One Man’s Experience on the Ocean

BY: CAMI KAPLAN

The ocean is an expansive and largely unexplored place. There are many things that humanity doesn’t know about the ocean, but for a man named Glenn Rivera, the ocean brings about memories and truths that only Glenn and his peers are able to know. About three weeks ago, I walked into my English class and saw on the agenda that my teacher was introducing a new assignment. The agenda said something along the lines of, “Interview Project.” As I saw this, I thought nothing of it. However, as my teacher explained that I would have to interview a refugee or a war veteran, I began to grow nervous. I realized that I didn’t personally know anyone who fell into this criteria. I was nervous because I was afraid that the questions I would ask would evoke a strong emotional reaction out of the interview subject. I didn’t want to make this person feel uncomfortable or remind them of events that they have probably tried hard to forget.

A couple of days later, I told my mom about the project. I asked her if she knew anyone that I could interview. She immediately lit up and said that her good friend Glenn served in Vietnam, and that she would ask him if I could interview him. I had spent the past Friday night having dinner with Glenn and my mother, and I felt generally comfortable around him. I was surprised to find out that he had been in a war where he witnessed many atrocities because he seemed like such a fun and lighthearted and easygoing person, and I never would have expected that he had been through such emotional trauma. It changed the way I viewed him as a person.

On Tuesday, October 14th, Glenn came to our house in Moss Beach, which is near Half Moon Bay. He arrived around 2:30 P.M.. We originally met him because he was our next door neighbor at that house, but he moved a couple of months ago. He had been to this house many times and seemed comfortable in it. To me, Glenn looks like your average 67-year old man. He has gray hair and a short, white beard. He has bright, piercing eyes that are as blue as the ocean. He has tan skin because he spends a lot of time outside. He and his wife were florists in San Francisco before they retired and moved to Moss Beach. Glenn has lived by the coast for the past ten years. Unfortunately, his wife became ill with cancer and passed away shortly after their move. His time in Vietnam was spent on a ship, which was named the USS Bronstein DE 1037. I realized that he has experienced very emotionally traumatizing things while being near or on the ocean, and I wondered if living near the coast brought back difficult memories for him. We sat on the deck of the house, which looks right out over the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, near the famous Mavericks surf spot. I thought that overlooking the ocean would be a good spot for the interview because of the beauty of it, but also because of the relation between the topic of the interview and the ocean. It was a fairly gloomy day, which is typical of Moss Beach. The fog made the view hazy and misty, but the view of the ocean was still clear. Seals and pelicans surrounded the marine reserve, the pelicans plunging in and out of the water and the seals slowly swimming to the surface and then retreating.

I started the interview with asking if the experience was difficult for him to talk about.

He responded with, “No, it’s not difficult to talk about for me. Being a veteran is not a big part of my identity, and I don’t really talk about it much.”

This did not surprise me since I had known him for a few months and did not know he was a veteran until I started this project.

I asked, “Did you enlist or were you drafted?”

He said that he was drafted at the age of nineteen.

After learning the small details, I said, “This may be a very vague question, so feel free to interpret it however you want to. What was your war experience?”

He looked out on the ocean and it seemed like he was contemplating if he should respond more factually, or more personally.

After a few seconds, he said, “I was on the USS Bronstein DE 1037. We were stationed in the Tonkin Gulf off of North Vietnam.  We were assigned escort duty for aircraft carriers and Anti Submarine Warfare patrols. We would pick up pilots shot down on bombing missions that made it back over the ocean, and we would rescue pilots who crashed on take off. When we were in the war zone, there were long days and nights supporting the air campaign, bombing the capital city of Hanoi and Hyphong Harbor. At night, we could see the flashes of explosions from bombs dropped by the Navy jets.”

Appearing deep in thought, he never looked away from the ocean as he said this. I thought that he was able to imagine what had happened because he could look out on the ocean, which was where all of these events happened. I wished that he would share what he was thinking with me, but I did not want to invade his privacy. It was apparent that he decided to answer the question factually rather than personally.

Trying to change this, I asked, “What were your thoughts during the war, and how did your thoughts change as the violence continued?”

He said, “At first, my thoughts were, ‘We are just doing the job we were trained for.’ We were at war. Later, my thoughts changed. I thought, ‘What a great waste of young lives on both sides.’”

Because he said “on both sides”, I was provoked to ask, “Did your experience lead to any prejudices?”

He said, “No, not that I recall.”

