The Aging Effects of War

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There was a
time in my life when thirty was considered old. In the early seventies,
there was even a line of clothing labeled "U-30" designed
to target the younger, baby boomer consumer. The clothing industry
was attempting to cash in on the obvious distinction between youth
and age. Over time I have noticed that my definition of old age
has taken a dynamic life of its own. That is, it changes with time.
So it seems an element of subjectivity factors into determining
what qualifies as old.

One arbitrary
way of making the determination is to agree that certain numbers
define old age. As illustrated by the U-30 clothing line, a population
younger than thirty might pick that number as a marker. Once the
crowd gets past thirty, the number sixty-five might be more to the
liking, while someone over sixty-five might prefer eighty-five to
mark the point where someone is considered old. Using this model,
the key is agreeing on what magic number marks old. This method
assumes that our birth is the point of reference for establishing
old versus young. However, for those who are willing to look at
this subject a different way, the true answer to describing old
age is relative, but not relative to our birth. The solution to
this mental work-out is that age is more relative to our death.
Consequently, the closer we are to our death, the older we are.
If we are far from our death, we may say we are young. If we are
close to our death, we ought to then say we are old. It is possible
to say one is actually old though they may not be a great distance
from their birth. This definition avoids using clocks, calendars,
and other chronometric devices. It also avoids getting into the
mess of trying to define time, e.g. is time constant, or is it relative?

One of the
lasting images I have from my war experience is seeing the returning
troops as the new replacements prepared to give up our seats on
the commercial airplanes that had deposited us into Vietnam. The
newcomers were sent to an area to wait for processing. It was easy
to see the origin of the term, "Greenie," or "Green"
when referring to young, inexperienced soldiers. The uniforms of
the incoming soldiers were brand new and obviously green in color.
The new soldiers' boots were still black and scuff-free. The newbie's
clothing revealed the truth. They had not seen a thing yet.

The returning
soldiers stood on the opposite side of the holding area ready to
leave the country. They were going back to what I would soon learn
was "The World." They were going home in the same airplanes
we had just emptied. The exchange was a quick, efficient process.
The replacements filed out of the plane, received a good luck wish
from the stewardess and in a few short minutes the departing troops
were on board. I suppose the private airline industry had a keen
interest in getting their birds out of Vietnam as quickly as possible.
The Braniff World airliner that had safely deposited my group of
replacements was back in the skies in very short order.

In my brief
encounter with the group we were replacing I noticed that the uniforms
of the soldiers leaving the war were all faded. Some were faded
so badly the green appeared more brown than green. Their boots were
worn out. The upper portions of their boots had turned color from
the original olive drab to a faded brown. The lower portions of
their boots were faded to a brownish, worn leather color far from
the black ones I was sporting.

But the greatest
payment of wear and tear showed on the soldiers themselves. Practically
every man was tanned from the sun. Many had sun-bleached hair. Many
sported sun-lightened moustaches. Every one of the returnees was
thin. However, the attribute I recall most vividly was the look
in the soldiers' eyes. They all had the eyes of old men. In their
eyes I could see a message that told me they had experienced something
that had changed them. In real age, I was twenty at the time and
most of the men I was looking at were twenty-one. In due course,
I discovered that the term "real" has no place in war.
I was looking at men who had one year of war experience on me yet
they looked as if they were twenty years my senior. I was a child
standing on the children's side of the room facing a group of old
men. I soon looked forward to the day when I would be in the faded
uniform, with the faded boots, sporting a sun-bleached moustache
facing my replacement with that look of an experienced man. This
became the dream of a lot of the soldiers who served with me. The
dream was not to be old, but to make it to the day when one of those
airliners would take us back home. To be able to just get out of
there alive became our individual as well as our collective goal.

I tried not
to dwell on the somewhat eerie recollection of seeing the "old"
men leaving the war zone. I attributed much of their appearance
to being physically active and spending their days in the Southeast
Asian sun. I assumed that after a year of hiking in the jungle and
living on military chow I would have that look myself. I was wrong.
Eating the cruddy food and wearing the uniforms in the sun and mud
had little to do with developing that weathered look. It was living
with the constant close proximity to death that put the years on.
I discovered that living with the deaths of fellow soldiers, the
deaths we caused of the enemy, the deaths of the civilians (collateral
damage), and routinely facing my own near death hastened the progression
along my life's timeline. From a timeline standpoint I was moving
from my birth, far from my youth. I soon became no longer young
because of my closeness to death. I was getting old. The only comfort
(if you can call it that) I could take from the experience was that
everyone around me was going through the same process.

