Talking Dirty to the Kids

Our apologies, good friends,
for the fracture of good order,
the burning of paper instead of children,
the angering of the orderlies
in the front parlor of the charnel house.
We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.

Daniel Berrigan, SJ


From time to time Medic talks at colleges and high schools. The subject is war and its aftermath. Experience has shown that most students find the politics or dry facts boring; they do not relate to long films, well-meant but impoverished poetry, the uncompelling war yarn. After many years I have learned this: True war talk is hard to sell but someone has to tell it and hope young ears will listen. Done right there is no substitute for speaking straight from the heart.

Bentley University
.The class rooms at Bentley are clean and modern.A well endowed private business school,the pleasing campus of red brick buildings and clean open space is a hub for budding entrepreneurs. Most are well-heeled and upper middle class; they dress causally,walk softly, carry wallets with ample cash or plastic. They are bright, ambitious, competitive. The four-year goal is to make money and syllabi are geared to that end.  Among the non-business electives offered, a course on Vietnam,taught by noted translator and award winning poet Nancy Esposito.

Last year, after the two-hour talk had finished,the class of twenty students filed out glum and silent. Had I done something wrong?  Told over the top stories? Used profanity to excess? In the initial class go round, had I shown disrespect to the nephew of a commanding general in Iraq?

I kept those thoughts to myself. “I’m drained,” said Nancy. I waited. “You really shook them up,”she finally said. “They weren’t expecting that. These are good kids but they’re insulated. You probably made them very uncomfortable.” We locked eyes. “Good,” I said, without malice. “Right,” she replied.

The summer class of thirty-five visiting European students and eight Americans was held in a large airy, carpeted hall with an overhead projector; a long table resplendent with sodas and hors d’œuvres, parked to one side. The students filed into the room, took their seats and read VN 101, my generic sketch of a one-year combat tour. After Nancy’s brief introduction, I said to myself one last time, “You are good, you are calm, you are strong,” took a deep breath, and began.

“It’s good to be here. We have two hours. I’ll talk for forty-five minutes. We’ll take a ten minute break. Show a short film. Wind up with questions and answers. My subject is war and its aftermath. A little about me: I was an infantry medic ,and saw my share of combat. But first, let’s talk about you.” The students looked surprised. They didn’t expect that. And there would be other kindred ambushes.

Hands on my hips, I said, “The imploding stock market, the drop in housing prices, skyrocketing foreclosures, unemployment and job losses. Some say a real recovery might be a while. And that affects you. After graduating from Bentley, suppose you can’t find work. Suppose your bank account is modest. Suppose your folks would like to help but they’ve lost money in the market, they might be laid off. They’re already looking for work.”

I paused to let the dread sink in. This was their world and they knew it.

“By a show of hands: How many of you have credit cards to pay off? School loans outstanding? Car  Nearly every hand went up.payments? Rent due every month? Cell phone and utility  bills?”

Nearly every hand shot up.

“So tell me, “I said, “How does the pressure of debt and uncertainty make you feel?”

Responses were slow in coming. “Don’t be afraid,” I said. “This will not be on the final.”

A few chuckles, the mood lightened, four hands tentatively raised.

“I’d feel nervous,” said a short-haired boy in the first row.

“Or anxious,” said the brunette girl next to him.

“It would be hard to concentrate,” said a stocky youth seated in the back row.

“Confusion,” said a thin boy in jeans, T-shirt and two day-stubble.

“Nervous, anxious, confused. Tell me more,” I said, seeking to draw the students out.

Ten minutes later, having amplified their feelings, I went to work.

“Take that dread of no where to sleep, no food in the fridge, panic snapping at your heels, hope gone sour, hunger and fear knotting your gut. Five months job hunting and nothing to show for it. Take that dread, that shame, that sense of doom, and multiply it by three. And do this too: Close your eyes. See that dark, never-ending abyss. Feel how it overwhelms you. Become it.”

The comfortable room is suddenly quiet. Then came the sucker punch.

“Got it? Good. Now take those feelings, those awful feelings, and multiply by ten.

Thirty seconds later, their ingenue eyes re-opened, I said,“Good work. You’ve come close to understanding the terror of combat.” I scanned every face in the room.“Welcome to my world. Now we’ll begin.”

Time for the once around. “How many of you know a veteran of any war?” I asked.

Almost everyone raised their hand.

