BY: RICHY CHEN
I’ve lived 16 years in a liberal environment, believing or accepting everything my parents, my teachers, and the news threw at me. I haven’t really experienced the real world and its many illusions. This changed during an interview with an experienced war veteran.
With a determination to experience a vastly different perspective, I opened up a document full of prepared questions and dialed the numbers to call Gregory Ross, a veteran of the Vietnam War, a licensed acupuncturist, an amateur writer, and an experienced human being.
“Hello,” a casual and gruff voice answered. He was brewing tea at the time, and we introduced ourselves as he finished brewing and moved to his garden to sit under the sun.
“So, why did you join the military?” I asked, as I sat back comfortably at my desk, fingers on the keyboard, and ready to record every little detail I heard.
Ross was drafted. “I was lucky enough to get into the Navy,” said Ross, “as opposed to the Army. I knew that if I were in the Navy, I would have less of a chance at going to Vietnam. Of course, it didn’t work out that way.” During the Vietnam War, almost 2 million young men were drafted, and an estimated 125, 000 young men escaped to Canada to avoid the draft. In fact, Ross knew two of those who moved to Canada. With some family members as veterans of earlier wars and reluctant to leave the U.S. or go to jail, Ross joined the U.S. military.
“How did the war affect your personal life?” I inquired, keen to get some details about Ross’ life as a veteran.
The war was a mostly bad experience for Ross. However, he does recognize that it wasn’t all bad. “It got me out of western New York, and it beats working in a factory,” laughed Ross. Nevertheless, after the war, Ross suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol use, and drug use. “I was not participating in life,” he recalled. He was able to get better by talking with other war veterans.
Yet, talking with non-veterans didn’t necessarily help. “Shortly after I got back, I learned pretty quickly that you don’t tell anyone you’re a Vietnam war veteran because you’re either subject to extreme pity or a ‘how could you do such a thing’ type of judgment. So I stopped telling people,” said Ross, sadly. For a year, he didn’t even tell a lady who he was having a relationship with.
Misunderstanding or ignorance from people who haven’t directly experienced the war was common, as Vietnam veterans started coming back. The veterans met not a little disgust when they returned home. “Most veterans did not go to Veterans Affairs, because they literally were told by some people not to go; the VA is for the Korean and WWII veterans, not the Vietnam war veterans who lost,” said Ross.
“What was your most vivid memory?”
“Actually, my most vivid experience did not take place in Vietnam. During that time, I was with the 7th fleet, about a mile off the coast. The 7th fleet was a giant, floating, artillery unit. It threw 300 pound shells, and my job was to make sure they landed on the right place. When we returned to the Philippines base, my friends and I would go to town together to drink, party, and experience females. They were prostitutes,” Ross broke off a bit, laughing.
“So, you could go to the base exchange, where you could change American dollars for Filipino pesos,” he continued. “The rate was about a dollar for 4 pesos. Or, you could go to the black market, where you could get about 16 pesos for a dollar. Everyone I knew went to the black market. I went to the stand to exchange my money. While I was there, I noticed this fleet sailor in his dress whites. We couldn’t leave the base with civilian clothes. He was at another stand, and he had just bought this watch, a piece of shit.” Ross laughed again, but soon continued.
“He was so proud of himself, that he had haggled the price down to ten dollars. As he did this, a Filipino, 10 year old girl grabbed the watch. She ran to about 10 feet near me, and then a Philippine constable shot her.” Ross paused, as if for effect. Certainly, I was shocked.
“She dropped,” he continued, “almost right in front of me. She was dead before she hit the ground, but I kept thinking she was alive somehow, that she was going to get up and blend into the crowd. Then I realized she wasn’t going to get up and blend into the crowd. The Philippine constable picked up the stolen watch and tried to return it to the fleet sailor, but he was in shock.”
Ross explained how he left fairly quickly after discovering he was the only American remaining. After a few drinks at a bar, he took a bus back to his barracks, where he smoked marijuana and drank massive amounts of alcohol. He then passed out. After coming to, Ross had no recollection of the event. Only at this point did I realize how such an event might have affected a witness. Indeed, I don’t ever expect to see a violent death within a few feet of me. Thinking about all the violent movies out there, I can recall a dozen cases where a character is impacted for the rest of his life because of a violent incident. I imagine Ross has suffered in a similar way, but he’s surviving and living his life.