I guess it
took about two months of constant combat missions to transform me
from a greenie to a somewhat experienced soldier. I recall the arrival
of some replacements into our unit and I remember the feeling of
accomplishment I had over the new guys. My uniforms were no longer
green, my boots were showing lots of wear, and my scrawny body was
a deep bronze. I was far from "short" (the expression
for being close to finishing a tour) but at least I was shorter
than the newbies. I was soon giving them advice on how to survive.

As fate would
have it, my war tour almost ended in a body bag. After nine months
of recon missions I was "dusted off" (slang for leaving
on a medical evacuation) and I did not realize my dream of facing
a room full of green replacements. I spent nearly a full year in
military and VA hospitals before re-entering civilian life. My war-induced
aging process probably picked up the pace even after I left the

My purpose
in sharing this account is to establish an understanding of what
today's combat soldiers/war veterans are going through. I fear that
America still has not learned the lessons of war. I suspect that
too many in this nation's population have grown numb to the accounts
of American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. I talk to my peers and
my loved ones about this subject today and most give me a respectful
listen but I think they wish I would spare them the details and
just shut up. Some have told me that although they share my views
they only feel frustrated and powerless to change anything. A current-events
discussion is verboten and only serves to turn their stomachs. Many
have turned off the national news and for them, the message is not
allowed in their home. For many, the out of sight, out of mind approach
is their way of handling the truth

Thanks to the
miracles of quick medical treatment, there are thousands of veterans
just like me who will never get their war experience out of their
sight or out of their minds. We were not issued a remote control
capable of turning it off. Furthermore, the damage is not limited
to the physically wounded soldiers. Many war veterans return to
civilian life without a scratch, yet bear the deepest internal and
invisible scars. It has permanently changed and shaped the war veterans'
civilian lives as well as the lives of our spouses and of our children.
This is a fraction of the legacy of war. It is a component that
I doubt many civilians can understand or appreciate.

I have evolved
into an anti-war critic because I actually know what war is. I absolutely
support self-defense but insist that we are truly defending our
country. I stand as a critic of the Iraq war because I believe it
has been proven we had no business invading that country. It was
sold as a preemptive strike on an enemy country but the salesmen
were liars. The public was blatantly lied to in the effort to get
support for a military action. The invasion was poorly planned and
the occupation is under-manned. And the administration has not made
public an exit strategy. There seems to be no specific goal that
America can achieve that will allow us to declare victory and mark
the end of this nightmare. The longer this action continues the
more war vets we are creating who will have aged ahead of their
years. Be it by choice or by circumstance, it is a cost of war that
many do not think of.

A former student
of mine stopped by to pay a visit shortly after the initial invasion
of Iraq. He had joined the Army and had served in the Third Infantry
Division, which was the division responsible for essentially plowing
through the country in the push to overpower the Iraqi military.
I was a bit uncomfortable because I had never been in this situation.
I have had former students come back after they became parents,
after they became successfully employed and some just for a visit;
but this was my first returning combat veteran. Before he even spoke,
I knew he had aged. I also knew what had caused his premature aging.
I knew better than to ask the stupid questions that many have asked
me: "Did you see any action?" "Did you see anybody
get hurt or killed?" Or my personal favorite: "Did you
kill anybody?" The two of us just looked at each other with
an understanding that communicated volumes of information. It was
a nonverbal conversation that said all that was needed. I was probably
the only person he knew who could have understood his situation.
And although I am sure I provided him a safe outlet had he needed
to vent, we both said all that was necessary without uttering words.
When he graduated from school he was probably about eighteen. In
the two-year interim, when I saw him following his Iraq war experience,
he had become almost as old as his fifty-something teacher.

16, 2006

Woolley [send him mail]
is a disabled Vietnam veteran living in Miami, Florida. He served
with the 9th Infantry Division in The Mekong Delta in
a Ranger unit doing reconnaissance 1968–69 where he received
a gunshot wound to the head leaving one side severely paralyzed.
He is a father of four grown children and grandfather of seven,
including a set of triplets.

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