" 'Did you kill anybody?' The answer we were told to write was no"

coffee_strong_logoI’ll write more this weekend about the situation at Fort Lewis, which should concern us all and has already got the attention of Amnesty International. But looking at GI Voice, the newsletter of the Fort Lewis GI coffeehouse Coffee Strong, I was gobsmacked by the following cri de coeur from a young Marine.

The writer, Allen Huck, knows exactly what’s going on. His note speaks to everything we’ve come to understand about soldiers, and these wars. I reprinted in full in case someone who reads this can help. (Feel free to contact Allen directly via Coffee Strong.)

It was “Marine Corps Policy”, I guess. Before leaving Kuwait, we were handed out forms to fill out. Awful things…Did you see a dead body? Did you kill anyone? Did you participate in any sort of war crimes? Ridiculous questions. Especially, since we were never really informed of what exactly war crimes were. Maybe I did. Those thoughts continue to haunt my daily life, and my dreams.

On our return to Kuwait, we were given strict instructions on how we were to fill out these forms.

“Did you see a dead body?” – The guided answer was no.
”Did you kill anyone?” – The answer was also no.
”Do you feel you need immediate help and/or counseling?” – Absolutely not.

The questions went on. And of course, the answers were almost always “no.”

Perhaps this is the reason that PTSD is so rampant as a result of this conflict. Had we been given the help we so sorely needed, perhaps the homeless rates, drug use, domestic violence, and completely shattered lives would not be so rampant. Maybe not, but it sure couldn’t have done additional harm.

When I returned from Iraq, I was forced to fill out one of these questionnaires. I told the truth, and as a result, it disappeared. When I returned home, I went to my commend, and asked for mental health counseling. But in the Marine Corps, requests for mental health were simply not asked for. And so it was denied. As a result of that, I was separated from the Marine Corps indefinitely. I was ostracized by nearly everyone in my unit as “crazy”, which was the most horrible stigma one could be given. I was immediately kicked off base, my ID card was confiscated, along with my base vehicle stickers.

Essentially, I was banned from the Marines for requesting help.

Later on, I received phone calls stating that I was UA (the Marine Corps’ AWOL), and MP’s came to my house to take me into custody. Just about three or four months ago, I received a call that said I was reactivated, and was on the roster to be re-deployed.

My unit was 4th LSB H&S Co. Located at Ft. Lewis.
Their Address is: Fort Lewis
H&S Co(-)4th LSB
Bldg 9690, Box 339500
Fort Lewis, WA 98433
Their Phone is: 253-967-2477

Any help would be greatly appreciated, as they have now refused to take my phone calls, and will not return my letters. My name is: Allen Huck.

To anyone who is willing to help in calling, writing, or anything of the sort, I would appreciate it. This is happening to other good soldiers, and we cannot allow this behavior to continue.

" 'Did you kill anybody?' The answer we were told to write was no"

coffee_strong_logoI’ll write more this weekend about the situation at Fort Lewis, which should concern us all and has already got the attention of Amnesty International. But looking at GI Voice, the newsletter of the Fort Lewis GI coffeehouse Coffee Strong, I was gobsmacked by the following cri de coeur from a young Marine.

The writer, Allen Huck, knows exactly what’s going on. His note speaks to everything we’ve come to understand about soldiers, and these wars. I reprinted in full in case someone who reads this can help. (Feel free to contact Allen directly via Coffee Strong.)

It was “Marine Corps Policy”, I guess. Before leaving Kuwait, we were handed out forms to fill out. Awful things…Did you see a dead body? Did you kill anyone? Did you participate in any sort of war crimes? Ridiculous questions. Especially, since we were never really informed of what exactly war crimes were. Maybe I did. Those thoughts continue to haunt my daily life, and my dreams.

On our return to Kuwait, we were given strict instructions on how we were to fill out these forms.

“Did you see a dead body?” – The guided answer was no.
”Did you kill anyone?” – The answer was also no.
”Do you feel you need immediate help and/or counseling?” – Absolutely not.

The questions went on. And of course, the answers were almost always “no.”

Perhaps this is the reason that PTSD is so rampant as a result of this conflict. Had we been given the help we so sorely needed, perhaps the homeless rates, drug use, domestic violence, and completely shattered lives would not be so rampant. Maybe not, but it sure couldn’t have done additional harm.

