the real costs of war - ray kaniatyn

Part 1      

I have seen some death, less than others, more than some.  My first, was when I was about eight. I didn’t see it, I heard it.  We were playing ring-a-levio, a team tag game, when I heard the brakes screech and the loud thud of a fender hitting a body. By the time we got there, M&M, those were his initials, was motionless, twisted like a contortionist. I can still see him, hair cut in bangs like the early Beatles, goofy smile, and high waters, where’s the flood? I cried when I saw him in the coffin. It was easy to cry back then.  My mother said, “Thank God it wasn’t you.” 

My second were Eddie and May, who lived next door, childhood sweethearts in their sixties, maybe seventies, who always held hands and sat on barstools next to each other. Eddie passed first; I can’t recall the nature of his death. He was there one day and then gone. May hardly left the house. I would sometimes do her shopping at the local Pioneer for food, beer, and cigarettes, (mostly beer and cigarettes). And then one day, after a few months there was this smell coming through the walls and permeating down the hallway. It was foul to the point I wanted to throw up.  Finally, my mother banged on the door but got no answer. The cops were called. The landlord opened the door and to no one’s surprise, they found May dead. Urban legend has it that she was in the bathtub and when they pulled her up by the arms, she was so water-logged that they came out of her sockets.

Death seemed everywhere back in those days. There were winos on park benches, junkies OD-ed in hallways, the occasional stabbing victim, Crazy Louie’s brother was found dead, shot several times, in a trunk of a car, the occasional parent on the block or at school, like Irene’s father who was a window washer and fell to his death. Back then they would announce it in school, “Please pray for the repose of the soul of…” and then name the parent and the student. The kid would almost always start crying, reliving the loss.

It wasn’t until my own father died when I was sixteen, heart attack attributed to booze and cigarettes and to a lesser degree a German POW camp, that I better understood their tears and was not spared.  It was downright humiliating and shameful, all those eyes pitying you and then without skipping a beat going right back into the math lesson or English or even catechism. 

Then there was Vietnam. Me and my brother were still too young, but a lot of the older guys were going. Zenko and Johnny made it home, so did Billy’s brother but he kept to himself now and never talked to anyone. T. never made it through boot camp.  Dave and Mike beat the draft somehow. Others left for Canada.  The only one who didn’t make it home from Vietnam that I knew was Dennis and Judy’s older brother, Sam – KIA we were told.  He was the only one that stood up to Crazy Louie and beat him down.  That family was never the same after that.  The mom, can’t recall her name, was one of the nice moms.  She never yelled or hit us.  After that she always wore these dark sunglasses.  The father looked broken, like M&M after he was hit by the car.  I heard they moved to Arizona, and we never saw them again.  A few years later, when we all started drinking, we would always spill a little beer or Boone’s Farm Wine or Ole Grand Dad Bourbon before we drank and say, “For Sam and the boys,” out of respect.

Part 2-A   

It was 1973, a few months into my senior year when I enlisted in the Marine Corps and was on the delayed entry program. A few days after graduation in ‘74, I was to begin boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina. I was interested in law enforcement at the time and the Marine Corps recruiter guaranteed that I would be assigned to a Military Police Unit and instantly hired on any police force or law enforcement agency in the country once I was discharged. Nick S., my high school PE teacher, pleaded with me and tried every which way to talk me out of it. He confided in me that he was told he would play soccer in Germany. His orders were infantry, Vietnam. I didn’t listen. 

When I got my MOS after graduating boot camp in Parris Island for 0311 – grunt, I told the senior drill instructor that there must be some mistake – that I was guaranteed military police.  He replied, “Boy, you ain’t guaranteed shit.” After AIT at Camp Geiger, I joined the 2nd Battalion, 9th Regiment, 1st Marine Division at Okinawa. A few months in, we were on maneuvers, retracing the eighty-day battle thirty years earlier, humping ridge after ridge, and crawling through mud and torrential rains while automatics opened over heads as we hit the dirt and C-4 explosives shook the ground.  

We were supposed to be out for ten days but were called back after four (but it felt like four hundred – I have no idea how those grunts lasted eighty).  When we got back, before we even cleaned up, we were told to prepare for Operation Frequent Wind – next stop, Vietnam. I was so gung-ho, naïve, and stupid, and my first thought was Okay, we are going in to finally win this fucking war. I didn’t know until later, our job was to evacuate all American personnel, South Vietnamese government officials, and other foreign dignitaries and families. And so we went from play war to real war just like that.

