by Ada Limón
“I have always been disturbed by the romanticizing, the glorification of war. There’s nothing good about it, it’s kill or be killed. Nothing glorious.”
Sometime around 2AM in the canyon dark, no moon, the house wailed open with a guttural yell that shook me awake on the couch. In an instant I knew what it was, that painful loud bellow that echoes around the quiet night like a siren long after the fire’s gone out. For years, this is how my stepfather, B, awakes from a bad dream. A violent yell that makes my heart beat so fast that I can’t sleep for hours afterwards. When I was a kid, I remember him coming into my room to make sure I knew he was okay. “It was just a dream,” he would tell me, “go back to sleep.” He never talked about the nightmares, but we knew what they were about.
Just last weekend, we all traveled together to Southern California for my grandparents’ 67th wedding anniversary. It was on the second night, in a friend’s condominium where we were staying, that he woke with one of his shouts. It made sense. That night after dinner, B and Grandpa were discussing the wars, their different and individual stories of serving in the United States Army. My grandfather, raised a rural farmer and woodworker, fought in the battle at Monte Cassino at 18. He had never had a meal in a restaurant. My stepfather was 19 when he went to Vietnam with the 4th Division. He couldn’t legally drink or vote at the time. When family members have been to war, it becomes an impossible subject to avoid. My grandfather is asked why he married so young: “Well, we knew I’d be drafted and time was running out.” Which turns into the story of how B ended up in Vietnam.
Despite their darkness, their heaviness, the stories are achingly wonderful. They are not heroic or served with false bravado. They could be stories about growing up poor, or having a heart broken for the first time. They are their life experiences. Simple and painful and human. Both men are inherent storytellers, deft at the nuances of balancing pain with a humor that can only come from the most honest of places. Everyone is rapt, empty glasses in front of them, dirty dishes. They stop for a second. We’re quiet. The refrigerator roars louder. Then another question. Vietnam and World War II are diametrically opposed wars in so many ways, the country behind them, the global community, the different eras of consciousness. But they are also the same. These men, kind, funny, tender, the men you want every man to be, have done unimaginable things. Have seen their good friends die in the most horrific circumstances. Gruesome images that cannot be erased, but must be lived with. These are their coming of age stories.
When you live with a veteran, the language of war becomes a natural thing. When I went away to college, B walked all around the neighborhood of my first apartment. We watched him from the window. “He’s checking the perimeter,” Mom said. In the car on the way to my grandparents’ house, my mom talks about some purse she saw online and I make a joke about how she’s obsessed with purses. I tell her I’m going to write a book called, The Things She Carried. The only thing B has ever expressed great hatred for is rats. I don’t know too much about the origin of this hatred, but I do know that there are rats referred to as “corpse rats” in almost every war. On a hike in Kauai, the landscape reminds him of the Vietnam jungle sparking a two-hour fascinating conversation about the conditions during the war. This is family conversation. The unfolding of our histories passed on. What we don’t ever discuss, and for this I am grateful, are the contents of his nightmares.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, nightmares are 1 of 17 symptoms associated with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Also, “If you have been suffering from nightmares for more than 3 months, you are encouraged to contact a mental health professional…” More than 3 months? How about more than 42 years? According to the International Association of the Study of Dreams, somewhere between 5-10% of adults suffer from nightmares on a monthly basis. In their descriptions of what causes nightmares, veterans are specifically mentioned. “Many people experience nightmares after they have suffered a traumatic event, such as surgery, the loss of a loved one, an assault or a severe accident. The nightmares of combat veterans fall into this category. The content of these nightmares is typically directly related to the traumatic event and the nightmares often occur over and over.” My mother says that B should come with a sign that reads, “This man should not sleep alone.”
My grandmother believes that you have to eat something before you tell someone your dreams, or else they’ll come true. For my entire upbringing, my family members have rushed to the kitchen to shove something in their mouths before recounting a disturbing dream. Carl Jung said, “The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul…”
The night before B shouted himself, and us, awake he was telling us about how, just two days after he left Vietnam, his Infantry Company was essentially wiped out. The man who replaced B as the RTO (Radio Telephone Operator, who carries a 25 pound radio on his back in addition to the 50 pound rucksack) was taken as a POW for six years. He was eventually released and he and B still talk.
When I asked if B remembers what the dream was about he just looks at me, a stark look that means he won’t repeat it. “I guess you do,” I answer. We eat toast and watch the sun come up over the desert skyline.
Two days later, in the Ontario airport, we are surrounded by service men and women in their fatigues. Most of them seem older than the age both Grandpa and B went to war. I like to think that that fact alone will better their chance for survival and mental health. Going through security, we both notice that their shoulder patches are 4th Division. And B points out the Second Lieutenant. She is a woman, a few years younger than me. She has the face of my best friend growing up. Her eyes are steeled and focused. I feel like I would trust her. I smile; she nods sternly. The group closest to me is headed to Fort Bragg and then to Iraq. Many of them are returning for their second tours.
My mother, B, and I sit near the window and wait for the plane. We talk about my life in New York, laugh about the roadside chapel we saw off Highway 10 called, Mystical Memories, and how good the grandparents seem after 67 years of marriage. The sun is bright off the tarmac. I watch my parents board and walk over to my gate near the majority of the soldiers. I listen to their stories, one is talking about his kids, another on the phone with the base. They seem strong and capable. It seems like there are millions of them when they board my plane.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are 23.2 million veterans in the Unites States and growing. At the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs they offer this advice under, How Can I Help?: “Tell your loved one you want to listen and that you also understand if he or she doesn’t feel like talking.” Although B and I talk about everything, he will never tell me about the contents of his nightmares. And yes, I understand.
When I get home, after a few days, I ask B if it’s okay if I write about him. I ask if he’d like to add anything. He does:
The VN war was more worthless than most wars and I have, to say the least, mixed feelings about having fought in it. Once you’re in it, as an individual, you have an allegiance and responsibility to your fellow soldiers and I tried to live up to that responsibility. I was nineteen when I went to war, a lot older when I came back. Paul Fussell, historian/writer, says something to the effect of, “Those of us who have fought in combat know something about ourselves— and it’s not very nice.” I’d have to agree. My ability to go quickly to that cold place where it’s me or you still gives me pause. Aging hasn’t softened that, it’s just made me less able to deliver on it. I have always been disturbed by the romanticizing, the glorification of war. There’s nothing good about it, it’s kill or be killed. Nothing glorious. I don’t mean to suggest you think that there is. I suppose I just wish the seminal experience of my life, and I guess Grandpa’s too, had been something of beauty rather than destruction and grief.