The Aging Effects of War

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 war.

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.

March 16, 2006