My first duty station in Vietnam was Ton Son Nut Airport. The tarmac looked like a mirage from all the fuel expelled from the C-130’s, choppers, jet fighters and other aircraft.  The faint echoes of artillery, automatics and even small arms could be heard in the distance, giving a sense we were still far away and on maneuvers. The battalion was scattered, some were assigned to Air Force personnel to run errands and hump machine parts from point A to point B.  Others packing and loading boxes. One platoon reinforced the inside perimeter. 

My first night, I was assigned outside the wire stopping vehicles. Our orders were simple – no vehicles were to get through unless there was American personnel inside with written authorization. Most vehicles did not have either and the entire night consisted of shouting back and forth in two different languages trying to communicate, pointing weapons at each other, and standing down and getting interpreters and other officials involved, vehicles pulling off to the side or making a u-turn and going back. It was tense but no one fired a shot, although the crackling of automatics, mortars, and artillery was more pronounced and lit up the darkness. 

The second day, still no sleep, but I was rotated inside the perimeter. Everything looked hazier and dreamlike as we were finally able to close our eyes around the make-shift sandbags and bunkers by the check point. I was constantly startled, the sounds of war closing in. Wasn’t sure if I was asleep when the explosions seemed right on top of us. I couldn’t see through the smoke and heat, much less breathe the hot-dense-toxic air.  

An artillery shell landed not far, and through the blast and debris, I saw a body lifted into the air as if yanked hard by a giant invisible arm. When I got to him, he was unrecognizable, burnt black beyond recognition, bleeding from everywhere and hot to the touch, scalding my hands as I ripped open his shirt and skin and flesh along with it. He was trying to scream but couldn’t, shook violently and grabbed me, pulling me into him. I can’t recall anything else but a medic truck and Sergeant W. grabbing my arm and telling me, “We have to reinforce the perimeter.” 

Then there’s an evac mission to a French Consulate just outside Saigon. We encountered a mob, pushing, trying to make their way through us and towards the chopper, then gunfire and the parting of the crowd and a still body just lying there and then the crowd closing in again, engulfing and the body disappearing. 

There were countless other deaths the following days of Frequent Wind and even more during the Mayaquez Incident or Battle of Koh Tang.  None having more of an impact on me than the three Marines left behind on Koh Tang. The mission was botched from the beginning: poor and hurried planning, bad intel, multiple LZ’s, the decision to use 53’s and Chinooks, underestimation of enemy strength, nothing about terrain, poor communication, or the fact that the 28 Merchant seamen that were taken hostage were released safely prior to us commencing operations. In other words, everything that could go wrong did. The extraction was even more chaotic and haphazard than the landing, several choppers extracting from different LZ’s and landing on numerous ships made accounting for everyone nearly impossible.  And in the confusion, by the time the three Marines, H., H. and M., were discovered to be left behind – the decision was made to just leave them there. 

Morale was low after that. I remember DR coming out in formation in his skivvies. To his credit, he did have his boots laced but not spit-shined. When Sgt. Major H., a square, bulldog-faced 10x lifer lit into him, he casually took off his cover and asked, “What are you going to do – shave my head and send me back to Koh Tang?” During Battalion formation, there were gaps everywhere, someone said 34 in all. Colonel A. gave us a pep talk, telling us what a success the mission was, how we performed within highest traditions of the USMC, Smedley Bulter and Ole Dan Daly, Iwo Jima, Chosen and Khe Sahn etc.  We were called to attention, saluted as they played taps. Then the command to close ranks was given, filled in the gaps, and that was that.  

Part 2-B

When discharged in 1978, I found civilian life as shocking, disorientating, and without reference as stepping off the bus and greeted by our drill instructors in Parris Island four years earlier.  I still recall the Senior Drill Instructor informing us about Soviet intel, making the distinction between the USMC and all other fighting units around the globe. He told us that the Russians observed that all militaries are taught to kill, but the Marine Corps is different: they are trained to love it. I didn’t know it then, but he was right.