When I returned from Iraq, I was forced to fill out one of these questionnaires. I told the truth, and as a result, it disappeared. When I returned home, I went to my commend, and asked for mental health counseling. But in the Marine Corps, requests for mental health were simply not asked for. And so it was denied. As a result of that, I was separated from the Marine Corps indefinitely. I was ostracized by nearly everyone in my unit as “crazy”, which was the most horrible stigma one could be given. I was immediately kicked off base, my ID card was confiscated, along with my base vehicle stickers.

Essentially, I was banned from the Marines for requesting help.

Later on, I received phone calls stating that I was UA (the Marine Corps’ AWOL), and MP’s came to my house to take me into custody. Just about three or four months ago, I received a call that said I was reactivated, and was on the roster to be re-deployed.

My unit was 4th LSB H&S Co. Located at Ft. Lewis.
Their Address is: Fort Lewis
H&S Co(-)4th LSB
Bldg 9690, Box 339500
Fort Lewis, WA 98433
Their Phone is: 253-967-2477

Any help would be greatly appreciated, as they have now refused to take my phone calls, and will not return my letters. My name is: Allen Huck.

To anyone who is willing to help in calling, writing, or anything of the sort, I would appreciate it. This is happening to other good soldiers, and we cannot allow this behavior to continue.

of time warps, and beside-the-point ANSWERs to worlds that can wait

Like the guy in the show above, I can’t believe it: I’m finally out of 1973. Unlike LBJ, I got  out of Vietnam, sort of. (I ended up with a 60,000-word chapter, in a book  that’s only supposed to be 110.000 words total!) I can almost say that I’m in the home stretch on this book, and am starting to frame its end – including scenes I witnessed personally (such as Ron Kovic confronting Colin Powell in 1995, when many thought the latter should be President). Meanwhile, the very lateness of the hour means I’m seeing another phase of the story take shape, as the Afghan war becomes the topic of the hour.The voices of vets like James Gilligan, who  tunneled through Afghanistan before going to Iraq, suddenly seem more urgent to hear.

But first, a little rant, about something that’s none of my business.

The months sunk into the “Vietnam years” made me feel more strongly than ever about trends I’m seeing in some of these newer veterans’ groups — stuff I keep TRYING, in good journalistic fashion, to shut my mouth about so that I can just watch it happen in real time.  It’s about the perpetual dance between dissenting veterans and groups of the sectarian left, for whom the latter are sort of a dream date.

When one young vet blithely proclaimed I could interview him at an event sponsored by World Can’t Wait, I instinctively refused, having grown up avoiding WCW’s sponsor at demonstrations in NY and Washington. I wrote a piece about WCW’s Maoist doppelganger, equally “militant” and equally cloaked in multiple spinoff organizations. Both pour a lot of money and support toward whatever young veterans they can find, support that has likely felt essential and important when the wider world is trying to ignore the wars. But the effect, throughout history, has not always been…. productive.

drillsgtI don’t want to go after those two groups in particular; and I can’t claim to be against military-civilian alliances or the need to look deeply at the power structures that sustain these wars. But witness the collapse of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1975, as narrated by  the late Steve Hassna. I met Drill Sgt, Hassna in the 1990s, and I trust his description of what he  called “The Split”:

A debate started in the organization in mid `72 about the future and what to do when the war was over. By this time everyone knew that, in fact, the war was going to end soon, just not sure when. One train of thought was we “struggle”, (that’s a leftist term, for “fight the good fight”) to see the war end. Then decide what we were all about. The other was, “We need to build an organization for the revolution, be the vangaurd, and all that other crap. Continue the fight against the capitalistic power structure and embrace a Marxist- Leninist analysis for a people’s revolution, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!!

This sort of thinking really gave most of the members in VVAW a headache, and many left in disgust. This type of thought train was coming from VVAW members and non-veterans working in the organization who had adopted that Marxist analysis. The one thing to remember is that these people were coming into VVAW to push their special agenda. They were not there to stop the war, they were there to advance their political thought. Everything from the R.U.(Revolutionary Union),R.S.B (Revolutionary Student Brigade),Venceremos, October League, S.W.P.(Sociallist Workers’ Party), CPUSA (Communist Party United States of America) and last but not least, the one, the only,the RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party). Though small in numbers, they were able to get into positions of power that would let them set VVAW policy….

