I loathe my inconsistencies on grief, and how I dealt with death and injuries while serving in the military.
I blame the Army for not giving me the chance to mourn someone on first hearing of their senseless death. I blame myself for choosing to be a good soldier and not a compassionate human being, placing country first — before God and humanity.
I’d stuff all of my feelings deep inside and “carried on” with a “stiff upper lip” in face of the killings when what I really needed, were a few quiet moments alone . . . to cry for losses to me and the many others such a tragedy produced.
“Robert Kennedy is dead,” went unanswered when I first heard the words a few hours into basic training at Ft. Bragg, NC. I was marching in formation, being “double-timed” away from the outside world, and into the new life of a soldier. A mean-looking drill sergeant with a “Smokey the Bear” hat was “breaking us down” to “build us up” the Army Way. He was quite liberal in ordering us to hit the ground and “give me 20.” Twenty push-ups, that is. “Give me 20” became his short-hand for any slacker he thought was not measuring up, and to drop to the prone position and begin the exercise.
“But sarge,” I could have said, ” I need a silent moment to think about Robert Kennedy.”
Yeah, right. I was Army property. Both body and mind, no matter what occurred outside the military compound.
And some 18 months later at the seasoned age of 21, I found myself with a similar need to grieve, but could not. I learned of the death of one of my buddies. I had only two, we three junior officers of a combat company in Vietnam became best friends, each leading an infantry platoon of mostly teenagers who, like me, were drafted, and unlike me, did not volunteer to be there.
The lieutenant was shot and I failed to get to him in time to aid him, not knowing whether a quicker response would have helped. It was one of those times that I wished I could stop the world from spinning so that I could process not only his loss, but who I was as a man, and why I — all of us — are alive on this planet. At the least, I wanted a few moments to be alone, to grieve inside. Never got it then.
But the hypocrisy comes at the end of a tour of duty in Southeastern Asia, doesn’t it Michael J? You had the chance to do something, but you chose not to. You and another young lieutenant were just days away from your DEROS date, the day when you were to leave Vietnam and return to the States. You served admirably and even got a 21-gun salute from the men of the mortar platoon you commanded near Chu Li with the 23rd Infantry Division. But you flunked the humanity test when you focused more on getting on the nearest helicopter out of the fire-base, rather than visit that fellow officer who lost an arm when chasing away Vietnamese children”playing” with trash outside the compound and an appendage got blown away while picking up an object with an explosive device attached to it. To this day, we Americans don’t know if it was placed there by the children or not.
You had time to grief with him, to comfort him before he was taken to a hospital off-base. But you delayed. And he has flown away. You suppressed this memory until hearing a similar one at the PTSD retreat here in Omega Institute, called the “Cost of War.” It came out through meditation practices. Can’t remember the fellow’s name though. You blanked that out, just as you did the name of one of your best friends, Lt. Victor Lee Ellinger, until you traced his name on the “Wall” in Washington DC, several years ago.
Want no more parts of Vietnam, you told yourself when you were “Leaving On a Jet Plane.” But you brought home with you a Sense of Failure, Guilt, and Grieve, which you are finally learning to deal with now, without shame and without remorse.