This did not surprise me, because Glenn has always seemed like a very accepting and down-to-earth person. He seemed to have a very objective and neutral perspective of the war, believing that he was just doing his job. He continued to look out on the ocean while he said all of this. Judging his facial expression, it didn’t seem like he was feeling very emotional. He spoke about this as if he realized that he was giving a very perverse view on the experience of war, and believed that everyone else should adopt this view. I decided to start focusing on what happened after he left Vietnam. He remained calm and fairly expressionless.

I asked, “What difficulties, if any, did you have in adjusting back to normal life?”

He replied, “The only difficulty was that our return back to the U.S. was met with protests rather than a welcome. This was a little difficult, but it did not bother me that much. The transition back to America was okay. I just wanted to be with family and get back in school, which I did. It wasn’t very difficult for me.”

Trying to get more out of him, I asked, “After you had gone through this experience, how did it affect you in your personal life?”

He replied, “I just wanted to get on with my life.”

While he answered these questions, he looked at me rather than the ocean. We did not make much eye contact because I spent a lot of time writing, but when I did glance up, he had a very stern expression on his face. It seemed as if this expression was forced, and that he was holding back some shred of emotion. I was determined to get to this shred.

I might have been too direct, but I asked, “Did your war experience affect you emotionally in any way?”

He took a deep breath and looked down at the notebook that I was writing on.

He said, “Honestly, it did not affect me long-term very much. However, in the short-term, it was difficult because I lost many high school friends. They were killed in action. All I could think was, ‘what a waste.’ Looking back on what I saw, it was a huge loss of life for no good reason.”

Inside, I rejoiced because I had succeeded in getting that shred of emotion out of him. I was glad because he seemed comfortable when telling me this, and I tried my best to continue to make him feel comfortable.

I said, “Your view on the war seems to be different than the majority of Vietnam veterans’. Since you saw what was happening as just your job, maybe it allowed you to escape the emotional trauma that many others endured.”

He agreed with me. He put his hands on his lap and crossed his legs. He finally had an expression on his face, but it looked like it was an expression of happiness. He glanced out at the ocean for a few more seconds while I finished up my notes.

We both thanked each other and proceeded to go inside with my parents and his dog named Frankie, who he takes everywhere. Looking back on the interview, I feel that Glenn’s thoughts on the war are very refreshing. He saw the war as a waste of lives, which I agree with, but he also seemed to have accepted that this is the way the world is. The world is full of war and atrocities, but that is just the way it is. People are capable of horrible evil and violence, but it is inevitable when people are in positions of power. Glenn did not blame himself for any harm that he may have contributed to, but rather sees it as just a part of his job, and as his duty as an American citizen.

From this interview, I learned the difficulties of being a war veteran. Losing friends and loved ones was the most difficult part for Glenn. However, I am aware that many war veterans suffer from PTSD because they witnessed such horrible atrocities. This interview relates to being a witness because Glenn is expressing and publicizing his war experience through me. Though I did not witness these events, I am helping to raise awareness about what happened in Vietnam and the experience of the soldiers who fought in it. It is important to memorialize this event in writing to ensure that it is never forgotten, and to help to prevent other wars in the future. In a way, I am a witness because I have written something that bears testimony and gives voice to silence. Glenn’s story had only been told to those close to him, and it is important for me to bring his story to life and give others the opportunity to hear it too. I am attempting to preserve the history of the war through Glenn’s experience, and trying to make his experience meaningful and relatable for others in order for them to understand the importance of the war. The global and local lessons that I have learned from this are that humanity should strive for peace and try to keep the memory of atrocities alive, so that they can act as a warning to future generations. When one witnesses cruelty, they should always try to intervene and speak up about it. It is crucial to not remain silent because allowing horrible atrocities to be forgotten is like allowing the perpetrators to get away with their crimes. This sends a message to the world that it is acceptable to inflict suffering on others, which could cause even worse cruelty in the future. In my daily life, I will never hesitate to speak up about the things that I witness or have witnessed in the past.

The most difficult part of this interview was trying to get Glenn to open up. If I were to do this again, I would have let him know that I am interested in the factual components, but mostly the emotional components of his war experience. Because I talked directly to a witness, I felt the true authenticity of his story. Coming from the direct source, the whole story was a lot more interesting than if it hadn’t been from the direct source. I felt empathy for Glenn, which helped me to understand his experience and emotions better. I feel that I captured the literal and emotional truth of this person’s experience, but more of the literal than the emotional. This happened because Glenn did not have many emotional reactions to the war, or possibly because he was not comfortable with opening up to me.

 

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.