The ANSWER prototype was no better, at that point still working on defending Stalin and weeding out “revisionists.” Of course, back then the FBI was watching all this – having installed an impressive set of informants by then. And the FBI was also tracking the WCW precursor the Revolutionary Union, as the latter instructed its Midwest “cadre” that ““veterans are potential revolutionary force” and advised its cadre “to link up with veterans” in the “fights . . . against the Veterans Administration for benefits” because they could use any Washington demonstrations to “begin to realize our goal of linking the veterans’ struggle with the overall anti-imperialist movement.” Not to actually secure any veterans benefits, mind you; not to heal the hole in vets’ hearts or figure out why so many were sick. It was all about the “movement.”  Finally, Hassna continues:

1975wintersoldier_banner

In 1973 VVAW got a new name, and a whole new set of headaches. Now it was VVAW/WSO, VietNam Veterans Against the War/ Winter Soldier Organization. The addition of WSO meant that non veterans could join and be in positions to set policy. The left played on the guilt and pain that members had from the war. We (members) had to embrace Marx and bare our souls to our crimes against humanity. Meetings turned into political education classes, with criticism/ self-criticism periods thrown in to help us move forward for the revolution. Do I need to say how much of a royal pain in the ass all this was? On top of all this, there were people who took this crap seriously.

As you see above, they  even changed the banner on the group’s newsletter, to strongly resemble the Chinese flag.

I’ve read more scholarly accounts of this entire evolution from less folksy sources; check out tthe three major histories of the VVAW to a 1975 dissertation on the G.I. movement by a rather conservative Chicagoan who points out that the sectarian left had “different priorities.” More crucially, he added, the emphasis on “hating the brass” prevented them from making common cause with the officers who agreed with them.

No way to know whether the future for today’s rapidly-morphing soldier-dissent will play out similarly. But nothing I’ve learned in the past year has  made me feel, personally, any different from when I first saw Garett Reppenhagen, a man I respect hugely, first appearing at a podium with ANSWER streamed at the front.

I shouldn’t care about this, as a writer. There’s a lot of Yeatsian  circle-the-gyre energy to all this. But as someone who sees  the need for clear opposition to war and values the role of the soldier/vet, I do care. As the need to counter Obama-as-LBJ grows stronger, the fastest way to bury that voice in the margins is  to dress it in such ridiculous  clothing. Luckily, there are whole swaths that are already steering clear; I’ll watch as quietly as I can, to see what happens to the rest.

poetry friday a day early

cause that’s how it feels sometimes.


The Author to her Book
Thou ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain, Who after birth did'st by my side remain, Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true, Who thee abroad expos'd to public view, Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge, Where errors were not lessened (all may judge). At thy return my blushing was not small, My rambling brat (in print) should mother call. I cast thee by as one unfit for light, Thy Visage was so irksome in my sight, Yet being mine own, at length affection would Thy blemishes amend, if so I could. I wash'd thy face, but more defects I saw, And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw. I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet, Yet still thou run'st more hobbling than is meet. In better dress to trim thee was my mind, But nought save home-spun Cloth, i' th' house I find. In this array, 'mongst Vulgars mayst thou roam. In Critics' hands, beware thou dost not come, And take thy way where yet thou art not known. If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none; And for thy Mother, she alas is poor, Which caus'd her thus to send thee out of door.

call it love or call it reason

More flotsam from my life-on-Mars phase:

I didn’t know this video existed, until now. I wish I had a clip of Ochs’ performance at the first Winter Soldier (two years later than this TV appearance) but this is good enough  for now. Knowing that the vets in Detroit heard Ochs’ anthem, just before four days of hearings on war crimes, makes me feel more certain than ever that I chose the right title for the book.

can you hear me major tom?