“That was before 1980, and it only came back to me in 2011. In 1980, I went to group sessions for PTSD and one-on-one sessions, but that incident never came up. I even wrote a short story about a combat veteran who experienced extreme PTSD and contemplated suicide, because of that one death he can’t reconcile with, the death of a Vietnamese girl who stole his watch and got shot. I thought it was an amazing story. In 2011, I got laid off, so I went back to Veteran Affairs, but that retriggered my PTSD, and I was so sad, so I decided I needed help. I ended up joining this prolonged exposure therapy group, and I just had this vague thought that some young child had been killed, and I somehow had something to do with it. The more I did the therapy, the more the details came out, until it was like a movie I could replay in my mind. And, as it comes out, it comes out, and you don’t have it inside you. It’s not eating away at you, not that that’s okay. There was a period before that, when I couldn’t stand to be around children. I was hyper-vigilant about young children, when they’re crossing the road, and they weren’t even my children. I did acupuncture and helped other veterans and all this stuff, and I was semi-conscious that doing this work was paying off the debt, which I had from the Vietnam War.”
During the story, Ross’ voice faded in and out, and I could just imagine his mind replaying that movie of the young Filipino girl as he told me about it. Even as the sun shone brighter, the atmosphere and his voice grew darker, and I shivered at the horrific events that weren’t even directly part of the war. The Filipinos would kill their own in an effort to please the American sailor, even though the sailor would have preferred the girl to live. Now, Ross is, I believe, feeling rather guilty about the incident. While he may be doing a lot of good, he may also be under some extra pressure and stress to “pay off the debt” from the Vietnam War, and this isn’t good for him.
In an effort to put the darkness behind me, I commented on Ross’ writing. “You mentioned you wrote a short story. Did you ever publish it?”
“I have had things published, but I never published that story.”
Ross worked as an acupuncturist in a bad neighborhood, and he wrote about his experiences there. Those were published in the magazine Acupuncture Today. He also wrote for a Vietnam war veteran’s newspaper, for which he had eleven pieces published.
“In both these experiences, it was the community I was part of that acknowledged me,” commented Ross. The fact that his friends and colleagues commended him gave him the best feeling.
“Do you feel that the Vietnam War has been fairly publicized in America?”
“Now, there’s some proof that the Department of Defense is spending millions of dollars whitewashing the Vietnam war, to make it a ‘good’ war for the U.S., like World War II was. The original portrayal of Vietnam veterans were that they were crazy, and drug addicts, and cowards for losing the war. Now, they’re really whitewashing the Vietnam war, making us seem like heroes.”
Basically, the Vietnam War has been misunderstood by the public both then and now. Indeed, much of Gregory Ross’ story is about misconceptions caused by war: the public believing the Vietnam war veterans didn’t fight hard enough; people judging soldiers based on the orders of the government; foreigners committing homicide to please an American sailor, who wasn’t pleased by the murder; the Vietnam war veterans being portrayed as heroes of America. The horrible results of misunderstanding can prolong and broaden the effects of a war. After all, the Vietnam veterans who were told not to go to the Veterans Affairs office might still be suffering in some way, and a Filipino girl’s life was ended even though she wasn’t part of the war, which in turn affected Ross’ life.
As we ended our conversation, Ross asked me a few questions:
“So, why are you guys doing this?”
“Well,” I responded, “it’s all about Literature of Witness. We’ve studied the truth from eyewitnesses and victims, and now we’re trying to write a piece of literature describing a horrific event, such as a genocide or war.”
“You know, that gives me hope. That the next generation is interested in the raw truth, and not what the Department of Defense says.”
In class, we’re taught how war can destroy the environment and ruin lives through loss of home, loss of life, loss of limb, or psychological detriments. We’re never shown how indirectly war can hurt everyone. In this case, what hurts everyone is the misconceptions that war causes. The real world outside of war is also full of misconceptions. Not everything is as it seems.
One important example, as we study Literature of Witness, is the façade put up by the government, which is also one of the easiest lies to believe. Likely, for the rest of history, Americans will remember the Vietnam War and its veterans as a heroic effort, due to the whitewashing. However, this interview shows how that isn’t necessarily true. Witness literature is important to preserving the truth from the perspective of true witnesses.