Enlisted

BY: MARIA NACLERIO

“I don’t have any regrets or feel bad about anything I did over there.” There was certain fierceness in my cousin’s voice that I had never heard before. In 2003, President George W. Bush sent troops into Iraq to disarm alleged weapons of mass destruction and end a reign of terrorism supported by Saddam Hussein. When my 32-year-old cousin was 19, he enlisted in the army. When he was 24, Brian was deployed to Iraq where he served for 17 months. He served in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq for 12 months. Less than a week before Brian was supposed to go home, his tour was extended and he was told that he had to go to Baghdad for an additional 5 months. Initially, I was scared to interview Brian for this project. He had never spoken to me about his experience, and my parents told me he did not like to talk about it. I had a preconceived notion that war was generally a dark experience for veterans and something they wanted to forget. Brian has always been somewhat of a protective older sibling figure in my life, and I was unsure if he would be willing to display vulnerability by sharing his experience.

My hand trembled as I picked up my phone to call Brian. I pictured his soft face and kind eyes as he answered. We caught up as he told me about how his two kids were doing, and I told him about my junior year. I joked about how my 83-degree March in California was unbearable compared to his 7-degree spring in Alaska. He laughed like a little kid as I remembered my purpose in calling him. I told him about the assignment and asked my first question.

“Why did you enlist in the military?”

“I was on a mixed path,” Brian responded. “I didn’t have a good direction and I had always pictured myself doing it as a little kid. I wasn’t doing much else, I guess.”

Joining the military is a common path in my family. My grandpa served in the army for 20 years, my aunt is an army doctor, my dad served in the Navy and Air Force, and another cousin of mine is in the National Guard and worked with the Army Special Operations Force.

“What were your fears going into Iraq?” I asked.

“I was 24. I didn’t have any fears. I thought it wouldn’t be that bad, but it was way more intense than I thought it would be. You get there and you think you’re bulletproof, and then the longer you’re there the scarier it gets. At the time, I didn’t feel fear. Looking back I have more fear. You just kinda go with emotions you feel at the time and don’t really think about it.”

“What was your typical day?”

“We usually spent 6-8 hours driving out meeting with people, and then at night you would do raids where you would capture the people you were looking for and then go home and do it again the next day.”

“What was involved in a raid?”

“We would block off a neighborhood so nobody could get out, and then we would search for weapons and torture chambers.”

Brian’s tone of voice did not change. He stated it matter of factly; finding torture chambers was a regular day on the job. I closed my eyes and thought about dancing with my smiling cousin on his wedding day and joking with him at family dinners. Most of the time I spend with my cousin involves laughing, playing Wii golf, and making fun of my brothers. It was difficult to imagine him raiding towns and driving armored vehicles. I had always viewed him as one of the kids, but I could feel this image changing throughout the interview.

“When you first went in, did you think the American mission would work?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think you kind of have to. You kind of want to believe everything you do is for a reason. So my friends didn’t die for no reason. I don’t think we were there for what they said, because we didn’t find what they sent us in for. I tried to justify.”

“How did the local people perceive the conflict?”

“It was a really mixed bag of people. Some had a third grade education level and hated us and couldn’t understand why we were there. The old people seemed really happy we were there. There were more problems there than just terrorism.”

“What kind of problems?”

“The whole thing struck me as very corrupt. You could pay anybody for anything. Everybody was trying to get a pay off. The country is really dangerous and really corrupt. We were there for the first real election; that was really rewarding. We did a lot of good things over there.” Brian continued to tell me about how he made the cities more secure, the neighborhoods safer, and the soldiers more self-reliant. I could hear pride and strength in his voice.

I was scared to ask my next question, but I heard him shuffling in his chair so I continued.

“What was your most vivid memory?”

“There’s a lot of death, I guess. There was a little girl we picked up that was shot pretty bad and that was very vivid.”

I could hear a strain in Brian’s voice for the first and only time in the interview. He took a breath and his voice hardened again.

“Most of them were pretty horrific.”

I was unsure whether or not to pry into his other vivid memories. His voice had regained its steady tone, and his guard was back up. I decided to move on to my next question.

“How has your experience changed you?”

“Things aren’t as important as people make them out to be. I don’t get stressed out, and I let things slide now. It could be a lot more serious.” I quickly scribbled down his response and was about to ask my next question when he continued.

“Religion is a hard thing for me now. Seeing everybody kill each other over religion. Religion growing up was a big part of my life…I haven’t found a way to process it.” He paused for a moment. “It’s kind of hard for me to figure out for myself much less talk to you about it. But I was not changed in a bad way. I don’t have any regrets or feel bad for anything I did over there.”