“Great. Take two minutes, I’ll point to you, tell me who that person was, what war they were in, what they did, what they were like before and after they returned from combat.”

The Europeans cited relatives from WWII. The Americans cited Korea as well. In many cases, though not all, they spoke of men who did not talk about the past. Who, back from war, worked hard, smoked or drank, brooded or stayed to themselves; or married, kept up appearances, but might beat or yell at their kids, their wives, sometimes for no reason. American uncles from Vietnam were a somewhat similar story. “He was angry a lot,” said a cheerful boy dressed in black. “Or his moods changed. It was hard for him to sit or stand still.” A blonde girl with braids said, “I hardly knew my uncle, but my father told me something happened when he was there that changed him.”

“Angry, moody, never the same,” I echoed, then called on a black-haired, serious looking girl who spoke with a Mideast accent.

 n September 1980 Iraq carried out an unprovoked attack on Iran. The ensuing war lasted over 7 years. This war was supported by the West, with the US and UK providing weapons, and chemical and biological technology to Saddam Hussein, including Mustard and VX gas, which inflicted horrific casuaties.“My father was in the Iraq-Iran war,” she said. “He fought under Saddam Hussein.”

Stunned, I momentarily could not speak. A nightmare had broken into the tranquil room. My heart went out to this young woman, this soldier’s daughter, this survivor’s child. Given to sudden emotions, secretly I pressed my index finger over my right thumb to curb my feelings. To keep my mask intact.

Swallowing hard, I asked,“Does everyone understand? Her father fought against the Iranian army in a terrible eight-year war in which many men died.”

Their knotted brows suggested most had not heard of the Iran/Iraq war.

“How is he…how is your dad, now?” I managed to ask.

“I was born after he returned,” she said, pursing her lips. “My mother told me my dad was happy and outgoing. But when he returned she said he was different; she called him her ghost. Sometimes he won’t speak to us, or walks away, and never explains where or why. I want to love my dad, I want to care for him, but he won’t let me. I hardly know him.”

I crushed my feelings by squeezing both fists behind my back. An awkward silence followed.

“Thank you,” I finally said.“Your name?”


“You’re strong, Elena, to speak up like that. I’m sure your dad cares for you and your mom, but it’s hard for him to show his love.” I paused a moment. “This is a good time to talk about PTSD. What do those letters mean?”

Tim Hetherington, a Vanity Fair photographer based in Britain, won the World Press Photo of the Year 2007 award with this picture of an American soldier resting at a bunker in Korengal Valley, Afghanistan.Silence. I caught the darting eye of a pleasant-looking girl.

“Me?” she asked.

“Yes, you,” I said, my voice soft, protective.

She struggled a bit, then found the right word order.

“Very good,” I said. “But what do those words mean?”

I pointed to an expectant-looking young man with a stylish haircut.

“It has to do with how war affects you when the fighting stops. When you are safe. You still think you’re in combat.”

“Excellent,” I said. “Post…after. Traumatic…trauma. Stress Disorder. The disabling stress that comes after combat. Or six months after you come home. Or six years. Or twenty or thirty.” I turned my head slowly to the left and right.

“One symptom of PTSD is startle reflex. Who wants to take a shot at that?”

I pointed my trigger finger at the clean-shaven fellow wearing a white shirt and blue tie; the only one to get the gag.

“It’s like, you hear an unexpected sound,and you turn real quick to see where it’s coming from because it makes you think of danger.”

“Very good,” I said.“Startle…reflex.Would you show us? Can you do that?”

And he did, and did it well, cocking his head side to side, and I immediately said, “Do that again.”

This time everyone looked.

“Anyone been in a car crash?” I asked.“You throw your hands up, you duck without thinking. With luck, you walk away. Otherwise, you’re messed up. Being on patrol is like that: at the slightest sound, you drop, you crawl, you start shooting, and hope and pray you don’t get killed or maimed or wounded. Some vets still flinch at sudden sounds.”

I feel a deep sadness welling up inside me. Fists behind the back. Squeeze hard. Harder. I tell a story.

“After I got home, I visited our machine gunner and my best friend. One night, sitting on the couch in his ratty St.Louis apartment, Jim rolls a thick joint, he says, ‘Hey, Doc, my girlfriend’s coming over. “What’s mine is yours.” And he lights that fat joint, he takes a long slow drag, lets it out, and he shows me her picture. It must be the dope. She can’t be real. But when Denise arrives she is more beautiful than any woman I’ve ever seen.

