My Uncle Bob was my Dad's youngest brother, and he was a Marine in WWII. After the war, he went to Macalester College in Saint Paul, and he lived with us for a time. I was just a kid, but I remember how Uncle Bob always had time to talk to me.
Late one night I awoke to Uncle Bob's yelling, and I could tell he was getting out of the house fast through the front door. My dad stuck he head in my door, and told me not to worry that Bob had just had a bad dream and went for a walk. Years later I learned that a neighbor, a WWII vet was sitting on his steps as Bob came running full tilt up the sidewalk, and he grabbed him and got him to sit down and have a smoke with him. That is how they handled PTSD back then—vets helping vets, but back then there were lots of vets. The VA didn't have programs, but years later I learned the VA did have lots of vets in padded rooms, guys who were too bad to let out in public. Years later, I met some of those guys still in a VA hospital, still not home from WWII.
My dad had another brother, my Uncle John, who had a farm north of Grand Rapids, and we would go up there to visit. That is where my dad and his other brothers went to deer hunt. Some times on the way my dad would stop at the Saint Cloud VA Hospital, and he would visit a friend who was there, permanent like. After I got back from Vietnam on one of those trips with my dad, I asked if I could meet the guy. My dad didn't think that would be a good idea, as the guy wouldn't know me. He said, "Heck, he doesn't even know me." I remember my dad was always pretty quiet for a while after those visits.
Back in the 1990s I went to a three month in-house PTSD program at the Tomah, Wisconsin, VA Hospital. I think it was really shorter than that, but Christmas was in there, and it was probably better for me to stay over the holidays. At least that is what they thought, and I guess I did, too.
Well, to get into the program, you had to have an interview and I remember the guy's name who interviewed me was Jim Oliver. He told me he grew up in Tomah and had to walk by the hospital on the way to school as a kid, and all he could hear was the screams of the vets. Then one day there was silence, and that was the day they introduced the vets to some new drug. He said that drug took away most of the rubber padded rooms, but that they still had some.
I met guys there who had been there since WWII, and one who was medevacked from Guadalcanal. He could still hear the screams of the wounded Marines on the beaches. For years that was all he could hear. Now, with new drugs, he said that it was like talking to somebody when it was windy outside. He said, "you can talk, but you can hear that wind, too." He could always hear those screams in the background.
Over Christmas, I would sit in the chow hall across from a guy who had been shot in the face. I tried hard to talk to him, and after a few days he started talking to me. I could never tell if he was looking at me, but we carried on a conversation. I asked him if he ever tried going home. He said he did twice, but he couldn't take how adults wouldn't look at him and how he scared little kids. He said the VA was the best place for him.
My uncle Bob wrote to me twice when I was in the Nam, and he said it would be hard when I came home. He was right.
All over this country there are government hospitals where veterans are cared for who will never come home from their war. Washington keeps those places pretty secret. No pictures, no interviews. Out of sight and out of our minds. I sometimes think the people who care for those veterans are on their way to sainthood.
Everyone thinks they know the sacrifices that veterans make going off to our wars, but really, they only know what the government lets them know.
Uncle Bob was right. It is hard coming home from war. For me, what is hardest is knowing that the American people have no idea of what horrors there are in war, and that is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because our people don't have to live with the memories of those horrors, but a curse because not knowing allows the American people to cheer our troops off to war again and again and again.
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