“Do you wish you could have done anything differently?”

“No. You look back on things, and I was a squad leader so everyday you had to make decisions about where to put people. But you have to live with them. You make decisions and they get shot and you have to live with it. No, I don’t think I would change anything I did over there.”

I was shocked by this and felt the hard edge of my dining room chair pressing into my leg as a leaned back and stared at the clouds tinged pink from the setting sun. Regret was something I expected to hear a lot about in this interview. Instead, he seemed to move on from the bad parts of his experience and focus on the good. I wondered how he would perceive the events that are ensuing in Iraq right now.

Currently, violence in Syria is spilling into Iraq, the government is proving to be highly dysfunctional, and extremist terrorists are still a threat. I asked Brian what he thought of the situation.

“It’s hard reading the news. The situation is a tough one. Seeing all your hard work go down the drain. Something has to be done, what’s going on over there ain’t right. My friends are still deployed over there, so hopefully we can help.”

“What kind of relationship did you form with the people you served with?”

“It’s a bond that I will never have with anybody else. My idea of family…it’s a deep bond.”

“What is your hope for the future of Iraq?”

“I hope they get on their feet with terrorism and violence. The religious fight is ridiculous, how they kill each other over it. I as a father should have the same worries as an Iraqi father, not having to worry about my kids getting shot.”

I thanked Brian for the interview, and we promised to visit each other soon. I had never thought of my cousin as a stereotypical soldier. He laughed, smiled, and joked too much. His face did not have sharp enough edges, and he was close with his extended family. Through this interview, my perception of what it means to be a soldier and witness drastically changed. Brian went into the army as a lost teenager and came out as a man. I expected that as a witness of war, Brian would feel victimized and traumatized. He definitely experienced trauma, but he did not let it consume him. Unlike many witnesses, Brian chose to be a soldier. As part of his job, he had to justify what he was doing. Brian went into Iraq to help a struggling country, and that is exactly what he did. Instead of seeing small details, Brian saw the big picture. Instead of seeing a dying soldier, he saw a more secure Iraq. Brian’s story illustrates that soldiers do not fit a mold. It shows that people must move on and forgive themselves so they can live without regret. Most of all, it gives a voice to those who voluntarily put themselves in danger to help others and have the strength to see the entire perspective of a situation.

Advertisements

I Am Proud of Myself

BY: YUJU SHIN

“I just wanted all of them to be dead. I wanted to end the war. Blood splattered on my face whenever I killed someone. There were dead bodies everywhere.” As my grandfather started to break down, the silence of pain and nervousness came. I did not know what to say as the situation became more extreme. We just held on to our phones and said nothing. I could feel my grandfather’s spirit and soul as I heard his heavy, experienced breathing.

Every weekend, I call my grandparents in Korea to say hello. When my English teacher Ms. Gonzalez introduced the Interview Project and told us to find a refugee or a war veteran, my grandfather, Im-Chun Lee, came up to my mind. My grandfather, who turned eighty-five two months ago, served in the Korean War sixty-four years ago, in 1950. After serving in the war, he worked as a police officer and now retired, he lives peacefully with my grandmother in a small apartment in the city of Daegu. Since I was young, he never talked about his war experience and always avoided topics related to it. Because I wasn’t exposed to a lot of war stories and never saw other war veterans talking about it, I thought Koreans were ashamed of their past. The only source where I acquired information about the Korean War was from my school history textbooks and documentaries that are played every year on the commemoration day. I wasn’t sure if it would be fine to interview my grandfather because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and make him depressed. However, I wanted to hear the real story from a witness, not through words of non-living objects. In September, I stepped up and called my grandfather for permission. Fortunately, he said yes and I promised him that I would call him in October.

For a little bit of background before I start, the Korean War started on June 25, 1950, at 4 a.m. Before, Korea was divided into two countries after Korea gained independence from Japan in 1945. The North was supported by the Soviet Union, and the South was assisted by the United States. On the day of the war, North Korean forces led by its new leader, Il-Sung Kim, invaded South Korea. The war ended in 1953, taking ten million souls and establishing the Korean Demilitarized Zone and Military Demarcation Line. Unlike other wars, the Korean War was a war between a homogeneous ethnic group, sharing the same roots of culture, food, and language. It is the most painful memory in the Korean history, because one country was split into two enemy countries.

