Packard was a tiny cog in the great wheel of industrial slaughter unleashed by the United States in Vietnam. Villages were put to flame. Water buffaloes were shot for sport. Civilians were machine-gunned from the air. Grenades were tossed down tunnels where often women and children huddled in fear. Second lieutenants called in airstrikes and artillery rounds that turned thatched-roofed villages into infernos. The American military held the power to give or take human life. And with this power Packard and those around him became sick and demented. The world was turned upside down. Life was reduced to a vortex of pain or fleeting ecstasy. Human life was cheap. The gratification of the moment was the overriding impulse. Killing. Dope. Bar girls. Lies. It was all the same package of deceit and manipulation.
Packard spent a year as an Army lieutenant leading platoons. He and his men killed in each encounter from 12 to 15 North Vietnamese, Viet Cong or perhaps Chinese mercenaries. They did it clinically. He said he stopped counting how many young men and boys he killed.
"But with about 30 ambushes and firefights you can do the math," he said.
There was a part of him that liked to kill, that sought out the high of combat. War was at once revolting and deeply seductive. He said...
"I violated the commandment 'Thou Shalt Not Kill.' Nothing will be gained by intellectualizing this. I killed other people. I took lives. It was exactly that. I became in Vietnam a professional killer. I was proud of what I could do. There are days when I meet with people, trying to do what is good for the church, for others, and think I am probably the only person here who has killed another human being."
He received the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for valor. He spent his last months in the Army teaching ambush tactics to Rangers. But he returned home shattered -- "hating the war.'' He entered the seminary in 1971, not sure that he wanted to be a priest, "to study the ethical and moral issues that confronted me in Vietnam.'' And it was only then that he began to confront the war. He has repetitive nightmares.
In the dreams, he said, "I had killed someone. No one knew about it. I was trying to hide my crime. I buried the body in a pile of leaves. I was terrified I would be caught. Night is the worst,'' he said slowly. "Nearly all the ambushes I carried out in Vietnam were at night.''
"You get wrapped in cellophane so you can function in this world of war,'' he said. "Only much later, long after you come out, something pricks that cellophane and it all comes out. Then you pray. You pray, 'Lord, forgive me for what I have done.' And you pray to get out of this.'"
Packard bears the weight of the war. His life is a form of atonement. He does not fear arrest or jail or defying police in the streets; he fears not doing what is right. He is determined to make amends.
"The important moments in my life came when I made basic connections. I made a connection with a platoon that was powerful. The relationships you develop in a combat zone, the need to support your buddy, are essential for survival. You don't care about national policy. You only care about the people you are with. The Army takes advantage of this. It trains you to think like this. The Army counts on bravery being reinforced by the urge to take care of your buddy. When I visited those wounded in the Iraq War when I was in Germany I would find some missing a leg below the knee. One Marine said to me that all he wanted was to get back to the guys in his squad. He was not going anywhere except to Walter Reed [Hospital], but this was the only thing he could think of. I tried to communicate the connectedness I felt among my platoon when I applied to seminary. I might as well have been speaking Swahili. The professor had no idea.
"When I had cancer I would queue up in the radiation line. Some people were huddled down in their wheelchairs. Others made a point of hobbling from person to person to talk. The people who connected with others were the ones who brought fabric and meaning to their lives. They joined their suffering and uncertainty with the suffering and uncertainty of someone else.
"And now I arrive at Occupy. And I again find this connection. I like the people within Occupy. They have their humanity on their sleeves. And compare this with my visits to Trinity Church. When I go to Trinity Church I have to make an appointment in advance with the rector. I take an elevator up to the 14th floor. And I ask myself when I am there, 'Where is the connection?'"