A dozen students giggle. For no reason I speak to the boy wearing the shirt and tie.

“I am twenty-two years old. I have seen my share of war and women, but she is God’s gift to mankind!”

The kids laugh; the thin old man is spinning a good yarn.

Medic and Jim Lamb sitting on their culvert hooch on LZ Compton. An Loc 1969“Jim says, ‘Denise, this is Doc. He was my medic in Vietnam.’ ”

“Denise says, ‘Hello, Doc. Jim talks  a lot about you.” ‘Jim says,’ We’ll be right back.'”

“And he leads Denise into the bedroom. After a time he opens the door. ‘I’m really sorry, man. She doesn’t want to do it. Doc, I’m really sorry.’”

“And he closes the door, and I slept on the couch, and that, was that. But Jim meant it: ‘What’s mine is yours.’ In combat we’d shared bunkers and food and water. And I’d patch him up if he got hit, and he’d thrown himself on me during an ambush. We were close. Like brothers. So he really was sorry.”

I make a sad face, then smirk, “And so was I.”

More laughter. But the story is about to take a hard left turn.

“In the morning Jim says St. Louis has the best IHOP in the world. Denise says, “Pancakes make the man.” Jim puts his arm around her, drives his beat up Volkswagen too fast, finds a parking space, we have to cross a busy street. There must be thirty cars waiting for the light to change. We start to walk, Jim and Denise holding hands. Just as we’re half way across, a road crew opens up with a jack hammer. Instantly Jim and I drop to the ground, but it’s not soft earth, it’s urban black top, and we are low crawling through city traffic. Angry drivers honk their horns. Pedestrians think we’re crazy. Jim and I get up, dusting ourselves off.”

“Denise asks, ‘Are you all right?'”

“I punch Jim in the arm. ‘Don’t mean nothing,’ I say. Jim asks,‘You hungry, Doc?’ And we go inside and the place is crowded and the food is tasty.”

“That’s startle reflex,” I say. Six more symptoms shoot from my mouth: “But there’s hypervigilance, crying spells, anxiety, drug abuse, thoughts of suicide. Homicidal ideation too.”

Slow down. You’re talking too fast. They might be scared.

“Anyone know what that last one means?”

Someone mumbles the perfect answer. “Please speak up,” I say. “And talk with the full authority of your voice.”

A European, a muscular handsome boy says, “I believe it concerns how one thinks of killing people with a certain rate of frequency.”

“Very good,” I say. “Thoughts of killing people. Very good.”

I flip through my notebook, then put it down. Garcia can wait.

“Not a day goes by, I don’t have angry thoughts. Most combat vets have anger. But it’s not ordinary anger. It’s sudden murderous rage. Most guys don’t act on it but those that do may end up in jail.”

I check my watch. Supermarket or plate glass window? It’s a tough choice. I like them both.

“Yesterday, in a supermarket check out line, I stood behind an old man with a cane. Paying for his groceries he lost count twice. Most people would shrug that off, but I got enraged. I imagined yelling, ‘Mister, what is your fucking problem? I haven’t got all fucking day!’ In my mind, when he gives me a look I grab his throat and squeeze until his face turns blue. Then I punch his face until blood spurts from his eyes and nose and drips from his mouth. I’m happy now. When I let go my grip his head hits the floor with a loud solid thud.”

The kids are dumbfounded. No one speaks. There is only one thing to say and I say it.

“I have these thoughts all the time. Most combat vets have short fuses. Why do you think they’re like that?”

It’s a rhetorical question. Good for a segue. Benito Garcia. Photo by Jeff Wolin. Photo and full interview appear in Inconvenient Stories: Vietnam Veterans. Umbridge Editions, 2007

“I want to read you the story of Benito Garcia. In Vietnam he was your age. A lot of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq are your age.”

I read the excerpt loud and clear. Modulate my voice. Walk to the left, then right; occasionally,look up from the page. From the very first line the class is shocked by what war is. What it does to the human heart.