On October 14, I was making up my mind whether if I should call my grandfather or not. To be honest, I was scared to interview him and kept postponing the day of the interview. I lay down on my bed and covered my face with a pillow not knowing what to do, but I knew that I would eventually have to make this interview before the fall break was over. When I looked at the clock, it was 3:20 p.m., which meant it was 7:20 a.m. in Korea. I didn’t call him right away even though I had nothing else to do because I did not want to ruin my grandfather’s day by bringing up his bloody memories. At 11:30 p.m. in Pacific Daylight Time, I sat on my bed, covered my body with a blanket, held a pencil and a piece of paper, and picked up my phone to dial my grandparents’ phone number. I felt cozy and comfortable with dim lighting in my room. It was 3:30 p.m. in Korea, and I finally pushed the call button. My nervousness increased as the beep sound continued.

“Hi Yuju! How are you? I’ve been waiting for you to call me,” he said with excitement. As usual, we told each other the latest news about our lives and any interesting stories. When we were done with sharing our stories, I asked him if this is a good time for him to share his war memories and he said yes.

“Grandpa, I heard it’s really cold in Korea! Is it true?” I asked. I didn’t want to start my interview just straight with my questions. I didn’t want to bring him down, so I tried to avoid using stimulating words like “the Korean War” or “deaths.”

“Yes, summer is gone in Korea. Leaves are falling and it will snow soon,” he said. “Your mom told me that it’s still hot in the United States.”

“Was it this cold during the war?” I was supposed to ask this question later in the interview, but I thought it would be a good transition to the interview.

“Now I think about it, there were a lot of funny memories during one of the winters and now I can smile about it. One day, I was only wearing my underwear and I had to get trained. I was always cold and hungry. Even though the food we had to eat was gross, everything looked delicious to me. I even found this bland soup with nothing in it taste like heaven! I don’t miss it because now it would taste bad. I have better food to eat.”

“I bet you don’t miss those soups anymore. Um, what was your first reaction to the war?”

“My family and I lived in Paju, which is an hour north from Seoul. It was a peaceful Sunday. If there were no guns firing, I would be sleeping peacefully with my brothers. Before the sun was up, I heard bombs exploding from the northern mountains, and when I looked out the window, everything was chaos. People were running around to nowhere with their belongings on their backs. I stayed home with my family hiding in our bedroom. I was only nineteen years old and I was really scared.”

I didn’t feel like asking more questions because I could already feel that he did not want to talk about it. However, I wanted to finish my task without giving up, so I continued and asked, “How did you end up joining the military?”

“Bombs dropped in front of my house and we all panicked with dust covering our faces. I was a student at that time, and everything seemed bizarre to me. I was still wearing my school uniform, and a soldier gave me a gun. No one ever taught me how to shoot, so I just held it not knowing what to do. I still remember this. Where I lived was one of the first places to get attacked, and all men in my town had to fight. Most of them were amateurs. I can still remember because I mean, how can I forget? I had to watch my friends and brothers die,” he said. “My eyes became watery and hot as I saw rivers turning into blood.”

When these severe words came out of his mouth, I could see his mournful soul struggling to fight against his painful memories. However, his voice was so deep and confident that I saw light in it. He was fearful, but still hopeful.

“Can you talk about your experiences during the battle?” I asked hesitantly. I realized that I was still scared to ask him questions because I didn’t want to hear his response. I worried that his answers would hurt both of us, which I didn’t want. I really wanted to stop the interview, but another part of myself didn’t let me.

“I had many roles and I moved from place to place. At first, I fought as a foot soldier near Seoul, killing North Koreans. As I told you earlier, I did not have any experience with guns and I was really scared. Later, when they sent me to Daegu, I got a different job. I was trained until the North Koreans got here, and my mission was to kill North Korean spies. I had to kill many,” he said. Even though I couldn’t see his face, he sounded tired and depressed already. I imagined him sitting on a sofa holding my grandmother’s hands.

“How did you feel?”

“When my friend died, I didn’t have time to get sad because everything went crazy. I didn’t have time to think and when he was shot, I just looked at him and went on with my battle. It would be a lie if someone became upset about it because clearly, no one had time to think. I just had to fight. When my fellow soldier was shot, I thought I could die anytime. It was real. I never thought this would happen to me, but this was the reality. I couldn’t believe the situation I was in, but everything I saw and heard was about the war.” He paused for a few seconds and continued, “When I was fighting, I was not afraid of death. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to see my family again. I had to live and survive for my family and myself. I can still imagine people screaming and dying. There were a lot of dead bodies that I can remember.”

