Thursday, June 25, 2020

Story: A Rosary for Everett

     I make sure the rosary is in the glove compartment, and I drive through the West L.A. Veterans Administration and Hospital’s south entrance, its first patients Civil War veterans struggling with psychosis from combat, what we call today PTSD, a symptom that strikes like a rattlesnake, without warning and often lethal.
     Twin golden eagles, the national emblem, stand as reminders of our sacrifice in defense of this country. The words “Soldiers Home” on the matching columns are welcoming, a reminder to veterans that no matter how far we stray, we always have a place to call home, or so they say.
     The government and many influential neighborhoods groups adjacent to the Soldiers Home, would like to see the entire veterans’ hospital, operations, and grounds removed, turned into a recreational park, or developed into a center for condos, homes, and an entertainment complex, so far, a tough fight for veterans’ advocate groups.
     Few Americans fight this county’s wars. Most prefer to avoid the inconvenience. They feel they’ve done their duty by standing for military honor guards at sporting events, pledging their allegiance to the flag, becoming righteously indignant at professional athletes who “take a knee,” or spout the mindless but ubiquitous “Thank you for you service,” which many veterans take to mean, “Better you than me.”
     Then, there are those who consider war an antiquated method of solving international squabbles and would prefer to completely eradicate war, an irrational idea to many who serve in a volunteer army, to munitions contractors and manufacturers, and to private military-service corporations, war profiteers.
     When I first came to the Soldiers’ Home for treatment in 1969, after my discharge from the army, tall swaying trees, rolling hills, shrubs, dirt walkways, a Shangri La, greeted me. I saw it as a place of refuge, for body, psyche, and spirit.
     After Vietnam, sometime in the '80s forward, we came in droves, with all manner of malady. The VA wasn’t ready for us, nor was it ready for the veterans of Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and the secret wars in Latin America and Africa.
     When I first came, it was for a wound I’d received in the mountains outside of Kontum, Vietnam, on a night we’d trained for--combat. It was supposed to go smoothly, everyone doing his job. Instead, it was chaos; darkness surrounded us, muzzle flashes from howitzers firing illumination rounds into the night, the black sky brightened, flares attached to small parachutes, slowly descending, the bursts of M-16s, grenades, artillerymen shouting in erratic voices, and shadows moving through the jungle.
     I didn’t know I was wounded until I reached in to touch a warmth on my arm. My fingers slid over a slimy liquid and dropped into a puncture. Shrapnel had pierced the flesh, and come to rest near the bone, where a doctor at the Plieku Field Hospital said operating to remove it could cause permanent damage, cutting through nerves and muscle to get at the wayward piece of metal.
     “People live with much worse,” the doctor told me. “If it bothers you, get it checked out back home.”
     How could I complain? The kid in the bed next to me had both legs amputated below the knees. He was heavily medicated, day and night. We talked a little. I wasn’t sure he even understood his condition. One day after I returned from lunch, I saw him talking to the Chaplin. That night I could hear the kid crying. Three days later, he was dead.
     Across from me, a North Vietnamese soldier lay in a hospital bed, his chest exposed and a long, thick incision ran from his neck to the bottom of his belly. We exchanged glances. I didn’t know enemy soldiers were treated in the same hospitals as Americans. I felt no animosity towards him. He was just another guy screwed up by war.
     The day I came to the VA for a checkup of my wounded arm after my discharge, the doctor gave me an x-ray, saw the shrapnel, and said it looked okay, nothing he could do. He offered me 10% disability, told me--no need to return. He sent me on to a benefits counselor, who treated me like he was an insurance adjuster, all business. If I asked a question, he answered in a stern tone. “That’s it! We can’t do anymore.” I was 21. The words stayed with me for thirty years, “No need to return.”
     I was raised in a neighborhood near the Soldiers Home. We, kids, grew up seeing veterans, of all wars hanging around the bars near our main downtown shopping area on Santa Monica boulevard, not far from UCLA, sometimes their wheelchairs lining the store fronts, grizzled veterans drinking beer wrapped in brown paper bags, men with empty pant legs and shirt sleeves. They chatted away. We never considered what they’d seen or done. Our dads, mostly WWII and Korean War veterans didn’t say much of the war. Who knew, I, and a whole other generation, would one day join them, taking up the mantle of silence?
