Tag Archive for: military

Sometimes the strangest stories get stuck in my head, back somewhere half-buried in the sand with just a glint of shimmer peeking out to catch my eye (thoughts) a few times a day.

Sometimes when I am listening to a friend talk, I feel a deeper sense of knowing, or at least the potential to find a deeper understanding, and that feeling echoes throughout my days and nights until I’m ready to haul it out from the sand and give it a once-over.

Yesterday I sat and had a fully impromptu cup of coffee with a dear, lovely friend and we caught up a little bit, talking of things important and not so important.  She told me a funny story that sat with me until this morning when I finally realized why it was resonating.

Over the past few weeks, J has been cleaning out her attic, purging boxes and old documents and hauling things to the thrift store that she no longer needs.  Among other things, one item she decided to get rid of was an old stool of her daughter’s. It was a mushroom-style stool that her mother had given to her daughter to use with her vanity table – a table that has long since been sold or given away, but the stool remained.  It was unique and presumably in good condition and probably had some sentimental value, but J took it to the thrift store in town along with a load of other things.

A few days or a week later, J got an email from her mother with a link to a listing for a stool just like that one on Craigslist.  Vintage, 1960s mushroom stool for sale. $45

“See?” her mother wrote, “You could sell that stool! Here’s one just like it.”

J laughed out loud.  That WAS her daughter’s stool. The same one she had dropped off at the thrift store. She examined the photo on the listing and determined that someone must have bought the stool cheaply, recognized it for what it was, and decided to make a little cash off of it.

As she told me that story, I thought of my dad for some reason, and how furious he would be at the missed opportunity to make some money off of an item. How angry he would have been that someone else was selling something that had been his, that he could have had that $45.  I marveled at J’s easy laughter, at her complete lack of frustration, even as I knew I would have felt the same as her. Imagining the time spent photographing the stool, creating the listing, entertaining emails and phone calls from interested buyers, and waiting at home for someone to come pick it up, I tried to gauge what my time was worth and where the tipping point would have been. $50? $100? In the end, I gave a mental nod to the cleverness of the person who saw the stool in the thrift store and recognized it as something special and made some money off of it.

I have always resisted writing or speaking about my thoughts on the conflict in the Middle East, mostly because I don’t feel as though I have any right to do so, given my lack of knowledge.  I have read articles and some history on the Palestine-Israel, Gaza Strip issues and have a rudimentary grasp of the players and their beliefs, but I don’t feel as though I truly have a grasp of the deepest issues and the raw wounds and I am loathe to offend anyone with what will most likely be a superficial assessment of the continuously erupting wars in that part of the world.

That said, there is a part of me that feels as though the most superficial (perhaps basic is a better word) treatment is the most accurate.  These are human beings, killing each other and each other’s children, afflicted with a sense of scarcity and fear that causes them to continue killing in some effort to gain more.  More of what is, in my mind, beside the point. In any war or armed conflict, there is a basic underlying assumption that someone else has what I want, or what I believe is rightfully mine. There is a belief that I deserve or own something and that the only way to get it is to prove my physical (or military) superiority.  Grief is not a big enough word for what I feel when I read about the loss of life on a daily basis in Gaza and the Ukraine and parts of Africa.  We are killing each other for things. We have become seduced by the notion that we can not only have more, but we deserve more, and that it is perfectly okay to go in and take more by whatever means necessary.  We have succumbed to the notion that what we have is not enough, or that even if it is enough, that we are entitled to something more. We are teaching our children that power and property are more important than love and life and community and cooperation.  We dehumanize each other by putting each other into groups based on skin color or ethnicity or religion or gender so that we can more easily justify going after what we are so afraid to not have, as if it will give us peace and happiness.