Then he suddenly said, “I just wanted all of them to be dead. I wanted to end the war. Blood splattered on my face whenever I killed someone. There were dead bodies everywhere.”

Again, there was a moment of silence. My eyes became watery and I lost my words. On my bed, not knowing what to say, I heard my grandfather’s heavy breathing and weeping. I felt pain in my heart while asking these questions, but I continued.

“Do you regret what you did?”

“No. That’s what I had to do for my country. Everyone who fought should be proud of what they did,” he said and stopped. It seemed like he did not want to talk more about it. I already could feel that his memories were torturing him, and I knew it was hard for him to take it. I finalized the interview with my last question.

“Do you have any thoughts?”

“I just want you to know that I am proud that I fought in the Korean War. I am not ashamed of what I did. I feel sorry for my brothers and friends who died. Sometimes, I have nightmares about it and wake up in the middle of the night screaming, but I don’t regret what I did during the war. Every June 25th, I become sad and tearful. In my mind, the war isn’t over yet, but it will remain forever in my heart. It wasn’t my choice that I had to kill my enemies, and it wasn’t their choice either. We are all the same and everyone was a witness to death.”

Our interview ended when my grandfather started to sound like he was going to cry. He was a strong and hopeful man. It was really hard for me to listen to his story, and I can’t believe that this really happened. My grandfather had to kill innocent people who were just the same as him. He also had to witness others getting killed, and they all had families. Because he is my grandfather, I could feel a greater connection to the war and sense how the soldiers had to deal with the struggles they faced during the war. When my grandfather said that war itself was not something we should be proud of, but what the soldiers did is something we shouldn’t be ashamed of, I realized that he was giving me a lesson on how it’s important to be proud of what I do. I am proud that my grandfather fought in the war and glad that I got to interview him. If I had to interview other war veterans, it would have been really hard because I don’t like hurting people’s feelings and making uncomfortable situations.

Currently, no one talks about the war in Korea, and it seems like younger generations don’t have connections to it. Later, the Korean War will be gone from people’s hearts forever since there aren’t a lot of books based on the war or interviews with war veterans. When I heard my grandfather’s story, I thought more people should talk about it, because these shouldn’t be forgotten in our history. Before I interviewed him, I, like other younger Koreans, thought that it is just a story and a history that no longer lives in my heart. My grandfather’s story was authentic, and if more war veterans share their experiences, more people would take interest. These stories teach people valuable lessons that they should be proud of what they do.

Realization of Demons

BY: MICHAEL RAPOPORT

I was nervous when I made the phone call to Mr. Mclain Brown, a former United States Marine who had served in Afghanistan from 1988 to 1989, in addition to Kuwait during the Gulf War, between 1990 and 1991. Anxiety took over me, but I was also excited to learn about his story and experiences. I was particularly anxious because of the questions I was going to be asking and hoping that I would not cross any boundaries.

I called and he did not pick up, so my nerves were freaking out. I left a message saying that I would call back in a few minutes. A cascade of thoughts ran through my head, and I feared that I would not be able to complete this interview. I kept looking at my desktop clock and waiting for the time to go by. I fidgeted with my pencil, looked out the window at the trees, and what had felt like five minutes was 45 seconds. My stress got the best of me, and I ended up calling him back within a minute. This time he answered.

When he picked up the phone, he was very lively and apologized for not picking up my previous call. He mentioned that the signal was bad where he currently was and I immediately pictured him on a hike, or outside sitting at a picnic table in the woods.

After breaking the ice, we dove right into the interview. “What were your reasons for enlisting in the military?” I asked.

“I figured the military would be a good choice for getting good training and the experience and also to get away, so, pretty much for those two reasons.”

He went straight to the point and explained that the relationships within his family and his circle of friends were not ideal. He was working a full time job in high school, so education took a backseat and he “needed to focus on survival.” When talking about this, his voice barely wavered, and he was extremely at ease with sharing his life.

“What was your first impression when you were in that situation—such as facing violence, trauma, and fear?”

“You just do your job,” Mr. Mclain Brown replied. “There isn’t any immediacy of war. As I said, we got shot at, we had a couple of scope missiles launched at our base. We had some real moments of being scared and thinking that we would die. I think you don’t really understand what it is that you’re going through. At the time you just do your job and you pay attention to that and that’s it,” he added. “You’re trained very well, and part of that training is desensitizing to your own needs so that you can continue the job that you were trained to do.”

