Thursday, November 11, 2010

One Veteran's Life

On this Veteran's Day my thoughts turn to the remembrance of my dad, who was drafted at the age of 19 and sent to Korea in 1951. There he served in the Second Division, 23rd Infantry Regiment, of the U. S. Army. This was, of course, the so-called "forgotten war," the Korean War. From September 13th until mid-October of that year he fought in the fiercest battle of that war, the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge (Height 1211). This was a month-long battle that claimed approximately 3700 U. S. casualties and many more North Korean and Chinese dead and wounded.

After seeing the 1986 film, Platoon, about a group of soldiers in the Vietnam War, my dad remarked that what the end of that film depicts as taking place over the course of one night was something he and his buddies went through every night for three weeks. The beginning of Clint Eastwood's 1980s film, Heartbreak Ridge, tries to capture some of the awful intensity of that battle, which serves as a backdrop to the rest of the film.
In an October 1951 charge up Height 1211 everyone in my dad's platoon was killed. Also my dad. A medic pronounced him dead on the battlefield. Later that afternoon, somebody else saw him barely breathing on a pile of dead bodies. So he was rushed to a MASH unit, where someone like Hawkeye Pierce was able to patch him up enough so that he could be transferred to Tokyo and then to San Antonio, where he spent the next several months as a patient at the Brooke Army Medical Center. He was in a coma for the better part of a year. His injuries were the result of at least two bullets to his brain, grenade fragments in his eyes and one ear, and bullet wounds to his chest, hip, and legs. All of these injuries left him with the total loss of one eye, partial blindness in the other, deafness in one ear, partial paralysis on the right side of his body, deep scars on his chest and legs, and loss of some brain function. (Whenever my dad made a mental mistake he would jokingly point to his head and say, "You got to understand I'm working with only part of a brain...") For his service, he was given the purple heart and other medals.

When my brother, sister, and I would ask him about his service during the Korean War he would tend not to want to talk much about it. He did tell me once that the day of his injuries was like hell on earth. "Frankly those whole three weeks were one long hellish period. I prayed often, tried to hum hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (my dad was the son of a Lutheran pastor), anything that could give me a bigger picture of what I was facing." He also told me that after he was injured, in the midst of very violent, hand-to-hand fighting, a calm sensation came over him. He did see a bright light, but it didn't last for very long. "The next thing I remember was waking up in Texas many months later."

A few years ago I read the definitive history of the battle of Heartbreak Ridge and learned that my dad's company was purposely sent up one side of the hill, against overwhelming numbers of Chinese, in a so-called "diversionary tactic." The battle itself has been described as "a fiasco," because the U. S. totally underestimated the strength of the North Koreans and the Chinese. Only later, after sending in tanks, did the United Nations' forces secure that hill, which was eventually given back to the North Koreans.

When my dad finally returned to Oregon after his rehabilitation, he was able to find work in the regional office of State Farm Insurance. There he worked in the mailroom, sorting mail, making photocopies, trying to be a productive individual.

But every so often the scars of his infantry service would make themselves known. Throughout his life he was deeply troubled by all of the killing he did. I will never forget Memorial Day, 1972, twenty years after my dad returned from war. He was watching the news in our living room. My brother, sister, mom, and I were finishing our dinner in the kitchen. All of a sudden we heard my dad crying hysterically in the other room. My mother rushed to help him and to find out what was wrong. "David, what did you see on television?!" After ten minutes of soothing by my mother he calmed down enough to tell her that on the news that night they had run a story about North Korean orphans and widows from the war. My dad, who had suffered infrequent nightmares ever since he "came home," could only think, "Maybe I killed that child's father or that woman's husband..." We went to bed early that night.

This is only one anecdotal example, but I suspect many others could be told about military personnel who suffered and suffer deeply as a result of their "justified" killing. These stories seem more human and humane to me than the all-too-familiar bravado-pleasurable kind, the kind of story we heard not too long ago from a U. S. army general who spoke publicly about the "pleasure" of killing Afghans or any other "enemy."
War is terrible and we should never grow fond of it.

Is war sometimes a "tragic necessity?" Yes, sadly, but we cannot ignore the tragic pathos that inhabits many (most?) soldiers when they kill, a pathos that comes over them and returns to them after they come home. No amount of "joyful vocation" language will cover over that pathos.

The front page of my local paper today has a picture of one such suffering veteran who served in Vietnam. The subtitle of the article states, "On any given night, hundreds of vets are left homeless in Northwest Indiana. The scars of war have left some fighting to get back on their feet." Nationwide, about 1.5 million veterans are considered at risk of homelessness.

After Korea, my dad fought to get back on his feet. Initially bitter and resentful toward country and God (when he was given his medals he supposedly threw them out the window in a moment of rage), his parents did all they could to help my dad get counseling. They continued to bring him with them to my Grandfather's church services. Later after my dad met the woman who would become his wife and my mother, she encouraged him in his job-search that eventually led him to State Farm. Her abiding love and faithfulness to him kept him from sinking too low. Friends and co-workers helped him to find joy and happiness in life and work. He made many friends and could often point to the difficulties in his life as a way of encouraging others who were also struggling. He became a kind of "wounded healer," to use Nouwen's great phrase, active in his local Lutheran congregation, involved with social services in his home town, a true inspiration. When he retired from State Farm, the line of people to congratulate him and wish him well stretched out to include more than 700 of his co-workers, past and present.

Following his "first death" in baptism (we Lutherans speak of baptism as putting "the old, sinful Adam" to death), and his second death on a Korean battlefield in 1951, my dad died for the third time on June 17, 2004. He is buried at Willamette National Cemetery, Portland, Ore. Nearby are graves of individuals who died young in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

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