Clint Eastwood, as Bill Munny in his 1992 Oscar-winning The Unforgiven, correctly comments, “It’s a hellova thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”
Soldiers and marines headed to combat face that ultimate price — and worse — for their devotion to duty and country. They always have. It has never mattered whether they volunteered to go, or whether the country drafted them to it!
From my June of ’64 days at Fort Knox basic, I recall the hours on the firing range and those shoving a rifle-tipped bayonet through hanging tires and stuffed burlap dummies, all the while screaming at the top of my lungs something along the lines of “YAHHH!!”
I never faced the real thing, but from what I saw in those who had, the actual thing is rather more intense than Eastwood’s “hellova thing, killin’ a man.” And the more they faced it and did it, each experience took another chunk from his humanity, from his equilibrium, from his sanity to the point that all too often the only sense he could make of it, and the only sense he could recapture of himself and his humanity was in the deep cesspool of drugged stupor. Sometimes he never crawled out of that cesspool. In fact, sometimes he and the cesspool became one.
Yesterday (August 27), I visited the VA medical center in Reno. I was there for my annual checkup. Sign in in the morning for the blood draw and to deposit a urine specimen in a cup. Then, just as it was on active duty: hurry up and wait until the appointment to have my blood pressure and pulse-rate and weight measured.
With nothing else to do, I headed to the outside smoking area where other vets had gathered. Like me, some were there to wait. Others were hospital patients who had come down for a smoke; often because there was little else for them to do in their room. If you’ve ever been confined to a hospital for any time, you know the boredom.
I never did get his name, but one of those was dressed in street gear, waiting to be seen, waiting to be treated. He was wearing a weathered to faded and past worn baseball cap, across the front of which was “Vietnam vet, and proud of it.” That cap composed his most serviceable item of clothing. I estimated he was somewhere in his mid- to late 50s, though he looked older; faded and weathered as to life itself — a scraggle of thinning grey hair, wrinkled face deep as furrows, and a mouth that had long been bereft of serviceable teeth.
It’s what vets do: swap memories and engage recent experiences and conditions. While I was interested in doing some of the chatting, it became clear to me that this fellow hadn’t the capacity to hear. He wasn’t deaf; at least in the physically aurally deficient sense. Rather, all he was able to manage was a rambling string that didn’t allow for much in the way of intake. So, with not much of an option, I elected to listen, at least until one of us finished our respective cigarettes.
“From Reno. Been here, oh . . .” Another drag on the cigarette. Without finishing the sentence, he then meandered to a different range, one with equally indistinct features. “F**kin’ stabbed.” He patted the swelling bulge beneath the scruff of his dirty shirt. “Was divin’ the dumpster behind the Atlantis.” (One of the many casinos in Reno.) “Know . . .” another puff on the cigarette, “they toss out some pretty good food. Steak can be cold, an’ that’s not too bad. But I always go fer the chicken.” Another shallow pull from the cigarette. “Gotta watch out for the goddamned rent-a-dicks though: Mutha-f**kin’ bastards . . . all they wanna do is roust ya from the dumpster. Doan have nothin’ f**kin’ better ta do.”
After that, and with his cigarette smoked to a half-inch of the end, whoever he was got up and left. Another vet across the mesh-wire table was in hospitable garb. We didn’t chat much either. Not enough for me to get his name, or anything concerning his service. But he did say that the fellow who had just left was one of the hundred or so homeless vets who wander in; most sick of one thing or another, many victims of street violence, and few with the ability to converse beyond rolling monologues that begin from nowhere and head nowhere. Getting stabbed or beat up is almost a blessing: for a few days or weeks they have a roof over their head, and if their physical problems permit it, genuinely decent food to fill bellies that haven’t known it for as long as they can remember.
“Had their brains scrambled in Vietnam,” is how the fellow across from me diagnosed the genesis of their difficulties.
I’ve met a few. Anecdotally, my best suspicions suspect he’s right. And I always trek rearward, wondering who they were before; before the war America seeks so desperately to forget. I bet they were kids just like the ones today, and just like the ones who dodged the peril, back in the day. Except they didn’t dodge, nor duck much. Nope, they were targets who got hit somewhere dead on.
According to House and Senate committee hearings testimony, the VA, and Bureau of the Census, a full one-third of all homeless in America are Vietnam vets. Some part of that took all they had, all they were “ever gonna have.”
Senator McCain has voted “nay” on every bill that has come up since 2001 to add to the Veterans Affairs budget. Support the troops? Yeah . . .
— Ed Tubbs