This story is by Alixa Penn and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A Long Time ‘Comin
The following account is fiction
“It was a dark time. People protesting. People talking about peace. People getting high – weed, and more. It had been over a year since I left home. I was different then – I’m different now – I’m back but I’m not – I’m mad all the time – can’t talk to anyone and hell I don’t want to talk to anyone!”
I went to the VA, that was a joke! They treat us like we’re scum or crazy. Not going back there no more! I came back from the conflict – Hell, it wasn’t a conflict – it was a goddamn war! – how the hell do you call people shooting at you – killing your friends – a conflict – it was a goddamn war!”
Martin was only 19 when he left home. When I met him, he was 35-years-old, White, thin and scraggly. He came into my office – dressed in jeans and a tee shirt – unshaven and he looked tired and worn out. He stared down or away. He didn’t trust the VA but his life had not worked out. He wanted desperately to trust. He had been drinking and using too much of everything. I asked him “what do you want?” He looked at me – “I just want to stay numb – I don’t want to feel.”
A deep silence fell over the room. I sat with him until he could speak. He didn’t want to talk about Vietnam – he didn’t want to talk about drinking or drugs – he didn’t want to talk about where he came from. After a while he asked, “You ever been in?” He was surprised to hear that I also was a veteran. No, I had not gone to Vietnam, but I had friends and a brother who had. He seemed to relax for a second. He looked at me for the first time. “I’m sick and I can’t ever drink alcohol. I stopped shooting up.” I listened and told him “I know you’re sick and whether you use, or drink is your choice. You have to decide.” He said, “I have been trying to forget everything, but I can’t.”
“You know”, he paused, “I thought I was lucky – I was drafted. I reasoned that at least I wouldn’t have to stay in that long. Not like those dumb volunteers! I thought, how bad can it be? Never heard of Vietnam. We’re going to shoot gooks. I didn’t think I’d have to go because I trained to be a mechanic, but I went.”
Martin left my office but did not commit to returning. I wasn’t sure he was coming back. He was inpatient here at the VA and had detoxed from alcohol and drugs. He was in treatment. He returned almost a week later.
He walked in, sat and looked at me. “I want help.” I looked at him for a few minutes and I said, “what happened is history – no matter how much you try – you can’t change history, but you can change the way you feel about it. What you experienced was an abnormal event. You are having normal reactions to an abnormal event. Martin, your mind is like a bucket and you have been stuffing that bucket with shit – stuffing those feelings for years and now that bucket is overflowing and stinking. It’s time to empty the bucket.” He was quiet and seemed to shake his head as if he didn’t believe what I said. He left.
He came back at another time and said “It was the worst time in my life and if I could erase what happened I would. I started using over there. You know they would send us to burn the marijuana fields and then we sit down range and we’d inhale all the fumes – now that makes a lot of sense – right! No drugs allowed, burn the fields and sit there to make sure they burned. Makes a lot of sense! We would all be high from those fumes!” he was sarcastic and angry.
Martin continued to come to sessions. Sometimes he would just sit and sometimes he would talk about what was bothering him. He looked up one day and said to me, “You make me talk – I’ve never talked about this before.” I looked at him and said, “What happened?”
He started. “That first day, we land, and we get out. The first thing that hits me is the heat! It was so hot! Then traces of bullets flying. You could hear them; I knew this was not good – the fucking marines diving under tables! First day out – heat and jungle everywhere – the Joes I was with – some looked tired – no one wanted to tell you their name – wait and see if you’re still around in a week. No one wanted to get close or bond, too painful to lose a friend. And, out there, anything could get you.”
“After the first night we had lost five. I thought – Shit this is real – Our squad – not many of us left.” He softly said, “Back at the camp, I just sat. Shaking a little but didn’t want anyone to notice – no one talked. It was getting dark again and time to go out – I was still cherry – so I walked in the back. Walking through the jungle – you never knew when it would be your turn – no one wanted to walk point – I heard someone stepped on a Bouncing Betty – he splattered.”
Martin was quiet, and he seemed to have tears in his eyes but when I noticed his tears, he denied that he was crying. “No, I’m just thinking – don’t know what you see but I’m not crying. You know, that heat was no joke.I was scared but I couldn’t let myself fall into that! I needed to keep awake, aware and alive. I hate bugs!”
He returned, “I want to say something, but I won’t say it again. I need to find forgiveness. We went out there to shoot gooks – make America Safe. Yeah right! I never expected kids not being kids. We’re there to shoot gooks – grown up ones not kids!” He seemed exasperated – his voice was elevating, and he was both angry and tearful. “Never expected kids not being kids!
“One of us was going to help one of those kids. The kid came toward us. He looked like he needed help. He looked just like a kid. My friend approached him and began to crouch down; went down to see what was wrong; he exploded. That kid had a grenade or some explosive under his clothes. We all hit the ground. My friend was gone.”
Martin tears flowed readily as he recounted what happened. “Never expected kids not to be kids!” I facilitated his disclosure and commended him for taking the first step towards healing.
Martin returned the next day. He seemed angry. After a while, he said,” We were there to shoot gooks – not kids!” How the hell do those people justify sending a child in – those children probably didn’t understand but all the same – they were killing us just the same. There are no winners – I wished that I had never gone.”
Martin’s voice deepened and lowered. “That day was like any other day there. We were all tired. A kid walks up on us. He walked toward us.” Martin tensed as he spoke. His speech was rapid. He said, “I didn’t think – I just saw him – to me he was, just a gook – not a kid – I couldn’t let that happen again – It’s him or me – what do I do – I shot him – I shot a kid!!”
“Back home, I haven’t been able to get that picture out of my head. How could I do that?! I never thought I could murder anyone – let alone a kid. Everyone said I did the right thing, but I can’t forgive myself – I can’t justify it – I have been trying to forget and not feel. I wish that I could bring back my friends – I wish that the kids were not involved – I wish I could fix it!” He sobbed. “I want to do the right thing before I die.”
Martin spent the next year working on getting through what happened. He gained new memories that he had blocked. He would never forget but he was better. He knew that he used drugs to try and calm and forget. He now didn’t want to forget. He wanted to do something to give back. Over time he accepted that he had effectively destroyed his life.
Martin could not accept that this was enough. He had to give back. He would come back week after week thinking about and working on what he could give back. To him, losing his life was not enough. He had a cause – a goal – one that would redeem him as well as, those others that took a life in war. He would arrange this before he died. He would leave it in his memoirs.