It was a normal Saturday for my brother and I. We sat on the floor in our pajamas while Buffalo Bob argued with Howdy Doody.
My father lay on the sofa behind us, reading the newspaper. We soon forgot all about the "ol' man" and began to fight over what show to watch next. Suddenly, from behind us, came a loud moan followed by a terrorized scream. My eyes darted to my father, and saw that he had sat up on the sofa and gripped the newspaper in his hand as if ready to bash my brains out with it.
Not understanding his sudden anger, I screamed for my mother. She came running, holding my Dad in her arms while whispering words of comfort to him.
That was the first time that I had seen my father in this condition, but it would not be the last. For the rest of his life he was haunted in his dreams by experiences long gone in the physical world. Like an old 45 rpm record with a scratch, his unconscious mind was stuck in one or two spots in his life: the carnage of the Battle of the Bulge, and the horror of Dachau Concentration Camp. His failure to forget was not isolated, as I have found out over the years since.
At the University of Georgia, in 1969, a new student in our dorm asked me to please awaken him before I went to class the next day. Unsuspecting, I slowly opened the door to his darkened room the next morning. In the dim pre-dawn light, I could see him lying on the bunk bed; his back turned toward me. "Bill," I said, "Hey, man, time to wake up." Without warning, I found my self pinned against the wall with a Marine Corps knife against my throat. Shouting, I made him wake up and realize what he was doing.
Later, I learned that this guy had been on long-range recon in Vietnam, and had returned to "the world" only three months previously. His mother and father had insisted on his going straight to school as soon as possible.
Mike Stephens promised himself on the returning plane that the first thing he would do was go to a certain Augusta fast-food restaurant. As Mike told it to me years later, the restaurant's famous foot-long hotdog became an icon that symbolized a "normal" civilian life while he was in Vietnam. As soon as his wife picked him up at Bush Field Airport, he made her drive him there, and he purchased a "dog" with chili, onions and mustard, the works. It was the therapy that he needed.
Others were not so lucky. A local nurse, an acquaintance, came back stateside after two tours in 'Nam, took a short vacation, and then went to work in a Veteran's Hospital in her home town. Within a few months, she had become re-acquainted with other nurses who had served with her -- they were all patients of the hospital.
All of these former servicemen and women bear in common the fact that friends, relatives and strangers could not allow them the one thing they needed most on their return -- peace.
The lives of service personnel are twisted and surreal; even those not called into actual combat experience episodes which are unnatural and alien to their past life. Stress is embedded into them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Our returning troops need time to leave those memories behind, and to integrate themselves back into a relatively calm civilian life. They do not need to be bombarded with questions about "what it was like?" or "should we be over there?"; they need peace.
I carry on my PDA a short film of dolphins playing beneath the warm waters of the Pacific. Whenever I get stressed at work, I turn it on to watch as they swim, twist and dive in the quiet and serene waters. It allows me to get away from my stressful situation and return my mind to a more productive and creative environment.
This past week, it was announced that soldiers of the 878th Engineer Battalion would be returning to Augusta. They come just in time for our celebration of Memorial Day. The greatest honor that we, as their American family, can give these men and women is to give them time to play with the dolphins; time to slowly and serenely enter the calm waters of their former lives and loved ones.
(Dennis Jones is a Martinez resident.)
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