As a civilian, I could no longer connect with my friends. Everything that came out of their mouths seemed trifling and numbing and I had to concentrate so hard that it gave me a headache. And everything I said was out of context and shocking. I didn’t understand the English language any more than I did the shouting by Vietnamese at Ton Son Nut. I felt most uncomfortable at funerals. I never knew what to say or feel and felt like a phony whenever I tried to evoke anything that resembled remorse. 

I thought, or perhaps falsely convinced myself, that there was nothing wrong with me. After all, I wasn’t really in the Vietnam War, I didn’t do 13 months in country. Yet I couldn’t walk a city block without wanting to kill at least a dozen people. I would put my fist through walls and was arrested three times for fighting and thrown twice in jail and once into the tombs. I couldn’t concentrate in work or school, and after a year, all my friends stop talking and calling me. Nighttime was the worst.  Most people fall asleep, I descend into sleep, my stomach in knots, hands and legs flailing, bracing for the endless bottom and on many occasions rolling off the bed and onto the floor. Then there’s the faceless-formless Cambodians who ran through me, or when I am waist deep in the sea, and they are all around me, closing in. Some nights I fight to no avail, other times I just let them plunge the knives into my flesh. The shrink had a field day with my dreams. 

The worst part was when I struck Madeline, my wife and saving grace. I met Madeline before my discharge, and she was already showing by the time we got married. Gloria was beautiful.  By ten months, she was zooming around in her walker and when she got to a saddle on the floor, she lifted the walker and stepped over it.  “Did you see that?  She could walk!  Oh my God!” A year later, Michael. He had such a beautiful disposition and would light up every time I came home from work and school and would smile and laugh and sometimes just hold my face in his tiny hands and study me. I am not sure what he saw, but it made me feel good and human. Sometimes we would have these long, long babbling conversations. And after just months he died – SIDS – he just stopped breathing.  I just disengaged again. I hit the bottle hard. And the worst part, I was not there to comfort Madeline or Gloria. 

I was angrier than ever and had no faith in anything - God, the government, family, love, or anything.  But I did want the chance to meet Jesus, or John or Bill or anyone, and crucify them just to relieve the pain I was feeling. I almost got my chance one day, we were at the 59th Street Station, a nice spring day and we were trying to have a “normal day.” As we waited for the train to take us back to Brooklyn, there was this guy yelling and intimidating everyone. And he saw us and like a magnet began making his way towards us.  As he did, I made my way towards him as Madeline pleaded to no avail. I stopped and he stopped. We looked at each other and I said, “I know you may think you’re crazy. I will not dispute that. However, if you come near my family, I will show you what real crazy is. And I will kill you.” He looked at me somewhat puzzled and said, “Man, you’re crazy,” and walked away. 

Part 3

The simmering anger went on like that for years, Gloria finished college, got married.  Madeline went back to school for psychology, and I was making the switch from architecture and construction to teaching.  Basically, we were living two separate lives, and Madeline had enough. She said we had to do something. I wasn’t game for therapy or marriage counseling, more like fearful to begin to unravel and peel back the pain underneath. In 2008, she found something at the Omega Institute, a veteran’s retreat.  It was headed by a Vietnam veteran and Buddhist monk by the name of Claude AnShin Thomas, who stated, and I am paraphrasing, that we veterans are not broken. Our behaviors and what we are experiencing is a by-product and a direct result of our military experience.

As usual, I was reluctant. Madeline insisted, put her foot down and said, “Either we go or this marriage is over.”  “What’s this going to cost me?”  “It’s free.”  Sir, Private has no excuse, sir! Knowing on every level that she was the best thing that ever happened to me, we went. I was skeptical at best. There we were doing sitting meditation, walking meditation, and even eating meditation. How the hell can you chew overcooked and soggy linguine fifty times – and who’s counting? 

At one point, during a Q and A, I got up and asked AnShin, “How is all this breathing and meditation stuff going to help me when I am triggered and want to go into combat mode?” He replied, “I am not sure if it will, but you have to breath anyway, why not try it?” When I got back from our first speaking-and-listening meditation session, Madeline instantly noticed something and said I looked different. I felt different. There was something about listening to the other veterans, not speaking or interrupting, that made me feel I was not alone – or crazy.  And for the first time since my discharge, I was able to open up about my experiences and not feel awkward about it. I felt lighter. Strange as it was, amongst all these men and women who have known war and its violence I felt at peace. I went to several retreats after that. Madeline never accompanied me again. She just filled out the paperwork every year, made me a sandwich for the trip to Omega, gave me a kiss and not so little nudge out the door and off I went – six consecutive years in a row. I became a lifer at Omega.

