Hearing War Stories

“I know who you remind me of – it just hit me,” the contractor on my project said as he stopped by my cubicle.  “You remind me of a woman I met on leave in Australia in 1968 – your hair, your smile, everything – were you in Australia in 1968?”

I laughed, “Joe, I was not even alive in 1968.”

“Well she was your doppelganger! I swear. I was happy to be on leave from the jungle – I had seen this woman with that same color hair – and ended up spending my whole leave at her flat with her and her friends.  It was the first time I heard ‘Here comes the sun, and I say, It’s all right’ and they laughed at me for not knowing it was The Beatles.”

I smiled and laughed with him when he told his short story.  But he continued.  He continued to talk about how he had joined the army not knowing what it was about – then learned and wanted the hell out.  The more he learned about the war, the more he objected it.  He became an anti-war activist while wearing a uniform.  He got his own personal escorts to Vietnam because they feared he would go AWOL.

My gift, it seems – my gift of talking to someone in passing, and having the conversation spin into war tales – things they will admit along the way they have not spoken of in a long time or sometimes ever.  Usually at some point they will wonder aloud why they are talking about this now – why this moment?  And I will thank them for sharing their experiences – telling me when I know they don’t talk about it.  And that will prompt them to share even more.

Yesterday was no exception.  This man who I usually talk about soccer with or how most of what we do involves a psych degree rather than a technology one had opened up to me and told me all about his time in the war.  How lucky he was.  How despite being forced into a war he disagreed with – how it did not silence him.  If he was going to be a pawn in the political game, he said, he would be a loud one.

I told him I was happy my dad was able to serve but under his own terms explaining how he got into the military to avoid the draft.  I told him I understood some of his tales because my dad spoke of similar ones – then he would start chuckling and admit that he went through that too – and this how he and his crew dealt with it.

We talked for almost an hour, I think, about his stories of being in the Army.  I was happy he had gotten to a place where he laughs and speaks of the experience as he does.

I reflected afterwards how I used to look at this happening with my dad and think it was because my dad was military too.  I saw it simply as soldiers sharing war stories.  But now I see it differently.  I, like my dad, treat whoever is sharing with respect – we thank them for sharing – we don’t try to insert our own feelings but listen.  We don’t shrink when they talk about things that are not-so-PC, but we ask questions.  We make comments that show we are not judging.

I was later commenting to a work-friend about how this conversation.  This work-friend is also a vet in an all-too-recent war.  I know bits and pieces of his story – but the big piece I know is that his time over there was something he barely survived.

“It took me a long time to understand,” he commented randomly, “how you can support the soldier and hate the war – and that’s ok. I get that now.”

Then he changed the subject.

Someone else in the room tried to push – and I helped him take the subject elsewhere. His eyes told me he was grateful I understand why he wasn’t going there – and I knew why.  Unlike my contractor Joe, he has not found a place where he can talk about it.  And that’s ok.  I just hope he knows I’m here to listen when he is.

PS: I cannot write this or even think about yesterday’s conversation without thinking of my friend Dan who did at least 1 tour in the Middle East during the Iraq War.  He told me about his time in the war one night at a munch – surrounded by laughing kinky people, and he’s crying as he is telling me about the friends he lost and things he saw.  I checked in with him a few times after that night – because honestly I could see he was struggling.  He assured me he was good – a moment where he felt comfortable and the words came tumbling out.  After that night, he always had a big hug for me – and a smile on his face.  Soon after that night, we all learned it was a facade – he killed himself because it was all too much for him.  And his words of that night came back to haunt me “I was not the man I had to be over there – I didn’t like that man.”  I guess I write this to remind people of the struggle our vets go through with PTSD and other horrors post-war.  Don’t be afraid to encourage them to get help.  They aren’t as alone as they feel. Anyway – just had to say this too.

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