He answered very calmly, but when he began to talk about the training, he stopped briefly to think about it, as if he were recalling what he had undergone years ago. I expected this answer since I have researched and seen examples of military training, and it is exactly how Mr. Mclain Brown describes it. They push you over the edge and farther, but in the end that training keeps those soldiers alive when they are put in difficult situations.

“You’re numb to a lot of that stuff [safety to oneself], but then you have to unpack all of that stuff and that’s what I have been doing for the past twenty years…. The emotional weight of all that is enormous and it takes…twenty to forty years to unpack everything that we need to unpack emotionally.”

Again, he began to pause in between phrases more and more, and this worried me. I felt that we had delved in too deep as he began to remember his past, but he continued with a steady voice. I was mainly afraid because one of the biggest questions was coming up.

“What was your most vivid experience or memory?” I asked slightly hesitantly.

“One of our guys, from our unit, committed suicide. He shot himself in the head in front of me…”

Right when I asked I heard him falter for a bit. He began to recall the incident, and it clearly brought back strong feelings. I was shocked. I was really interested and I should have lain off, but in my interest and inexperience with interviews, I wanted to know more about what occured.

“Was it because of PTSD, or was it ever investigated?”

“I have some idea. He… he was a guy that… a lot of people picked on. He didn’t quite fit in very well with a lot of people. He was a relatively new guy…. I think he came there with a lot of problems already and then that just probably sent him over the edge.”

Again, as he began to grasp for words and pause more often, I thought I had taken it too far. I had also begun to realize the stress of war. Not only are there large amounts of stress from being in danger, but also from daily actions and interactions that we civilians take for granted. I never thought about the army being a tough place to fit into, so when I heard this I was in awe that something so terrible could happen. When preparing for the next question I stuttered a bit, being afraid to push farther.

“After you had completed your tour of duty, how did it affect you in your personal life?”

“Wow, um… I tried to get back and fit myself into my normal routine, and I couldn’t,” he said. “I started to have issues with superiors. I was very belligerent, very angry and I didn’t know why….”

I thought I had delved too deep, as he began to stutter and look for words to describe his experience. I knew that veterans’ adjustment back into society is tough not only to undergo, but also to discuss. Except, Mr. Mclain Brown continued to talk about it.

“Then I talked with one of our chaplains, and he suggested I go to this course called CRATO, which is Latin for belief…. It was a retreat for service men and women who had experienced trauma in some form or another…. I was almost finished serving all my time that I had signed for, so I was close to getting out,” he added. “So, I went to this and it made a big difference for me in understanding that I had a problem. So that was the first step, but then there was a long time, even after I got out, there was a long time between me taking that first step and that second step.”

This is what I was most interested about: the rehabilitation back into normal life and normal routines. I knew that most veterans struggle with their demons, like they are having an endless brawl, but with themselves. The variety of methods that veterans use to cope with these demons is innumerable.

“So when I got back, I got discharged from the military…. I tried to go back to my old life and my old friends, who were still doing the same stuff that they were doing when I left them, years before…. That wasn’t me anymore…. I was changed. I started getting in fights with people I was friends with my whole life…. I started slowly, detaching myself from my family…. I was becoming more and more reclusive, more and more firm….”

I began to understand how difficult being a veteran is, since they have to cope with all the memories from combat as well as adapt to their old life when they are a completely changed person. He mentioned before that the training also deeply affects them since not only are the exercises meant to train them physically but also mentally, and they become accustomed to that. So, when they try to slide back into normal life, they cannot let go of those memories.

“Do you feel that you have emotional or physical scarring from the events?”

“Oh, absolutely. I had three different surgeries; I got injured while I was there, so I eventually had to get out, I did all my time, but I got out on a medical discharge because I was no longer able to do the job that I was trained to do because of my injuries. I had three complete rotator cuff surgeries. I eventually blew out a disc in my back, so I had two surgeries on my back. You know, I have a limited range of motion and my lifestyle by those injuries, certainly, I’m luckier than most,” he added. “You know, I stay active and I’m physically fit, but… it took me twenty something years to unpack the emotional baggage that I had as a result of my time in the Marines. Not just in the time of war but also outside of that as well.…”

The physical repercussions of war are undeniable, but people tend to focus on them more than the mental and psychological consequences. Clearly the physical effects are great, but if it takes twenty years to “unpack the emotional baggage,” maybe people should focus on them as well. Although people are better at recognizing these problems today, there are still countless veterans who struggle with their very existence because of these dilemmas.