“The first time I saw a dead American, there were three of them. Their heads were up on stakes. The enemy did that to scare us but we just got angry. On a patrol I found the men that did it. I bayoneted one,shot the other two and cut off their heads. It didn’t bother me back then but I don’t sleep more than fifteen to twenty minutes at a time; I wake up with nightmares and chills and sweats. I walk the perimeter at night. I saw children after I killed their parents. You hear them cry. I’m 100% disabled for PTSD; thirty percent for diabetes; ten percent for erectile dysfunction and ten percent for organic brain damage. They give me pain medication that doesn’t work. Marijuana helps but the Veterans Administration won’t let me have it. They want to give me codeine, but that counteracts the Viagra and I’d rather have a hard-on and pain than just be a fucking zombie. After the war, on Mother’s Day, my father, a police officer,arrested me. In eighteen days I robbed six banks in Chicago. I served sixteen months in prison. In 1995 I served three years, three months for possession of marijuana and am presently on parole. I won’t smoke now, but come Christmas 2005, I am going to roll a fucking joint the size of a bus and I’ll kill it in one drag.”

I close the notebook. “Pretty strong stuff. Killing, not caring, until you get older, feel the regret. Walking the perimeter? At night he locks the doors and window of his house,otherwise he won’t feel safe. He robbed banks. That’s kind of like combat, don’t you think? He has nightmares. Have you ever had a dream so bad you forced yourself awake? I know vets who keep loaded guns by their beds. Or sleep in the basement. Civilians think that’s crazy, but plenty of vets your age are not happy campers. They could be Garcia’s son’s and daughter’s.”

“I had nightmares for thirty years. On and off I wrote them down. They’ve pretty much stopped. Here are three.”

Unlike the war tales, I can read the dreams no problem.

“We’re walking through jungle. I’m in charge of two men and a girl. A new man is sent to replace me. I shoot him in the leg. We hear something. I check my ammo. A moment later we’re ambushed. I climb to high ground, see the enemy, shoot at them with my pistol. I yell to the new man, ‘Throw a grenade.’ I yell to the girl, ‘I will not die.’ I tell the girl I love her. Then I am shot.”

“I’m in Cambodia at the ambush site. Instead of firing M16s and AK-47s, the American’s and the Vietnamese scream and prepare for hand-to-hand combat. The enemy charge with bayonets drawn. I wait for the killing thrust into my chest.”

“I’m with my brother in the jungle. I’m a radio operator, not a medic. A pilot sends me a message. I take out a pen, spread a napkin on the ground, tell my brother to hold it flat while I write down the message. My brother laughs. I take out my forty-five pistol. ‘If you do that again I’ll kill you,’ I say. My brother laughs. I shoot him in the face. I wake up saying, ‘You didn’t listen so I killed you.’ ”

The students shift in their seats. Are they bored? Tired? Uncomfortable? A cute girl in the first row raises her hand.

“Why did you kill your brother?”

It’s a silly question, annoying really, born of sweet forgivable innocence. I tell her in childhood we did not get along. I remind her this is a nightmare. I remind her that in combat every second counts. I tell her there’s no room for mistakes.

“It’s like driving a car a hundred miles an hour; you have to concentrate or you’ll crash.”

I tell the kids I had dreams where the bullets spill out, or I’ve got no ammo, or the enemy gives chase, I wake up scared. I tell them two months ago I’m sleeping on the couch, my girlfriend walks in, I raise up, fists cocked,ready to strike. I tell them ten years ago I found point man Larry Roy.

“He plays semi-pro golf now, teaches it, but we have the same kind of dreams.”

I tell them Larry Roy found Jesus. He said Jesus fixed his spine. I tell them Larry said, ‘Doc, Christ is my lord and savior. He can be your savior, too.’ I tell the kids I don’t care for Jesus, but I’m glad Larry made it home in one piece. I tell them in Vietnam, after one year, if you didn’t get shot or killed, you went home. Of course it felt bad, to leave your friends behind, but that’s  what we wanted most, to go home. Months or years later you might wonder ‘How come I lived and someone else got killed?’ How come?”

Mother and son farming on Quan Loi, a major American base during the war. Quan Loi, Vietnam 1995Quickly, I tell them of backpacking in Southeast Asia in 1995; the many adventures and flashbacks. I tell of rain forests in Sumatra too: “On the third day, after trekking six hours, I leaned forward like we did on patrol. Looking up,I hallucinated myself in combat.”

Quickly, I talk about Bill Williams, who’d gotten a rear job after being wounded and should never have been sent back to the bush. But the Army told Bill if he refused  to alter casualty reports, make our losses less, they’d send his ass to us. “I found his family twenty-five years after he’d been shot. Dale, Bill’s brother, said the Army never explained why that happened. He said his mom died a bitter woman.”

