace with his God and Savior, was slipping away from us, and we all knew it. I found it hard to look him in the eye. I would not have been handling this as well if our roles had been reversed.
Robert sat next to me and said that he had read some of the stuff I had been writing lately. He paused for a minute and mentioned that he had all this anger that he couldn't dump anywhere. A long time ago, he thought that by making visits to guys in a VA hospital things would get better, but they got worse. He stopped visiting them. He handled it all alone for a long time. A familiar tale...I had heard it all before and had lived some of it myself.
What an anomaly these memories are. Some of us struggle to suppress them and move out from under their crushing weight. Others move on with their lives while continually grinding down the sharp edge of their anger, fear and guilt until one day they emerge whole men again...and better for it. Still others assume the role of historians working tirelessly to erect memorials and events that will never let us forget what happened there and why. They are the gifts derived from the plunder of war. Sadly, many of us ignore all these efforts treating them no differently than watching a television show whose story line and content we have forgotten minutes after the final credits fade from the screen. Why is this?
My buddy, Robert, is a tough guy and had his share of tough times growing up in a California barrio. But inside of him is a gentle, caring man. He doesn't show it much, but watching how he prayed and what he said to our friend who was dying told the story. We talked a little more about the war and then he said something profound to me, his brown eyes watering a bit.
'Ya know, each of us handles it in our own time...in our own time.' Amen, Brother.
Dave St. John