“Being in the military, a lot of people have really fantastic experiences because the people they’re with are fantastic people and you know it’s like anything in life, sometimes you’re in with a group of people that are just bad news and you can’t change the people who you’re with,” he replied with a laugh. “I did not have a good experience. While I am proud of having served, very proud of having served, and very proud of being in the Marines, because I felt that I regained my personal integrity throughout my whole experience, it was not easy. It was a very difficult… dramatic six years of my life.”

When he said this, I connected the military with a lot of “human” things, because when I think of the military it sometimes seems “inhuman” to me. The things that they do are just out of this world, but when Mr. Mclain Brown mentioned something as simple as being with the right crowd, I really began to understand the veteran’s perspective on the military. As mentioned above, people do have great memories of their tour, but I never really thought someone could have a terrible experience, because when I think of the military I think of a family who unites against a common evil. It completely changed my perspective on the “togetherness” of the armed forces.

“That said… I’m in a much better place now, obviously, than I’ve ever been. I have a great relationship with my wife; I have an eight-month-old daughter now. I never thought before in my life that I would be able to be a healthy, happy person, and I can call myself that now. It’s not to say that you still don’t have struggles… It’s Veterans Day coming up and certain days of the year, certain times of the year are harder for me than others because I reflect too much on things that happened in the past and I get depressed,” he distantly replied. “So those moments still happen, but I have good tools to deal with those things, and I can actually talk about those things now and I can write about them. Writing for me is my primary way of dealing with my PTSD.”

This is what I imagined he would say, because I knew before the interview that he had struggled with PTSD and had been dealing with his past for much of his life. This is the response that I usually imagine getting from a veteran. I always imagine them telling me that they have not forgotten what they underwent, but they have not overcome that obstacle of complete rehabilitation. This trend is common among veterans and refugees alike.

“Is your experience difficult for you to talk about because you are open about it now, but when you first got out was it difficult?”

“I didn’t talk about it… As a soldier, as a Marine, you’re taught to conceal, not reveal. Revealing is exposing yourself, and exposing yourself is dangerous, because you would get killed. That’s a physical lesson you learn in your training, but it’s also an emotional lesson. I fully believe that there is nothing we do with our physical self that doesn’t have a mirror image emotionally. They’re tied together; you can’t separate the two. Whatever you do to your body, you do to your soul.”

This blew me out of the water. The depth that Mr. Mclain Brown revealed about his past amazed me. I have never met anyone else that had the same idea that he presented. Although the thought of not talking about it and keeping your experiences boiling inside you is common among veterans, the connection to the training they underwent I had never heard or thought about. After he told me this, he got lost in his own thoughts since he asked me to repeat the question. I was happy but, again, edgy, as I thought I was losing him. His voice was cheerful, which reassured me and we continued.

“It wasn’t difficult [talking about my experiences] because I did not do it at all. Complete avoidance. It was difficult when… when I realized I needed help. When I got to the point where I felt like there wasn’t any purpose in anything that I was doing, so why should I even be alive? Nothing makes sense to me. When I got to that point I knew I needed help and I needed help now.”

I have read about this dynamic among veterans a lot and know that it is especially difficult for people to go out and find the help that they need. The only reason they begin to feel that way is because they have not talked about it with someone else.

“Do you have any regrets?”

“That is an interesting question because there is no easy answer to that question. Some people have the philosophy ‘no regrets’ … when you leave that situation you have ‘no regrets.’ Regret is also to some people, depending on your definition, some people regret is defined by wishing you could go back and do things differently, and most people would agree on that definition. You’re sorry that things turned out the way they did, which I am, but I wouldn’t go back and change anything simply because everything that happened had to happen for me to realize to be the person I am now, and I can’t ‘what if’ myself. I can’t change that… I don’t see any positive outcome to that question. So I don’t have any regrets. I live my life in the now, as much as I possibly can, and try to be the best person I can be every day.”

I was speechless. This is some of the best advice I had ever heard, and it answered my following questions as well. After this, the interview was over, and it could not have ended on a better note.

I think that Mr. Mclain Brown is a hero for what he has gone through. He is clearly strong-willed because not every veteran can deal with the monsters that come home with him or her. I felt liveliness to his voice, but whenever he delved deep into conversation about his past, he paused to gather his thoughts and maybe even his emotions, because although he has been able to heal himself, he still has not completely recovered. I commend him for taking those steps towards a better life and waking up every morning and striving to be the best person he can be every day. The ghosts that haunt him are no mere joke, and the fact that Mr. Mclain Brown has made great strides in overcoming them is very inspirational. I am humbled that he shared his experiences with me.