Things did not get better right away for me and Madeline, there was a lot of damage control to be done and we went through several rounds of marriage counseling. I even saw a shrink at Madeline’s behest. He tried to get me to lie down on a couch and I told him, “You can shave my head and send me back to Koh Tang – I’m not going to do that.”  I can’t say I got a whole lot out of these sessions, but he did say one thing that stuck with me, “Rage is the inverse of depression.”  I was prone to both and oscillated between the two like whether to end my life or go on with this miserable existence. 

I did have one episode many years prior. I was sitting at my drafting table, Remington 12-gauge, three-inch slug loaded and the barrel in my mouth. I recall placing my mouth over the site of the barrel and then repositioning it again so as not to knock my front teeth out from the recoil. I was about to place my finger on the trigger when our cat jumped up on the table and gave me a look that expressed, “What the fuck are you doing?” It took me a year after my first trip to Omega, but I joined AA because AnShin insisted that to heal, you had to remove the intoxicants. I recall our conversation, “Yeah, but how about a few beers every now and then?”  “STOP!”  “A glass of…”  he didn’t let me finish, “STOP!” He didn’t even hear my case. 

I am the guy who found a way to get less Our Fathers and Hail Marys in confession by just telling the priest one sin, “I lied.” I figured by saying that I lied and not telling all my sins – I was absolved of all the other bigger ones and didn’t have to get shamed by the priest, stay kneeling so long in confessional that your legs fall asleep and spend even more time on your knees saying prayers.

Ella, our first grandchild was born before my first veterans retreat, two years later Ethan came along.  My daughter once commented, “Why couldn’t you be that way with me.”  I was determined to get it right. Like AnShin stated in his book, “If you blow up a bridge, then rebuild a bridge.”

Things were beginning to look up when in 2015, Madeline was diagnosed with lung cancer.  All those years of suppressed death, not allowing myself to feel anything more than the inconvenience of having to wear a suit and tie to a funeral, could no longer be contained. Rage, my go-to default, surged, and I pounced on a man who opened a cab door, hitting the side of my car twice and laughing, as he exited. I called my former shrink, and he suggested I check myself into the VA or a hospital. I let him know in Marine language that was not an option. As usual, I was reluctant to ask anyone for help even though I was in dire need of it. I decided to call AnShin I cannot recall much of our conversation, but I did feel calmer, and for the moment less apt to act on my rage. He did suggest I go to al Anon meetings, which I still attend. In addition, I found a caregivers group. I find both to be very helpful.

Through AnShin and the tools I learned at retreats, I discovered different ways to cope with my suffering other than rage and depression. I embraced that suffering was a way of life, as is death, and that to negate death and suffering was to also in a sense, negate life. Since Madeline’s diagnosis, there has been more death and loss, most notable, my mom passed two years ago.  There was a childhood friend, closer to me than my own brother, who took his own life, a friend’s son who died of an overdose, a couple that I knew for forty-seven years passed within a day of each other.  I was able to be present (in the moment) at the bedside of Madeline’s Aunt, when they took her off the respirator and administered the morphine.  I prayed, thankful for the gift of being able to be there in those final moments, so that she wasn’t alone, as she transitioned from life to death. I am grateful for all those people I loved whose presence I miss every day, and whose sadness has allowed me to cry. 

I watch Madeline as she struggles every day as the disease takes its’ course, and her health and quality of life deteriorates. I am in awe of her courage, strength, and will. Sometimes I think of the day when it will be too much, and she will concede and ask me to let go. And I know there is nothing I can do to prepare for this. I just try to breathe, support without enabling, and be as generous, kind, and loving as I can be. I have wished we could trade places for I cannot fathom walking this earth without her. Most of all I will miss her unswerving dedication, love, and guidance. I will probably even miss her nagging when I forget and leave a dish in the sink or fix the wooden duck-head on the door stop. I know my time will come soon enough. Now that I have embraced my suffering, life, and death, I can honestly say – it is not much of a concern. Or maybe Sgt. W. was right when he said, “You’re too stupid to be scared.” We’ll see.