Sunday, March 13, 2011

Surviving the Lost War --Day by Day

Home Without A Home

The memory is sometimes subtle, like a mist creeping low across the water, creeping into every corner of  life. It reminds me of the child’s terror dream but yet from a dream I can not awake. Seeing nothing else but that which passes through a filter, dimming the visions  of the world.
A sense of falling into a  bottomless pit, looking for an end  but  seeing none. My sense of life before is vague, leaving a sensation of pain with no beginning or end. I cry out for help, but am not heard. A lot of sadness, grief rages, unresolved within. War pursues and haunts, an obsession throughout. The war’s over except in dreams and thoughts. I imagine, I’ll never forget. The bomb of memory explodes into a red hot flame and nothing’s able to put out the fire.

Some days, I sit on the bench by the corner store. My clothes are worn, my face weathered.
As a young man, I went to war, these days I sit on the street, cast aside, like the junk that surrounds me. I was devoted to duty and service, love of country and respect for my leaders.
How susceptible I was to the rhetoric and ritual. I was yearning for something to believe in, like justice. Made vulnerable and sent off to war, passed a sense of obligation by my elders to believe in the glory of war. An inspired Catholic boy who rallied to the call of JFK to fight communists everywhere. War seemed beyond all doubt a good thing and a form of virtue. My belief in all authority became disillusion along with a sense of loss which made me feel like an orphan cut off from a sustaining world of church, state and parent. All sources of moral truth and authority dissolved exposing me to human culpability and brutality and to wonder.

People often ask me what I’m doing with my life. I tell them I gave half of my life to the Nation and the rest now belongs to me. I want to be a rebel and don’t want to conform anymore. I went to war but when I came home I had to resume a normal life and work and live as if there was never any horror. Of course, it never works that way. Self-conscious and traumatized by harsh judgment. I fear everything I touch becomes contaminated. It’s hard to imagine anything but negative responses so I’ve tried very little, becoming distracted for days, months, years. A sense of mastery eludes me and I become overwhelmed by a sense of being incompetent. Invisible like a ghost. No threat, just not quite all here or there. Has my Country served me as well as I served it? Anger consumes me. Wave the flag, rattle the saber, buy the message, serve your nation and end up cursing the day you bought the bullshit.

I travel with a heavy backpack strapped across my shoulders, and a plastic bag of clothes. When you are homeless, these are the things you carry. And tucked away somewhere are the memories of a war that are still fresh. No yellow ribbons greeted me when I came home. Now, I soldier on each day trying to find some place to call my own, riding late night buses to shelters only to be rousted out at dawn. A sergeant-first-class, now a second-class-war veteran walking the dark streets. Home but without a home.

Few people died of heart disease before 1900. People made their living through  manual labor.
Walking was the means of transportation Stairs were climbed, rugs beat, clothes scrubbed and wrung by hand and butter churned. Life has become less strenuous. Cars, washing machines. elevators Physical activity is unnecessary Machines make our food Fries and burgers are the
source of our fuel. More clogged arteries and heart attacks. What will the future hold?

Disturbing The Time Line

Cro-Magnon man draws the heart symbol on his cave wall. It remains a mystery what it means to him.
The Egyptians believe the heart is the center of life and mortality.
Greeks hold the heart as the center of the soul. The source of heat within the body.
Romans understand the heart is the most vital organ in sustaining life.
In ancient Mexico, early Americans believe every person contains different spiritual forces.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus is seen as a symbol of Christ’s love.
Medieval heraldry uses the heart to signify sincerity and clarity.
The heart takes on many meanings.
It is the center of all functions, feelings, and thoughts.
It is the  seat of the soul and the center of courage and intellect.

“Don't worry about it.  It's just a tiny area. It shouldn't cause any problems.”
The words of the of the old cardiologist are crap. 
The tiny area has gotten larger.
I thought I was doing everything to reverse the effects of a bad life style.
The young cardiologist says I need an operation.
Oh my God! It is the beginning my demise.
I was destined to drop dead mowing my lawn.
My arteries clogged and ready to blow until I decided to have heart surgery
I have altered the timeline and don't  know what fate has in store for me.

I’m rolled into the operating theater a crew of nurses and doctors go to work.
The first cut, a single stroke of the scalpel, the resident cuts the flesh
from the top of the collarbone to below the breast bone.
The heart beats innocent of the turmoil it is about to undergo.
For the first time in 57 years my heart is going to lie still.
I am connected to pipes, tubes, valves, wires and bags
sensors, monitors show the body temp, the blood temp, the blood pressure,
the pulse, the ekg, the blood oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
I am entirely dependent on a heart lung machine.
My heart has stopped beating. After two million beats the heart
is going to stop temporally.
The surgeons connect the grafts. allowing blood to flow
once again through the heart.
Defibrillator paddles are placed on the heart to give it a surge of electricity
that brings back the heartbeat. After a couple of jolts the monitor shows a steady beat,
I’m rolled out of the operating room.

The first day home it is hard to believe how long it takes
to get going. I get out of bed with the help of Gail.
We make our way to the bathroom. I want to go back to bed
I shave but have a hard time recognizing the face in front of me.
My chest muscles are tender as I stroke my sagging face.
I sit and try to visualize a positive approach to the day.
Gail fixes my medications I gaze at the morning newspaper.
The sounds of Mozart play on the radio. I want to fall asleep.
I must walk a few minutes around the house before fatigue over takes me.
I relax and listen to the music and drift off. Is it time for lunch?
The mornings and afternoon all seem the same. It is hard to nap in a
comfortable position my back and shoulders ache.
My brain doesn't seem to function as it once did there seem to be
so many instructions to remember.
Gail showers me using a soft spray and warm not hot water.
She cleans my incisions with mild soap.
I feel like a child.