 

Shameful Pride

BY: NICK JAEGER 

When I was first told to interview a refugee or war veteran, I thought of my paternal grandfather, whom I call Opa. I paused. My grandfather, born and raised in Germany, fought for his native country in World War II.  When people think of German soldiers during that era, neither respect nor compassion come immediately to mind. I am proud of my grandfather; I am proud of his life, his legacy, and how hard he toiled to get to where he did. He has worked hard consistently trying improve life for himself and his family. He never let what he was forced to go through hold him back. He dreamed of success, and he refused to let his dreams be pushed aside by Hitler’s regime. When people talk about what their grandparents endured, I often remain quiet. Most people are not sympathetic towards someone whom they assume was a Nazi. Believing that all German soldiers were Nazis is at best uninformed, and at worst an insulting stereotype. As much as I questioned, even worried, whether I should interview Opa for my report, I developed a conviction. I knew that I had to interview him. My grandfather was not a Nazi. He was a boy, forced against his will to fight for a cause he did not believe in. It was a cause that he had no desire to be a part of, fought by people he believed he “had nothing to do with.”

My interview was prefaced by a remark from my dad. He said, “Opa doesn’t like to talk about his war experiences, but he would likely be willing to do it for you.” My mom informed me that in the decades that she has known my grandfather, he had spoken about World War II just once. It was “unprompted, completely out of the blue.”

I sat down at my father’s desk. As I began to prepare for the discussion with my grandfather regarding his recollections and views, I could see the sun setting through the window to my left. The small, quiet, wood framed library that serves as my father’s den somehow has always satisfied my need for privacy and thought. It was really the perfect place to talk to his dad and was symbolically apt. On the wall next to the windows is a sketch of an old man on a ladder reaching for a book, or as my dad has said, reaching for knowledge. The room has so many histories that I have yet to learn. Opa’s history, not found in any of these books, has an undeniable significance. It shaped my grandfather, who is one of the people I look to for motivation. Many of the characteristics I admire in my father, and aspire to for myself, come from Opa. I had of course managed to print out my questions with space for answers in time to place the call. I could not help but think of the contrast between my modern computer and printer and what his home must have looked like before he went off to fight. I prepared myself to dial, remembering how Opa has such a powerful presence. For a man who is almost 90 years old, he walks athletically and speaks directly, without hesitation. We joke that Opa’s genes will keep us alive forever.

I called my grandfather with a list of deep and powerful questions. Though now significantly hard of hearing, and never a man who cared for formalities, we got right to the point. I sensed Opa’s reservations immediately. The phone call started more abruptly than it usually did. He opened our call by saying “Right, your interview,” in broken English. German is clearly his first language. He first tried to answer many of my questions with a yes or a no. However, I brought myself to push and probe beyond that. Regardless of how insightful and sensitive I believed my questions to be, I soon realized that it was going to take some effort to penetrate my grandfather’s protective shield. I had sent him a list of questions so he could prepare the thoughts that he wished to share. At the outset, he warned me that his answers might be brief. I thanked him for his willingness to share his views with me. As my father had forewarned me that Opa did not enjoy recollecting his war experiences, I understood it would require persistence if I wished to have him relinquish the more personal details. Caught between being grateful for the fact that he was even on the phone with me, and wanting all the intimate details, I asked my first question.

I started by asking what his life was like before the war. He had yet to warm up, and responded by saying, “I studied engineering.” I asked how old he was when he was drafted. He told me we would get back to that. I could sense hesitancy and haste in his responses. He was ready to get this over with. He was not letting me easily pry into his war memories. I now realize that when he recounts his story, he is forced to relive it. At this point he told me I was going to have to fix his grammar when I wrote. As a proud man, I think it hurt him that he did not believe he was going to be able to perfectly shape sentences that would describe the horrors he witnessed. As if anyone could.

I asked how the war had changed his life. He added more color to this response, saying that he “was drafted not willingly to participate in training as an artillery soldier,” and “after training [he] was sent to Western Front in 1944.” I asked for more detail on what that meant. The Western Front apparently had a high concentration of “Americans, English and French.” He said, “The war affected me very much… I had nothing to do with the [people fighting].”

I asked what his age was. He was 17. We both paused. I was not sure what to say. I could not help thinking that I would turn 17 in just a few months. I ultimately said, “That is young.”

He said, “Yes.”