So I’ve been of late calling myself “Billy Pilgrim,” when people ask me how I am; digging tenaciously through those mad years we call “the Vietnam era,” which I subtitle as “When Everything Blew Up and Everything Grew.” What, she’s not done yet? Not yet, not when I spent thompsonnearly three weeks with the likes of Hugh Thompson (left) Ron Ridenhour (right) ron5 and the ubiquitous Tod Ensign,  as well a the guy below (hidden three rows behind Jane Fonda) who hasn’t yet talked to me about what I still think of as his proudest hour. (Also buds like Steve Morse, Bill Perry, and Susan Schnall, who’ve given me so much of their time…)  The whole thing makes me weirder than usual. I’m boring to be around: scattered, listening constantly to Hanoi Hannah on Pandora.com to get in the mood, etc. etc.

kerryfonda1

But this week, I realized that Vonnegut is far too noble an antecedent to call on here: better that  TV show “Life on Mars,” (thus the David Bowie above). So now, when people ask me “How’s the book??” I won’t say I’m Billy Pilgrim. This week, at least, I’m Sam Tyler – a 21st-century creature who keeps thinking they’ve moved on, only to be dragged right back to 1973, one more time.

studying with truman

Sometimes things happen in the right order. If I had been a conscientious student at Hunter High School, I’d have read this book under Jack McNeil, my very first Creative Writing instructor. At the very least, you might think I’d have taken it 20 years later, as a narrative-obsessed journalist. But the true-crime genre it spawned had persuaded me I didn’t need to; who needed to read about a grisly murder? I care about trauma, but didn’t I already admire, and praise in my teaching,  My Dark Places, James Ellroy’s account of the murder of his mother and his search for their killer? And I certainly never saw the 1976 film made from the book.

Even seeing the two recent “Capote movies” back to back didn’t drive me to the book. The more famous of the two, Capote, was most interesting for its portrayal of Capote’s erotic attachment to accused killer Perry Smith (played above by Robert Blake in the 1967 flick). And seeing Infamous (trailer below) I was taken by Capote’s close partnership with Harper Lee, who did a lot of the reporting Capote ultimately claimed was his own.

It wasn’t till I came across the book here in Philadelphia that I decided it was time to read it — that would be a good lesson in the writing of narrative nonfiction. Now, I’m kind of stunned.

Six years it took for Capote to combine it all — to dream the dream properly till it was, as my old sensei John Gardner  demands of fiction, both vivid and continuous. And I’m thankful that I went in with *exactly* the amount of information I had.  I was simultaneously swept up in the dream and, on every page, nodding admiringly at how the story of that Kansas morning was woven from soft conversations with farm folk and stubborn cops.

I sit here persuaded of two things:

  1. That the story it tells is both profound and rather slight, as I’d long suspected.
  2. That I have to find the scholars who’ve looked at Capote’s summary of the psychiatric testimony, and see those psychiatrists ooked at Smith’s military experiences in detail.
  3. That as long as I live as a writer, I can study all I like, but it’s unlikely that I’ll ever write any prose that comes ten percent within Capote’s.

None of which stops me from writing: and it’s dourly appropriate to read this as I construct snapshots from the tales told by veterans.  I’ll just hope that some of the fairy dust clings to my fingers, so that the ten percent range is still achievable.

There sat down, once, a cold war on america's heart

I didn’t know the video above existed, of my not-so-secret sensei JB.*, so excuse me while I catch my breath. I’ll wait, too. while you catch yours; here’s the heartrending poem he’s declaiming in that Irish-Woody-Allen accent. But that’s not the John Berryman poem I’m thinking about today.

I’ve never been a fan of Dream Song 23, below For the most part, Berryman at his best stayed away from explicit political references. But I’m staring at the Song now for clues, as I try in what I’m writing to evoke for 30 seconds an era I never lived through — wishing I’d never lost that great book The Dark Ages,  assigned by my beyond-brilliant Binghamton prof Sarah Elbert.

I also know that  I’m relying far too much on the Bayard Rustin phrase that David McReynolds taught me: Bayard spoke, he said,  about the era’s rigidity as “a large piece of sheet steel, 50 feet wide and 50 feet tall, and one inch thick – and if you  hit that with a  hammer at one corner, the entire sheet would reverberate.” (The Dark Ages referenced chronicles how under that steel, subversive elements like jazz and the Beats were gathering, though it makes almost no reference to any of my soldiers.)

jarrell_randallGrasping at cultural straws of all kind, I thought I’d try again. After all, Berryman was friends with WWII veteran Randall Jarrell (right) and in 1946 was teaching at Princeton, which like Yale had a front-row seat on the rest of my WWII story.

I know Berryman was spun by Hiroshima, and get the easy Joe Stalin bit, but what else is inside?   Please comment on what you see?  (You don’t have to be a Cold War baby to speculate.) I do think that the first verse, with its intimation of old-style TV static, comes closest to Rustin’s sheet of steel.

