by Shepherd Bliss by Shepherd Bliss
Ah, Valentine's Day approaches again — a good time to review one's love life. Memories long buried may emerge, if one goes deep enough.
Over 40 years ago I was commissioned an officer in the U.S. Army, following the tradition of the many fighting men of my family who went into the military. I did basic training at Ft. Riley, Kansas, home of the Big Red One, First Division. During those turbulent sixties I took an oath to defend my country and its Constitution. I have kept that oath.
I have a short story to tell. It's a veterans', plural, love story. It combines my experiences with those of various members of our Veterans' Writing Group, lead by author Maxine Hong Kingston. I tell it partly to plead for forgiveness for myself and others caught in war and for the things we do. Our story begins as a nightmare. Please stay with it to the end, through the difficulties. Love can be difficult, yet eventually can triumph.
"AT EASE!" the young lieutenant barks at our rifle squads, tired from a long march. We are outside Da Nang.
“Fall out, ten minute break,” his voice softens. We step off the trail and draw candy bars and cigarettes from our packs.
"You, soldier!" he points in my face.
"Yes sir!" I stiffen to attention.
"See that cave?"
"Charlie's in there. He's hiding. Hunt him down. Smoke him out!"
The last cave we entered, looking for VC, flashes in my mind. I felt like a mole. Poisonous snakes might attack me. Trapped in a small space, unable to see very well, I didn't want to go back into another putrid tunnel. What if the enemy set a trap?
This is not Ft. Riley, Kansas, but I'm still a teenager. These are no longer boys playing in the woods, which I enjoyed. No one told me that war would be like this. I had been in-country only a few weeks — this boy soldier.
"We know you're in there," we yelled at the entrance of the first cave. "Come on out," we pleaded. We listened at the entrance of a simple hole in the ground. We waited. "Come on out," we repeated. We waited for what seemed like a long time.
Hearing no sound, we assumed no one was inside. So we finally threw a few firecracker grenades in, counting them as they exploded — One, two, three…Yes! July 4th — explosions, a light show.
Expecting no one inside, we edged in…
Body parts everywhere.
We couldn't look at each other, bowed our heads in shame, unable to say anything. At least one of us began to cry.
We needed a body count. We tallied parts of seven children's bodies…and nine old, thin bodies of small-boned people. That was a tiny cave. The one I was just commanded to enter is huge.
Belly tightening and breath shallow, I take my flashlight and M16, now a seasoned veteran at the age of nineteen. I'm on a manhunt into a cave again, carrying small-boned people inside me.
Each family has staked out a little space in this dank dungeon. The stench hits me first — from holes in the ground for excrement. I gag, want to throw up. I'm trained, disciplined, hardened, but not for this.
Acrid smoke hits my eyes — small fires for light and cooking — blinding this mole even more. No wind, no ventilation, no water. This is surely hell. How blind we are.
I grope forward, try to avoid stepping on bodies. Hundreds are lying, sitting, crouching — children crying, old men and women coughing or moaning.
No men of fighting age, yet.
My head hits the cave's ceiling and I fall to my knees. I throw out a hand, touching not the filthy floor, but the fingers and palm of a young woman's hand. She steadies me. Our survivals are suddenly linked. Our eyes meet. She smiles. She's beautiful. A rush enters my body.
Now what do I do?
I feel her grasp become a clasp — sensuous, even amorous, tracing the lifeline on my palm. She traces the lifeline on my palm. She seems to want something from me. Her touch is firm, yet gentle. A feeling of connection surges through me.
Is she the enemy?
Where am I?
What am I hunting?
Who is this woman?
Unable to surrender to her feelings and relate to her, I release my hand, mumble an apology, and bolt out of the cave. Outside, I hold my splitting head in my hands.
How could anyone experience desire in such a place?
I've been a member of the Veterans' Writing Group for the last decade. We tell, write, and listen to each other's stories, sometimes of love and war. To tell, write, and listen to war stories can heal and connect us to each other, breaking a sense of isolation and shame. This story includes Michael's story as a young officer in Vietnam, Glenn's story from World War II and my father's untold stories. It is a combined veterans' story. I have carried it inside for decades and now need to tell it and write it down, even at the risk of breaking "Code Blue" silence and confidentiality.
I began writing this short story (which has had a long life inside me) as a poem in 200l. The United States had started to attack Afghanistan, using bombs to flush people out of caves. I was haunted by knowing that there were more than soldiers in those caves. Entire families were taking refuge in the ground, which has long provided some sanctuary from war-making; modern high-tech weapons can now even penetrate and destroy life underground.
A vivid memory I have from Iraq War 1 triggered this story. I was watching television news in New Mexico with my girlfriend Elena Avila, a Chicana whose father worked for many years at Ft. Bliss, Texas, named after one of my ancestors. Her son was in the military at the time. She shook her head and lamented something like, "Brown on brown, our boys killing their boys. It's not right."
After 9/11, I accepted a teaching position at the University of Hawai'i. Many dark-skinned people from Hawai'i and elsewhere are on the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan. I am proud of Lt. Ehren Watada, a Hawaiian, for having the courage to refuse deployment in the current Iraq War.
You may wonder why I call this a "love story" and tell it as we approach Valentine's Day Only a brief moment of desire is expressed at the end, to which the soldier does not fully surrender, though he did terminate his search and destroy mission. This climaxes the story; the Vietnamese woman's ability to feel compassion for and connection to someone who might even kill her transforms the soldier and the story. Such a flash of love can shine brightly, change behavior, and be redemptive. A moment of deep love, especially under difficult circumstances, can change a life.
In addition to that Vietnamese woman's love, for that is how it felt, I want to express my deep personal love to the following people:
My first adult girlfriend, Marilyn Yeo. As a University of Kansas undergraduate in the sixties she challenged my participation in the military during the Vietnam War. She may have saved my life, and certainly reduced damage to my soul. She also took me to hear my next great love:
Martin Luther King, Jr., who presented such a compelling case against war that I decided to resign my commission and not go to war. My buddies who did go to war were not as fortunate, even those who came back. I listen to their stories and try to re-tell some of them by weaving them together into a coherent whole in an attempt to describe for civilians what happens to men in battle.
My former girlfriend Elena Avila, a curandera (folk healer), for the time we spent together and how much she taught me about indigenous and Mexican people.
The Veterans' Writing Group, with whom I have met for around a decade now, is under the able leadership of Maxine Hong Kingston. In the fall we published our book "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace," where I wrote about the trauma of being raised in a military family.
As I look back over my life during this Valentine's season, I realize that leaving the military during the Vietnam War was the single most important decision of my entire 62 years. I appreciate all the good people along the way who have helped me with my post-traumatic stress.
I send my Valentine's Day love to the following — unknown Vietnamese woman in the cave, Marilyn, Martin, Elena, and brother and sister vets. I pledge to do my best to stop war. For my shortcomings, I ask for your forgiveness.
Shepherd Bliss [send him mail] is a retired college teacher and former officer in the U.S. Army who now farms in Northern California. He has contributed to 19 books, including three post-9/11 books, most recently to Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. He is currently writing a book on Sweet Darkness, Luscious Berries, and Endarkenment.