US Army, 1969-70
B 7/5 & Hq 7/5 HAWK (Korea)
One of my earliest memories of war veterans takes me back to my father and mother loading up the Plymouth with water and food for the long drive from Redlands to the Long Beach or Los Angeles Veterans Hospitals. Our next door neighbor, Mr. Gardner, survived mustard gas attacks in WWI, only to spend his days next door to us a nearly blind invalid, sitting in his living room as Mrs. Gardner did all the yard work, household chores.
My Dad, a WWII veteran, explained our treks as an obligation he had to a fellow veteran with no way of getting to the hospital. If we didn’t take Mr. Gardner to the Veterans Hospital, and if Mr. Gardner didn’t get his treatments, he’d die. So we’d drive him. Mr. Gardner sat wheezing next to me. Now and again he would tell me in his whisper voice about the battlefield and his inability thirty years later to fill his lungs with a deep breath of clean (in the 1950s) Redlands air. One day we drove Mr. Gardner to the hospital, and drove back home to Redlands without him. I never saw “old Mr. Gardner” again.
Looking back, I understand Mrs. Gardner, too. She had a good heart. She once told me a chilling story of an apparition that followed her home one night, back when she was a girl in Arkansas. Years later, when I first heard Der Erklönig, Mrs. Gardner’s tale provided the frame of reference. But back then, I thought she was a crazy old woman, remonstrating loudly her dog Rito. “Now see here, Rito, I told you not to do that, do you hear me?” She wasn’t crazy, just defeated. Mrs. Gardner, too, was a victim of the attack that mutilated Mr. Gardner’s eyes and lungs.
This is not my story alone, nor is it unique. The current administration is creating thousands of Mr. and Mrs. Gardners.
As of October 4, 2008, icasualties.org counts thirty-four thousand four hundred twentysix war casualties. 34,426. Include “non hostile” injured, the total reaches 69,390 Mr. and Mrs. Gardners.
This is not to ignore the almost four thousand two hundred killed—QEPD—but they won’t require VA medical services, these veterans already have all the land they need.
I was thinking about Mr. and Mrs. Gardner at a menudo breakfast the other morning with some of my fellow veterans. One ex-Marine recounted his frustration that political machinations are stealing land from veterans, placing it in private hands. The Department of Veterans Affairs West Los Angeles Healthcare Center sits on 388 acres deeded "in perpetuity" for Veterans health care. Abutting the exclusive Brentwood barrio of West Los Angeles, the land has been coveted by private interests for years—already a commercial laundry, theatre complex, and private school athletic facilities occupy veteran land.
The veteran sadly explained how his Congressman, Henry Waxman, helped a non-Veteran group, the hubris-overloaded, mis-named "Veterans Park Conservancy,” seize 16 beautiful acres of canyon and oak forest, converting this from land that would have served injured, PTSD, and disabled Vets, into a cozy park for locals. Compare the scandal that erupted at Walter Reed last year that was laid, rightfully, at the feet of the Republican administration. This gift of Veterans land constitutes an ugly acknowledgment of the failure of the Democratic Party to defend the nation's war injured. Here’s a website that goes into all the sadly disgusting details of this land grab.
There’s little hope that veterans will regain control of that stolen land, but ample hope the new administration genuinely cares for its soldiers and veterans. But you gotta keep 'em honest. As a result, the Marine has begun to expand his horizon from the stolen land to finding ways to bring veterans issues into the public eye. After all, Waxman and his land-grabbing subversives pulled off their movida because no one is keeping an eye on veterans health.
Taking a cue from the 1960s, the ex-Marine is looking to organize returning veterans by means of teach-ins, and today's technology, like Facebook and a blog. Back in the 60s, anti-war activists mobilized on college and high school campuses across the nation by reading and sharing knowledge with like-minded peers. There was no single leader nor traveling pitchmen and women. They taught themselves. What today’s veterans and supporters will need is a curriculum. How to hold and follow-up meetings, agenda boilerplate, informative handouts and lecture materials, recommended reading, websites.
La Bloga’s friends read and understand the power of books. What should modern-day activists read and share with others that will help energize publics about veterans, that could have created an upsurge of public outrage to stop Henry Waxman in his tracks? Certainly practical work like Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Patriotic work like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. Straightforward insight like Charles Beard’s History of the United States.
Beyond such focused, pragmatic work, I recommend reading the literature of Vietnam. Charlie Trujillo’s novel, Dogs From Illusion, and his oral history, Soldados, offer compelling stories of war. Trujillo frames Dogs in puro irony. A couple of boys from the central valley tire of picking melons and bosses cheating them on wages, so they join up, go to war, and convert into cold-blooded killers. Then they come home to pick the same melons, where the boss welcomes them back by cheating them on their wages. And they have to take it because that’s what they fought for. Equally compelling is Alfredo Vea’s Gods Go Begging. The war episodes raise a sweat for their graphic power. The character’s PTSD lingers thirty years after Vietnam, reducing his social relationships to declivitous, constant struggle. Daniel Cano’s superb collection of stories, Shifting Loyalties, covers the interpersonal pain and aimlessness that plague combat veterans long after their time in country. See also Stella Pope Duarte's Let Their Spirits Dance, with its controversial roll call of Chicano Vietnam war dead, to the exclusion of all the others. Readers not familiar with the impressive library of Chicana and Chicano war literature will find a survey here.
Social disintegration, or failure to re-integrate, is not a theme of fiction but a disastrous consequence of military service. As of early October, US Iraq invasion casualties already number over 69,000. A significant number of these veterans will require ongoing medical rehabilitative care. This is not a guess. Look at the conclusions of the National Academy of Sciences in their publication, Gulf War and Health: Volume 6. Physiologic, Psychologic, and Psychosocial Effects of Deployment- Related Stress. The findings point to growing severity of problems with a proportionate growth in need for services like West LA is supposed to provide.
In cold, scientific phrasing, the report notes, “there is a causal relationship between deployment to a war zone and a specific health effect in humans”. The scientists divide the injuries into those with clear causation between war and later health effects--psychiatric disorders, including PTSD, other anxiety disorders, and depressive disorders, alcohol abuse, accidental death in the early years after deployment, suicide in the early years after deployment, marital and family conflict—and injuries likely caused by exposure to war-- drug abuse, chronic fatigue syndrome, gastrointestinal symptoms, skin disorders, fibromyalgia and chronic widespread pain, increased symptom reporting, unexplained illness, incarceration.
Read the fiction then read the science and find the congruencies. As usual, the artist has it right, depicting all along what society wants to deny, or hide.
David tangled with Walter Reed's image machine when he wanted to attend a ceremony for a fellow amputee, a Mexican national who was being granted U.S. citizenship by President Bush. A case worker quizzed him about what he would wear. It was summer, so David said shorts. The case manager said the media would be there and shorts were not advisable because the amputees would be seated in the front row. " 'Are you telling me that I can't go to the ceremony 'cause I'm an amputee?' " David recalled asking. "She said, 'No, I'm saying you need to wear pants.' " David told the case worker, "I'm not ashamed of what I did, and y'all shouldn't be neither." When the guest list came out for the ceremony, his name was not on it.
It’s Veterans Day, raza; you know who you are. Celebrate. Be glad you are alive. If you’re a veteran, this is for you:
Fotos: Top. Michael Sedano posing next to a Korean home near Bravo Battery 7/5. Middle, Jane Fonda, Ron Kovic at USC's Tommy Trojan. Bottom: Bob Handy standing up for Veterans land. See link.
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