J could have been bitter and angry that she “lost out” on the money she could have made by selling that stool, but she didn’t fall prey to the myth of scarcity.  She recognized that what she has is enough and was pleased to simply be lighter thanks to having given the stool away.  I recognize that the stool is not the same as the Gaza Strip or the Ukraine, that there are much more complicated issues and beliefs associated with these conflicts and I do not mean to demean them in any way. My heart is heavy when I think about what it will take to stop the bloodshed, even for a little while, and heavier still when I imagine the scars this round of killing has inflicted on the families of the dead.  I absolutely believe that our best shot at stemming the tide of violence is to ask ourselves who we are willing to kill or maim in order to get a strip of land, to see the faces of those individuals being bombed and shot, see them with their families and friends, hear their voices, acknowledge their humanity alongside our own family and friends, and assess what we already have to see whether it is enough. To ask ourselves whether it is worth taking the life of another person to get a little bit more, or for the purpose of making some point or other, asserting our “rights.” Can we instead make do with what we have?

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales pled guilty last week to killing 16 innocent Afghan villagers in March of last year in order to avoid the death penalty.  He is a young man with two small children of his own who now faces the rest of his life behind bars.

May he one day find peace.

This is a young man who went to Iraq three times for the military and was on his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan, likely spending his waking hours plagued with fears of IEDs and surprise attacks.  I don’t know the details of his service and I certainly cannot justify the targeting of innocent people or their brutal murders.

What I do wonder is how many other angry, frightened soldiers are out there held together with spit and baling wire (as my grandfather used to say), barely holding on to some semblance of sanity? How many others are there who have both witnessed and committed atrocities on the orders of their superior officers whose dreams are haunted? How many others are self-medicating with alcohol and valium, simply clinging to those muted moments until they can try to figure out what a peaceful life is again?  And how can we continue to send these young people into harm’s way, revere them as heroes and then discard them on the streets of our cities after denying them the health care they need? How can we continue to be horrified at their acts of desperation and then send them away, sentenced to mental hospitals or jail cells simply because they couldn’t handle the burdens we placed on their shoulders?

If this isn’t a case for restorative justice (and pacifism), I don’t know what is.  So many lives lost and shattered in this instance, and even today, it is old news, as the headlines move on to conflict in other parts of the world. Ahh, Syria. Is that where our soldiers go next? To kill and be killed? To go slowly mad at the violence and pain of it all?

I don’t claim to have diplomatic answers to any of these conflicts. I certainly don’t condone the targeting of innocents by the Syrian government or the Turkish government or any other entity, for that matter. But I think we have seen time and again that war doesn’t do much but create victims on both sides for generations to come.

May he one day find peace.
May we all.

Photo of my father as a baby sitting with his father and mother.

It’s Memorial Day and I’m thinking about my dad. He died several years ago on May 2, but Memorial Day conjures up complicated emotions for me because he was such a proud Marine.  From the time of my first memories, I somehow knew this about my father, despite the fact that he had been retired for many years prior to my birth.

He wore his Marine Corps ring as proudly as his thick head of hair and flew the US flag outside every house he ever lived in.  He had military lapel pins and his behavior bore more permanent traces of his indoctrination – a penchant for tidiness and a concomitant disdain for clutter, a commitment to regular physical exercise, a lack of patience for laziness and a stark fear of things he couldn’t control.  This fear didn’t look like fear on my father, though, it looked like rigid boundaries, sharp edges and short leashes.  It looked as though he had everything figured out and he wanted to avoid wasting time by telling us all how to do it, everything, Life.

I don’t know how old I was when I learned he had been in Vietnam and there were so many stories running through our lives as our family imploded, it was hard to find reality among the golden threads woven in to catch our attention.  In some stories he was a helicopter pilot, in others he flew planes.  There were always model planes around the house and Dad had a jumpsuit in his closet he referred to as his “flight suit.”  After the divorce when Mom’s bitter hurt led her to discredit him at every turn in order to craft a world for us where there were winners and losers, Right and Wrong (and she was the “Right,”) she scornfully told us that he had been a mechanic – he had never flown planes or choppers. That he was a pathological liar.  I was so angry at his leaving that I sopped up every story and let myself choose her side.