This is the lay of Ike.
Here’s to the glory of the Grewt White—awk—
who has been running—er—er—things in recent—ech—
in the United—If your screen is black,
ladies & gentlemen, we—I like—
at the Point he was already terrific—sick

to a second term, having done no wrong—
no right—no — right—having let the Army—bang—
defend itself from Joe, let venom’ Strauss
bile Oppenheimer out of use—use Robb,
who’ll later fend for Goldfine—Breaking no laws,
he lay in the White House—sob!!—

who never understood his own strategy—whee—
so Monty’s memoirs—nor any strategy,
wanting the ball bulled thro’ all parts of the line
at once—proving, by his refusal to take Berlin,
he misread even Clauswitz—wide empty grin
that never lost a vote (O Adlai mine).

Michael Erard of the Texas Observer had some thoughts about it last year – apparently Ike was about as articulate as Shrub, and he compares all the line-breaking to Ike’s speech.   I think Erard doesn’t recognize the purity of JB’s self-created syntax, though his comparison to the great “Mr. Bones” sections is probably apt. Still, what is the poem saying about that sheet of steel and who it silenced? Or should I be looking to the far-greater Dream Song 10 (Ike is 15) for my answer? However things hurt, men hurt worse.

Continue reading

There sat down, once, a cold war on america's heart

I didn’t know the video above existed, of my not-so-secret sensei JB.*, so excuse me while I catch my breath. I’ll wait, too. while you catch yours; here’s the heartrending poem he’s declaiming in that Irish-Woody-Allen accent. But that’s not the John Berryman poem I’m thinking about today.

I’ve never been a fan of Dream Song 23, below For the most part, Berryman at his best stayed away from explicit political references. But I’m staring at the Song now for clues, as I try in what I’m writing to evoke for 30 seconds an era I never lived through — wishing I’d never lost that great book The Dark Ages,  assigned by my beyond-brilliant Binghamton prof Sarah Elbert.

I also know that  I’m relying far too much on the Bayard Rustin phrase that David McReynolds taught me: Bayard spoke, he said,  about the era’s rigidity as “a large piece of sheet steel, 50 feet wide and 50 feet tall, and one inch thick – and if you  hit that with a  hammer at one corner, the entire sheet would reverberate.” (The Dark Ages referenced chronicles how under that steel, subversive elements like jazz and the Beats were gathering, though it makes almost no reference to any of my soldiers.)

jarrell_randallGrasping at cultural straws of all kind, I thought I’d try again. After all, Berryman was friends with WWII veteran Randall Jarrell (right) and in 1946 was teaching at Princeton, which like Yale had a front-row seat on the rest of my WWII story.

I know Berryman was spun by Hiroshima, and get the easy Joe Stalin bit, but what else is inside?   Please comment on what you see?  (You don’t have to be a Cold War baby to speculate.) I do think that the first verse, with its intimation of old-style TV static, comes closest to Rustin’s sheet of steel.

This is the lay of Ike.
Here’s to the glory of the Grewt White—awk—
who has been running—er—er—things in recent—ech—
in the United—If your screen is black,
ladies & gentlemen, we—I like—
at the Point he was already terrific—sick

to a second term, having done no wrong—
no right—no — right—having let the Army—bang—
defend itself from Joe, let venom’ Strauss
bile Oppenheimer out of use—use Robb,
who’ll later fend for Goldfine—Breaking no laws,
he lay in the White House—sob!!—

who never understood his own strategy—whee—
so Monty’s memoirs—nor any strategy,
wanting the ball bulled thro’ all parts of the line
at once—proving, by his refusal to take Berlin,
he misread even Clauswitz—wide empty grin
that never lost a vote (O Adlai mine).

Michael Erard of the Texas Observer had some thoughts about it last year – apparently Ike was about as articulate as Shrub, and he compares all the line-breaking to Ike’s speech.   I think Erard doesn’t recognize the purity of JB’s self-created syntax, though his comparison to the great “Mr. Bones” sections is probably apt. Still, what is the poem saying about that sheet of steel and who it silenced? Or should I be looking to the far-greater Dream Song 10 (Ike is 15) for my answer? However things hurt, men hurt worse.

Continue reading