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Location: Oaksterdam, California

Monday, May 31, 2004

Remember the Other Soldiers

During Easter vacation back in 1972, I attended a week of Outdoor Education at a beautiful redwood grove retreat hidden in the mountains above Santa Cruz. The idea was to bring together many of our school district’s 6th graders before the junior high school experience. We got the chance to learn natural science, make new friends, and meet girls from other schools- there was much holding of hands and stolen kisses as we explored the great outdoors.

I shared a cabin with dozen other youngsters and a cabin counselor with a monosyllabic name, like Rick or Rob, newly returned from Vietnam. He had long stringy blonde hair and an unsuccessful attempt at a first beard. He looked like Kurt Cobain years before Cobain did.

In no stretch of the imagination would this veteran be allowed around children today.

Instead of late-night ghost stories we were entertained with vivid descriptions of helicopter gun ships that fired 3,000 rounds a minute plowing up fields and everything living on them. Or how he once saw a Vietnamese kid about our age approach his friends, outside a theater in Saigon, with a carton of cigarettes in one hand and a bag of marijuana in the other. Both were wired up through the sleeves to a string of hand grenades strapped on his chest in a manner that killed and wounded a number our counselor’s friends…

I had the unfortunate prospect of being in the bunk above his. To say he was a light sleeper would be an exaggeration as he woke from his dark dreams every time I moved in my sleep. He warned us that he was a trained killer after he was woken one night by our cabin mate who was a sleepwalker. He was staring at me when he mentioned how he wouldn’t be responsible if he accidentally killed, “one of us little mother fucks…”

No one was killed and very few of the romances survived through summer into Jr. High. I stopped playing war with my friends after school. And that summer I got a paper route. I started watching the headlines. Over the next few years, I watched the Watergate scandal unfold, watched helicopters pushed off the flight-deck to make room for more evacuees, and watched the war end.

In 1978, while attending a regional athletic competition at UCLA, my girlfriend and I took a bottle of wine down to the Santa Monica Pier to watch the sunset. We met a Korean War veteran who slept under the pier. In those days he would be called a Wino since the Reagan-esque term Homeless had not yet entered the lexicon. So we shared our wine and he shared his story. When he started to speak about Korea and the people he’d killed there tears fell down his cheeks taking on the color of the sunset…

Today is Memorial Day. A day in which we honor the dead and those who have sacrificed in the service of their country. Yet rarely do we honor those who had something die inside, or those who sacrificed part of their humanity in the service of their country. When the drums of war beat military recruiters offer the challenge of be all you can be. Maybe training to kill inherently puts the soul at risk.

So today I pray for all who have been tested and failed. I pray for those put in positions to shoot innocent women and children; to torture fellow human beings. Those who have committed such acts will have to carry them for the rest of their lives and that is what I believe to be the greatest tragedy of war. So today I pray for the living dead and walking wounded.

They say September 11th changed everything but that is not true. There is still beauty and ugliness, hope and despair, in this world. Rather there are those who would use September 11th to change everything…