Memorial Day - John Samuel Tieman

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Axar.az presents an article "Memorial Day" by John Samuel Tieman.

This Memorial Day, remember our war dead, yes. But I'd also ask folks to remember the pain of the war veteran. I'd ask that folks remember the scars war leaves on the psyche. For the sake of illustration, let me make this personal.

Because I am a Vietnam veteran, I simply have more to remember than most. The other day, this war veteran says that he has memories he never shares. I was about to congratulate myself, thinking ‘Well, at least I’m not like that’, when, somewhat startled, I said to myself, ‘Oh my god, I’m one of those guys.’ There’s stuff I never discuss. It’s not that I can’t. It’s too painful. I always thought the pain would fade and then go away. But it doesn't.

I think now, looking back, I made two choices. One was to drink, to do drugs, to womanize, to run from the pain. The other is to admit the pain its place in my life. For twenty years, I ran from the pain. Then I finally stopped drinking and doing drugs, settled down, got married, got therapy.

I still have the memories, of course. Sometimes now the memories are light. Like the time Nance nicknamed me “Buddha”, my Nam name, because of the way I was sitting on the ground when I first met him. Other times, like that night this guy murdered those folks, in 54 years I’ve talked to two people about that, my therapist and now you.

Late summer, early evening, 1970. I was twenty years old. I remember (curious that I’d remember this) it was cloudy. I was walking up a dirt road that ran in front of our hooch. I passed these three fellows. Two were trying to calm the guy in the middle. The guy in the middle said nothing. He was seething. Even at that moment, his rage was remarkable, the subsequent events notwithstanding. It is worth noting this because being angry in The Nam normally didn’t merit notice. He was heading for an infantry unit catty-corner across this field, an old rice paddy, from my unit.

Perhaps an hour later, I was chatting with Parsons and Novak. They were the chaplain’s assistants, “The God Squad”. Nice guys. Then there was a quick burst of an M-16. Maybe three or four rounds. Close. Real close. Meters from here. We froze, stared at each other. Then a lot of shots.

I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t brave. I didn’t feel anything. I switched that part of me off. I didn’t go into action so much as I switched on the automatic part of me. I leapt to my feet. The others remained in the hooch, more stunned than anything else. Perhaps they were still having the feelings I had turned off. I got my helmet, locked and loaded my M-16. I took a position behind a sandbag wall slightly above and to the east of the field. That’s where I saw him.

I heard later two stories. The guy, the angry guy, killed four people, including the two I saw with him. Years later, Dick Bittner told me that he murdered his 1st sergeant. These two versions are not mutually exclusive. In any case, murder. Then he retreated to the field, the old rice paddy. Now, he was right in front of me.

I could see exactly where he was, despite the blackness, the moonless cloudy night. I saw his muzzle flashes. He was perhaps a hundred or so meters away. I doubt if he even knew I was there. I was an Expert Rifleman. This was an easy shot.

I wanted to shoot. I was ready to shoot. I withheld my fire. The angry guy was firing into the night, and it was clear that other grunts, very close by, were hunting him. But I wasn’t sure where they were. No sooner did I have this thought when I saw a grunt in the dark, not five meters in front of the angry guy, open up. Full automatic. Virtually point blank.

The whole incident, from first shot to last, took a few minutes.

I learned something about myself that night. Given the right circumstances, I can kill someone. A lot of folks wonder if they could shoot someone. I’m not one of those folks. I spent the next two decades – with drugs and sex and booze – trying to unknow that about myself. With the help of a therapist, I eventually learned to simply accept this pain as a part of my life.

I learned many things in therapy. Among them, I simply learned to live with sadness. When I recall Vietnam, there are a whole range of feelings, from laughter to horror. But what I needed to learn was, perhaps, this simplest of lessons. Whatever other feelings I may have, I will never recall that war and not be sad.

2024.05.27 / 09:52
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