As a young mother, I read Tracy Kidder’s book “My Detachment” about his tour of duty in Vietnam and I recall being physically struck with heartache at what so many young men of my father’s generation experienced. My father and I had recently begun creating a new relationship founded in our present-day lives where we were both there because we wanted to be, not because I needed him and he had to be there. After I finished the book, I wrote him a letter full of what I hoped would come off as compassion and love.  He had never talked about his experiences in the war and he didn’t seem to have any ties to people he had served with. While he identified as a Marine, it was in a fairly generic sense and he didn’t appreciate inquiries about the details of his service in Vietnam.  In my letter, I said that I understood why he didn’t want to revisit those memories and I didn’t want him to talk about them, but I hoped he knew how badly I felt for the kid he was – newly married, newly graduated from college with a fresh start ahead of him thanks to his ROTC enrollment – suddenly yanked a world away to a jungle where his job was to kill other young men.  Where his life was not his own, but was dependent on being in the right place at the right time, with land mines exploding around him and his team members dying right in front of him, not knowing if he would ever get the chance to meet the child his wife carried in her belly.  I can’t imagine what that does to someone.

He never answered my letter.

I don’t think I expected him to, but I wanted him to know that I felt like it explained a lot.  That coming home to a world that was pretty much the way it had been when he left – with friends meeting for coffee and driving to the grocery store and sleeping on mattresses with clean sheets – and trying to find a way to cope with the memories must have been torture.

He died at the age of 65 from a very aggressive form of lung cancer. This man who had exercised nearly every day of his life, never smoked a cigarette and barely drank alcohol. A man who ate the healthiest foods he could find and didn’t drink coffee and had no risk factors for lung cancer.  A man who likely inhaled copious amounts of Agent Orange as it was dropped onto the Vietnamese jungles.

About 18 months after he died his wife gave me some boxes she found in the closet in his office.  They contained slide carousels full of photos and an ancient slide projector I recognized instantly.  There were boxes and boxes of slides, labeled meticulously, and when I got home I set up the projector on the kitchen table and began clicking through the carousels – watching my parents with their 1960s polyester outfits visit places like Cape Canaveral and Disneyland. Looking at shots of birthdays and Christmas celebrations I hadn’t seen since the 1970s.  And then I got to a carousel labeled, simply, “Vietnam.”  I am fairly certain I didn’t take a breath as I dislodged the old carousel and fitted this one on to the projector.  I know I convinced Bubba to take the girls upstairs for a bath.  And then I advanced the first slide.  And there was my father, in his camo greens digging a trench with a group of other boys on a beach.  Click. Tents and cots. Click. Photos of three crew-cut, farmer-tanned teenagers grinning for the camera and flexing their biceps.  Click. My father standing on a paved airstrip next to a US Marine helicopter in his flight suit. A series of shots showed six soldiers loading in to the helicopter, one by one, with their parachutes strapped to their backs.  And then the chopper lifted a few feet off the ground.  I pictured my father standing behind the camera, taking shot after shot as the chopper flew higher and higher.  A few photos later, the chopper was a largeish speck in the blue sky, floating above the ocean and, barely discernable, a somewhat smaller speck on the opposite side of the photo.  Click. the tiny speck gets closer. Click. Still closer. Click. By now it is clear that one speck is chasing the other one. Click. A smoke trail appears in the shot as if someone were drawing a chalk line between the two specks. Click. The helicopter explodes into flames.

I sat down hard. My father filmed his fellow soldiers as their helicopter was blown out of the sky on an impossibly blue day.  Soldiers he had eaten with, built camp with, trained with, laughed with.  He watched them die. And he probably had to go up in a helicopter himself the next day.

Whether or not he believed in the reason he was there, I don’t know. I suspect he never really got much chance to think about it. He did what he was asked to do.

When he was alive, I didn’t make any special effort to honor my father on Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day.  My sole effort to appreciate his tour(s) of duty lay in that letter I wrote to him.  While I disagree with war as a solution to anything, I believe in supporting the individual human beings who serve in the military and I wish I had found a way to let my Dad know I am proud of him.  I am proud of his service in the Marine Corps.  I think he might be watching somewhere now, though, and I hope he can hear me playing Taps for him.