I did not know how to continue the conversation without switching to the next question. He did not feel any need to add further detail or to help with the interview. I was having trouble, knowing he was being forced to suffer through all the memories again. He appeared to be as open now as he could be. I paused to appreciate that he was willing to elaborate on the most gruesome part of his life. My mom had informed me prior that she “had never seen him eat a potato with peel on it, because that is all he had to eat during the war.” He obviously relives the war enough without my questions. I sensed that he was only going to be as open as I could force him to be, so I decided to ask about his most vivid combat experience. He said, “I was involved in the Battle of Bulge,” a deadly attack where three German armies that contained more than 750,000 troops were neutralized when they attempted to attack the Allied armies. With haste, Opa added that he “was wounded there.” I knew he has always had shrapnel in his back. I never knew why. Before I could learn more about how he became injured, he asked that we move on to the next question. I obliged. He has spent his whole life fighting to move beyond these memories, and I began to realize how truly traumatic this part of his life had been. I had assumed that Opa had been able to handle almost anything. He always appears strong. He can still beat my dad in an arm wrestle. This only bolstered my appreciation of what he overcame.

It appears to be a common assumption that the German soldiers were fighting of their own will, motivated by their hatred for minorities such as Jews. It is clear that my grandfather had no control over where his life had gone at that point. I wanted to ask about his possible prejudices. I asked if he developed biases during the war, and if so, how they affected his life. At first he avoided the question, reiterating, “It affected me very much. I could not finish my engineering studies.” I brought up Jews. Opa said, “I grew up with Jewish people.” He said he had “lots of friends of them.” He then reminded me that my mom is Jewish. He explained that other Germans’ hatred had “no effect [for him] against Jews.” He did not care that others hated Jews. He had no biases. He continued, saying, “or else your Dad wouldn’t have married your mom.” For me his comment represents a different generation’s attitude towards love; however, it persuaded me to believe that he truly is not prejudiced.

I decided to shift towards the question of how he managed to escape his forced service. He said, “In April of ’45 I became prisoner of war to Americans till war ended in ‘45.” I noticed how he had no trouble recalling the dates of events that he rarely speaks of. I was not surprised that the days must be permanently etched in his mind. He said that after he was released at the end of the war, he was finally a “free man.” He must have thought that when he was conscripted, it was going to be the last time he could call himself that. I asked him what came next. He said, “After release of camp I went to Hanover and started apprenticeship as fur dresser,” but in “1953 decided to emigrate to Canada and work as fur dresser.” He still lives in Canada, so I asked him what was so appealing about the place. Opa said, “Because Canada is free country.” I realized that he had felt such a lack of freedom in Germany that he needed to be somewhere that he could feel truly free. He said in Germany “nothing worked, it was bad… Canada appealed to me very much.” He kept reiterating the fact that Canada was free. And in Canada, he was free. Opa was genuinely attached to the idea of a country where he could truly be a free man. He was just as much a captive of Hitler as many others in the war. However, it was not Germany directly trying to end his life; it was Germany forcing him to be in a position where his life could have easily been ended, fighting for a cause he was ardently against. I wanted to know what his first impression of Canada was. He simply said he needed “to decide what trade to go into.” I respect the courage that he showed in being able to move beyond his horrible experiences, and even though he made it to Canada with nothing, he worked his way to personal and financial success. He does not care to boast, but he started as night watchman for a factory owned by a Jewish family. He worked with his hands at a tannery. He dreamed of eventually being the manager of his own firm. He did not share this in his interview, but I recall how impactful some stories my dad has shared with me have been. My grandfather, after working at the tannery all day, would come home and work through the night in his basement, as my father studied. For years he would do this. He eventually built, by hand, all the machinery necessary to run his own tannery. From there he created the largest tanning company in Canada, having immigrated with nothing but a desire for freedom.

I asked my Opa how he felt regarding his overall experience, hoping for a reflection on the war. He decided to look more broadly. He said, “I felt good about my achievement of life.” He continued, “I raised two boys I proud of, three wonderful grandchildren.” I am proud of my grandfather’s dedication. He was not a Nazi. He was a boy who became a captive of Hitler’s horror. However, his desire for freedom after escaping the war and his work ethic enabled him to live a full life. He did not focus on his personal success, ascending from nothing. He spoke of what he is truly proud of: his sons and his grandchildren. Opa deserves empathy when he speaks of what he suffered and not spite. My conviction that I needed to conduct this interview was vindicated. My grandfather never speaks of the war. Let this be a record for me and my sister, and future generations.

Misconceptions

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.