Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The long memory of veterans

Jeff Spry did a nice piece in this week’s Nugget profiling Harold Mulligan, a former Sisters resident who is still active in Sisters veterans groups. Mulligan is a Pearl Harbor survivor and he saw a lot more action in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

Jeff’s story closes with a quote that I found very striking:

“Mostly at night when sun goes down is when it bothers you most. The older you get, the worse it gets. There's a lot of nights lying awake.”

That sounds a lot like my uncle, now 91 and living in Arizona. He was an infantry captain in Italy during the war. I know little of his service because when I was young and we lived in Southern California, he never talked about the war.

I do know that he saw a lot of heavy combat in very rough terrain and that it was a bad experience for him.

My dad visits him a lot and now, he says, after decades of almost complete silence on the subject, the war is almost all my uncle talks about.

What particularly preys on his mind is the young 18-year-old replacements sent into the lines at night. Many times, the Germans would mortar the Americans’ position overnight and these kids would be wounded or killed before they ever fired a shot. Before anybody even knew their name.
My uncle keeps coming back to that. He’s lived a long life. Those kids had theirs cut short. That kind of thing gets to you.

Those memories reaching their long fingers across decades of time are not uncommon, I’m told. “The older you get the worse it gets” is common. It’s not unusual for decades of silence to be broken by an intense focus on wartime experiences.

“Stereotypically normal,” says a friend who works with veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

That’s why groups like those that have recently come into being in Sisters where veterans assist one another are so important. Veterans who have a hard time dealing with their memories need to be around people who have shared similar experiences, who know how it feels.

And my friend in the field will tell you, there’s a whole new generation of men and women who are going to struggle with “a lot of nights lying awake.”

Hopefully, we are better now at helping folks get through those long nights than we used to be.

Jim Cornelius, Editor

1 comment:

  1. Jim,

    Well said.

    And let's give thanks to all those whose lives are dramatically changed forever, whether by physical wound or injury or by those unseen wounds that linger long after the battle and all too often are kept a secret by those who bear their terrible burden.

    From writer and social critic Paul Fussel, a WWII combat veteran himself, and who wrote the following about returning home. "I was being hauled bodily into a world where the idea of evil would be unthinkable." America was a civilization that "lacked...a sense of evil and infinite human complexity..."

    Our veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other unknown conflicts in the shadows are today being hauled back into the same society as Fussell's...then shipped out again and again and again into an increasingly crazed and violent combat arena. 1% are doing the fighting for 99% of those Americans who are deliberately insulated from the deconstruction of our veterans' lives on all fronts.

    God Bless those who are their brother's keeper, and who are sworn to never leave a fallen comrade behind.