     As the years passed, some days I’d cruise the VA grounds in my car, like an addict, in need of a shot in the form of a memory jolt, a message to remind me I hadn’t dreamed it or imagined it all, that I’d done what my mind told me I’d done, been all the places they’d sent me, met all the guys I’d served with, and seem the images burned into my mind. Since, the buildings and grounds were designed to look like a military outpost, I sensed a certain familiarity with the place, a homecoming, of sorts.
     I aged and kept that world and the memories bottled up inside, until it all came to a boil. I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in years, Ben Avila, a guy I knew in high school, another veteran, who told me about a group of Chicano vets hanging out at the local AMVETS house on the other side of town, in Culver City, just “shooting the shit.” I decided to join them. We shared stories, without embarrassment or insecurity. We could relate to each other, laugh at what nobody else would ever think funny. They insisted I to go back to the VA for treatment, and for them to up my benefits. The higher the benefits, the better the treatment.
     Adrian Arias said he’d been like me, didn’t want to step foot on VA property, years later, still angry over the war, the lies that started it, the deaths of his friends, but he realized he deserved to be seen. “They can’t treat us like we’re invisible. They don’t want us to enroll for benefits. You’ve got a purple heart. Make them see you.”
     I swallowed my pride and returned. I had to make a nuisance of myself, not only for my physical wound but for the invisible wounds, the hardest to heal and to talk about, those that caused, not only us but our families, pain.
     As I drive deeper into the complex, a sense of calm comes over me. I stop and nod to the veterans I pass or meet along the way. Sometimes, I pull over and stop. Conversations flow easily; no introductions necessary, like we’re right back in the military; after all, most of us share a bond few people share, or could ever understand. Less than five percent of the American citizenry fights our country’s wars.
     I see beyond the gray hair, wrinkles, missing limbs, hobbling old soldiers on walkers, and I see youngsters, strong, vibrant, and healthy, again, dressed in olive drab, spit shined boots, carrying ruck sacks, and weapons, or sitting in groups telling their life stories. It’s like being 19 again. It’s like we all are together, nobody else to depend on, just each other.
     I drive under an overpass, cars streaming on the boulevard above, the city in action, noise and business, and I head north towards the foothills, the Santa Monica Mountain range an arm reach away. I park in a dirt lot beside a nine-hole golf range, another facility for veterans but mostly occupied, today, by the public. I take the string of rosary beads from my glove compartment and walk to the fence leading to the golf course, at the spot where a young Iraqi War veteran, Everett Alvarado, hung himself from a rope tied to the chain link fence. I loop the rosary through the wire and make a knot. I say a prayer. I know when I return next week someone will have removed it. The VA wants no commemoration to show veterans have killed themselves on these grounds, no flowers or candles, just more silence.
     I walk across a narrow road, through an opening in a wall of bamboo, down a path made of dirt and broken stones, the Japanese Garden. It's in grove, surrounded by shrubbery and shaded by a canopy of enormous trees overhead. I find an empty spot on a bench, and I join other vets sitting and reflecting, some, eyes closed contemplating, the rushing sounds of a water running down a concrete ramp, a splashing waterfall, ducks floating across a pond, and scores of water turtles taking their places along the shore and on rocks.
     We seek solace, peace, even redemption for our past actions, maybe even sins. This sacred ground, warts and all, remains, after 150 years, but who knows for how much longer.


Concepcion said...

Thank you, Daniel Cano. Sad reality. Needs voicing. Beautifully stated.

Antonio SolisGomez said...

i'm sure your story hits home with a lot of vets-i'll forward to my brother who was in vietnam. thanks antonio

Daniel Cano said...

Antonio, Concepcion, of course, the need is still there. So many Chicano/Latino (and now Chicana/Latina Middle East) vets live privately with their experiences and pain, and families also suffer. In this story, let's just say the names have been changed to protect the innocent. All else is pretty close to nonfiction as one can get.