"The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not."

Thomas Jefferson 

What was it like coming home?
 by Terry Garlock

Recently two high school students separately interviewed me as part of their school project to interview six people about their memories of the Vietnam War. Both asked many questions, some about the war’s impact on a soldier, and what it was like coming home.

Since I communicate better in writing, I followed up to them with the following observations. I never participated in a single veteran event for over 30 years, and when I finally had children by adoption at an advanced age, and wondered what brand of crap they would learn in school about our war, I resolved to teach them the truth about my brothers in Vietnam. That’s how I got started on a five-year effort to write my book, and I talked to a lot of vets along the way.

Talking to them helped me understand the feelings bubbling inside me that had always been hard to put into words, so any credit for insight here goes to all of them.

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Whether Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan or WWII, those engaged in combat come home a changed person. In Vietnam, only 1 out of 7 troops who served there were in combat – it takes a lot of support to put a soldier in the field.

When engaging the enemy, training kicks in and you do the things you are expected to do, and you discover courage isn’t the absence of fear, courage is doing your job while you’re so scared your hands shake. And once the shooting starts you aren’t fighting for the flag, you are fighting for each other. For helicopter pilots like me, our motivation to climb into the cockpit after a bad day was helping our brothers on the ground stay alive, and that’s why we did things like fly into a firefight again and again.

Soldiers sent to war have huge responsibilities at a very young age, sometimes given control of multi-million dollar weapons and equipment. I think every soldier in combat is driven by “honor” and “trust.” At some point a young soldier comes to understand honor as doing what he knows is the right thing even when it endangers his life, and he wears honor proudly. Also at some point he suddenly realizes the other guys trust him to do his job, even under fire, and he safeguards that trust as his most precious possession. Everyone in combat fears dying, but I think we feared even more that under fire our courage might fail us and we might screw up, not do our job, and we might lose our brothers trust or even lose their lives, and we feared that more than anything.

Combat is a fierce instructor, quickly teaching you to make instant judgments on what things are trivial and what is important, the things that can keep you and your brothers alive, or get you killed, and all the rest that doesn’t much matter. It makes you grow up fast – a year on a combat tour can push your maturity many years ahead, make you realize how fragile life is, how dangerous the world is, how incredibly – how EGREGIOUSLY – na´ve and stupid and self-absorbed the general population of America is since we live under a bubble of protection and plenty.

When a young soldier comes home from his first combat experience, he may go through an adjustment best described by two words: “isolated” and “disconnected.” For the entire combat tour he fantasized what his homecoming will be like, and he looked forward to getting back to “the world” and reuniting with his loved ones and friends. But when he arrived he was changed, and he likely recognized slowly some distance between him and others, even his wife. How can he tell her the things that words cannot convey even if he could find the right words. He may not want to share the dark side of humanity and ruin her innocence anyway.

He may also be reluctant to talk about the dark spots in his experience because the haunting memories are not comfortable to face. Maybe when bad things happened he pushed it down deep in his gut in his secret box and closed the lid tight so he could continue to do his job, and maybe he finds that, for the rest of his life, when he opens the lid to his secret box those memories are as fresh as yesterday, wrapped in the same feelings he had at the time, and he may not like that he cannot control the tears that flow and the sadness that overwhelms. And so when people ask him casually out of juvenile curiosity to tell them about his war experience, maybe he feels they don’t deserve to know for their own entertainment anything about his memories, maybe he wouldn’t know how to put it into words, maybe he just doesn’t want to touch his secret box and lose his composure, and he avoids the answer in any number of ways.

When he reunites with his friends he is likely to find they are still stuck on things he considers trivial and even childish now, like chasing girls, pop music, drinking beer, and doing self-indulgent things that are very remote from responsibility and not, in his revised view, important.

Meanwhile he looks around him as life goes on and nobody cares beyond an occasional mention on TV news that there is a war going on, that people he respects and cares about are still fighting and dying while at home others his age are focused on the next iPhone features and the newest episode of American Idol.

It may take him some time to realize that the people he respects now, the people who know him best now, perhaps the only people he can comfortably assume are watching his six, are his fellow soldiers back in the war, the ones who trusted him with their lives under conditions the civilians now around him would never understand, would be unable to function, useless.

Maybe, to his utter confusion and surprise, he finds himself longing to be back with them, to rejoin those who earn his respect and share his newfound values. He might spend too much time wondering what is happening back in the war, whether any of his buddies have been killed and whether he might have been able to keep them alive, and he cannot reveal to anyone, most of all his wife, that however irrational it may be, he longs to be with them again.

And so he feels disconnected and isolated from the world, alone, adrift, surrounded by the inane and stupid. Some even go down the path to suicide.

For those of us who fought in Vietnam, this NORMAL feeling of isolation and disconnect returning combat soldiers have was made worse by the public mood about the war and those of us that fought it, the simmering unwelcome of silence, the tacit accusations that our soldiers did evil things in an immoral war in Vietnam.

The disconnect and isolation can be applied to any war’s combat vets. They always carry within them the things they can only fully share with other vets, conveying to each other in a few words things nobody else will ever understand. Many of them keep their secrets tight inside their box and only connect with other vets late in life to discover the brotherhood they should have enjoyed for all those years.

Why do vets tend to gather? Instant camaraderie, shared values, understanding and respect for the secrets we carry with the lid closed tight on the box in our gut, the luxury of relaxation around those we trust completely to watch our six, the association with people who earned our respect and return it, and the proud memories we share of a time when we did things that were difficult and important and honorable.

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  "Do right and bear the consequences."

Sam Houston