I choke back tears. Did the kids see it? Of course they did. These are the moments not on the quiz. These are the moments that count.

“Time for a break,” I say. A minute more would have been punishment.

When the kids return I show the film. Done on a shoe string, the class is drawn into its five sketches studded with combat photos, archival footage, and special effects. I’ve viewed the video fifty times but still twitch when shots ring out, when aerial rockets speed and strike, when the Howitzer’s buck and roar. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. The weapons and gear have changed but not much else.

As the credits roll I turn the lights on, wait for the kids to stop blinking, then spring the penultimate ambush.

“What is the worst question you can ask a combat vet?”

Several hands go up.

“Were you afraid?”

“Were you wounded?”

“Did you kill anyone?”

They are all good answers but I in my experience the last response is best.

“What goes through a veteran’s mind when you ask that question?” I ask.

“He feels bad.”

“He doesn’t want to talk about it.”

“It brings him back.”

They are all good answers and in my experience they are all the best response.

“It brings him back to being ambushed or pinned down or maybe shooting someone by mistake. It makes him angry because the person asking the question cannot possibly know what it means to kill a human being or see someone die. It brings up rage, it brings up shame, it brings back the colors and sounds and smell of battle. It brings up ‘Who the hell are you asking me that question? You don’t know where I’ve been, or what I’ve done, what I got, or how I got it. You don’t know me. You don’t know squat.'”

I check my watch. No time to tell Tommy’s story; he saw enough rape to leave him loveless for life. No time for the Englishman married to a Khmer woman who escaped the killing fields but still acts strange. “So that’s it!” he said, after I detailed PTSD. No time to quote Whitman’s elegiac, “Specimen Days,” or “Infantry Assault,” from Doug Anderson’s book, “The Moon Reflected Fire”:

The way he made that corpse dance
by emptying one magazine after another into it
and the way the corpse’s face began to peel off
like a mask because the skull had been shattered, brains
spilled out, but he couldn’t stop killing that corpse…

No time for Army evil at My Lai,Marine madness at Haditha. There are other matters at hand.

“What…what is the worst compliment you can pay a combat vet?”

Like shooting stars a dozen hands go up.

“Good job!” says the brunette girl. A quizzical smile inhabits her face.

Excellent,” I say, secretly stunned. “Say it again, louder.” When she does some students laugh; but most are quiet.

“We’ll come back to that,” I say. “What else?”   Veterans Day parade tow truck with sign, flag, civilians.

“Thank you for serving your country.”

“Thank you for preserving our freedom.”

“You’re a hero.”

Enough bulls eyes for today. I tell these well-heeled young adults, these private school students, these future leaders of commerce, I tell these good kids what I have learned from raw meat experience.

“When the shooting starts, when men yell ‘Keep your head down!’ or ‘There they are! Kill those motherfuckers!’ or they’re howling in pain, no one is fighting for freedom, for your right to vote, or salute the flag, or pray or not pray, you name it. Democracy mean nothing in combat. When the shooting starts it’s all about staying alive, which means you kill the enemy so you don’t get killed. That’s all that matters. That’s all that counts. And when it’s done, and you are home, smiling civilians, talking a strange language, smile and say the stupidest things. ‘Hero,’ they call you.‘Good job’ they say. ‘Thank you for your service.’ As if they knew what those things meant. Believe me they don’t. Not by a fucking long shot. Most American’s have no idea, not one wit, what war is, what it isn’t, how it cripples the soul,maims the body, devours the heart.”

Lighten up,brother. Lighten up.

“So, how do you greet an Iraq or Afghanistan vet?” I ask, hands behind my back. “You could say, ‘I’m glad you made it home.’ Or, ‘I’m glad you’re safe.’ Or even better, ‘I”m sorry for how the country treated you when you came back.’ Or you might say nothing at all. Just open your arms and invite that man or woman in. It’s a loving gesture, and some will accept and some won’t, but at least you tried, and if it’s real, they will know it, and that’s what counts.”

I open and close the arc of my arms, then let my hands fall to my sides.

“Love,” I say. “That’s a good word to end on. Love.”


Originally published in CounterPunch, 9 Oct, 2009

Benito Garcia excerpt from Vietnam War Veterans:Inconvenient Stories, by Jeffrey Wolin. Used by permission.

Infantry Assault excerpt from The Moon Reflected Fire, by Doug Anderson. Used by permission.