Saturday, May 2, 2009

Permanent Retreats

After I finished talking, he was quiet for a few minutes, which made me uncomfortable. Eventually, he snubbed his cigarette into the ash tray and looked at me.

“I know you said nobody comes here to talk, and I’ve never done it either, but there’s a reason for it.”

“What is it?”

“There’s not a damn thing to say. People don’t come here to talk. Son, I been coming to this post since I got back from Vietnam in ’72. Not once have I heard a guy actually talk about anything. They come here to NOT talk.”

This was my first visit to a veteran service organization (VSO) local post bar since abruptly writing them off some time ago (“I Won’t Go Back”). I had concluded that they weren’t places of healing or recovery, but escapes. But Dave put it more eloquently than I have managed thus far.

“It’s like Vietnam, really. We went out, we did patrols, we ran missions, we got ambushed and lost a few boys. Then, we'd come back to base. We'd tool up again, get resupplied, sleep a bit, and get back out there. The bases were our safeties.”

“I don’t understand.”

“This place here is like a base” he continued. “We’re supposed to come here when we need to retreat or when the fight gets overwhelming, to get ammo, encouragement, and stuff like that. But nobody comes here to get set up or to get back in the fight anymore. They just come here to hide.

“It’s frustrating that we came home everybody hated us, they attacked us, spit on us, and treated us like shit. It’s like we put one battle behind us, but then we had to battle for acceptance to even fit in again in our OWN country. But most guys didn’t even try. They just retreated to a post or something and never went back into the fight.”

He was right. It’s easy to come here and dodge subjects, to sit around and complain about how nobody understands, to unite in collective woundedness without ever addressing it, and never fight again. But the battle is outside the door, in public. If veterans want to be understood in their own country, they need to fight for it, as unfortunate as it may be, not retreat and accept semi-isolation or defeat.

Total readjustment to civilian life means being able to talk or write about one’s experiences overseas with strangers, with civilians, and with people who don’t particularly understand what a combat veteran endured. These posts, as much as it troubles me to admit it, inhibit that process. They give veterans a way to avoid the fight. They arrest recovery altogether.

As he paused to sip his beer, I asked him about it: “Why don’t people fight for it if it’s so important?”

“Because this is easier. I guess we got tired. Hell, I know I did. We weren’t expecting to come home from war and have to wage another just to fit in. It’s simpler to say they’ll never understand us and not do anything about it. It’s easy to be a victim here; nobody expects anything from us. It’s like we’re not Americans; we’re veterans. But I know that’s not right. This is something we DID, not who we are. It’s sure how we’re identified, though, and this whole culture encourages it. Yeah, it changes us forever and really screws up some of us, but most of the guys here never move beyond it. Being a veteran was easy, especially coming out of Vietnam. They almost EXPECTED us to be basket cases. We weren’t, really, but they allowed us to be.” He lit another cigarette.

“So why do you come here, then?” I inquired.

“Because I gave up, too.” He changed the subject and started talking about the weather.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved


  1. One of your very best.

    How many people, not just veterans. do you think have given up on something fundamental to their emotional/spiritual development? I would wager 95% of the people I know, including myself at some points.

    It's sad.

  2. Sometimes there's a difference between giving up and recognizing the impossible. Sometimes a safe retreat is the only way they can stay within normal society at all other times, because the knowledge of a safe place to hide helps them have fewer incidents, whereas the stress level would go up if they felt they had no place, and would perhaps become destructive.

    Albeit it is good if they keep on working at it, baby steps in the right direction are all that can be expected, and should not be criticized as being insufficient.

    Perhaps telling them they don't need the shelters would be like telling a lame man he didn't need his crutch and kicking it out from under him. Though some, a few, may recover better without crutches, for others walking would be impossible unless leaning on some supportive aide.

  3. Be this as it may, the vast majority of "injured" are capable of at least some degree of recovery from their wounds. They are wounds, after all, not lifelong afflictions.

    There is a point when crutches are allowing one otherwise capable of walking to lean unnecessarily on support he can in time move quite freely without.

  4. I agree with Ben on this point.

    When people stop trying, they have nothing left.

  5. But yes, Poet, it requires discernment to judge between giving up and recognizing limitations. So kicking crutches out from under lame people would not go over well for most; maybe setting the crutches aside for a determined length of time to see the response and expected recovery would be better, or using a cane. How is this metaphor translated over into the world of veterans? A different brand of support groups? Boycotting the VFWs? The inclusion of non-military in VFWs?

  6. I think it is interesting that he commented that the rest of the country expected the returning Vietnam Vets to be screwed up.
    Today does the rest of the country STILL expect this?

    Has there not been some level of long overdue respect given to these guys? Do they since a feeling of great sadness from today's society that the disrespect to the Vietnam vets must never be repeated?

    I really hope that they have some kind of understanding that many in this country are ashamed of the way they were treated.