Ten days after surgery, I am riding a stationary bike.
Gail holds my ass so I don't fall. The rehab tech sits in her
office reading the latest edition of PEOPLE magazine.
After 10 minutes, I stagger over to the treadmill for
another 10 minutes of exercise.
The VA rehab equip is 20 years old. It needs more help than me.
My next exercise is to walk out the door and never comeback.

Mood swings...The head and heart need time to realign
every cell has been shaken. Tears come for no specific reason.
I wake up in the morning feeling down. Some days hopeless.
Things have changed. I force myself to  exercise despite lethargy.
and contemplate about my true self.
I feel useless and isolated at home other people are busy
I’m not…
The operation makes me think of my mortality
I am happy to be here.
Don’t know what to expect, doctors don't say much.
Gail keeps my spirits up. I am more afraid of the unknown
than depressed...
I have been restored...but have I been renewed?

    Thoughts about my poem and inspiration:

Let’s face it: veterans in this country endure all kinds of problems when they leave military service. Things that no one wants to talk or think about. War is hell, but sometimes coming home can be even worse. When I first went to the VA Hospital for care some 20 years ago, I met a lot of guys with various problems but with one thing in common -- war hangover. Now most of the men and women I knew years ago are gone...dead from various causes. I am afraid to read the obits in the paper each day for fear of discovering someone else I know or have known from the VA has passed away at too young an age. I hope the poetry I write can raise awareness and make people think about veterans year around -- not just on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, or July 4th.
As a new generation continues to come and go to war, I only hope they can learn from my  generation’s war experiences.

Tim Connelly

Army Buddies

Vietnam veterans
are becoming museum pieces.
They had been known
to hoist a few down
at the VFW Post.
But now it has been 45 years since
Vietnam guys were
such wild young fellows.
Time just flies
when you're getting old.

Old soldiers don’t fade away. They just die.

Ken died at the age of 66. People die every day  from wounds received in Vietnam:
a casualty of war, 37 years later. He plugged away living on borrowed time.
Wounds and exposure to Agent Orange caught up with him. He  knew the time had come. Nobody will ever convince the family he wasn’t a casualty of war.
It’s all there in his medical records. He gave his life the day he was wounded,
and his soul was taken 37 years later. He spent the past few years  of his life alone inside his one-bedroom apartment. Television kept him company. His wife’s
remains sat in a urn atop the refrigerator. Diabetes had ravaged the 66-year-old Vietnam veteran's feet. He suffered from PTSD. A funeral home donated the casket in which he was buried, the urn containing his wife's ashes buried inside the casket with him.

Alan died age 59 from alcohol and smoking. He battled emphysema and was on oxygen tanks for up to 16 hours a day towards the end of his life.
He was a very heavy smoker and liked the brown fluid. It took its toll on him.
As with a lot of Vietnam veterans, he picked up these habits in the military
and brought them back home.

Ted tried to numb his pain with a bottle, found it led nowhere. He cannot change the past or erase his identity. He has seen war but has found peace in his art. It keeps him sober. He struggles with PTSD and probably will for the rest of his life.  He had given up art because of alcoholism. He began painting again,
this year, and has been at it every day since. For a while, he didn't even know
what was real. His mind had to clear. He had to find a way to help himself.

Max wishes he were younger so he could fight in the war. A Vietnam veteran,
he's pushing 60 but looks 70. They call him Mad Dog. He swears he has stopped drinking, but he's still drinking. The results of a chest X-ray: suspicious lesion, probable lung cancer. He decides it's just a shadow. Someday he will get a biopsy.
The truth will surface soon enough. His mother, father, brother, and oldest sister
died of lung cancer. The odds are not in his favor. He walks stiffly out of the office, Mad Dog out to do battle - a battle he will lose.

Bob could barely afford food with the Veteran's benefits he received.
He had no other income. A diabetic with high blood pressure, he could not work.
But...the 61 year old Vietnam veteran was living a happy life.
Until...The VA cut off his benefits. It was the last straw. A note was found next to his body.
"(Expletive) you, you can't get money from a dead man." 
He took a .22 caliber handgun, put it to his forehead and fired. He hardly had enough money to put food on the table, and they cut off his benefits.

Tom is 63 years old. The skinny Vietnam vet displays an Army tattoo on his right forearm. Once a tough guy, he was 17 when he joined the service.
He saw things done no boy his age should ever see. He was never right
after he got back from Vietnam. Wal-Mart let him go. He burned through his unemployment and all of his savings. Cancer ate that up. He's broke. He applied for help from the VA. It never got processed. It was lost. Nobody ever told him
how to get help. When he got out of the VA hospital they didn't say anything.
All they did was call him a cab. The only benefit they promised him was his burial benefit -- a whole $300.

Rich has dreams. Dreams of recovery. He sits up in a cot at the medical center. Every few minutes, his face wrinkles and he begins to cry. The chaplain says,
"Think positive!" The 63 year-old Vietnam vet has cancer. He admits that he neglected his health for years, his eyes welling up with tears. He could no longer speak. He shied  away from psychiatric treatment for fear of being labeled "crazy". He lapsed from his faith years ago. He’s found faith again. He’s a Catholic. "There has to be something higher than where we are. I have to believe that." He struggles with thoughts of death. "If God wants me to die, that's okay."

On his death certificate, his doctor attributed the 65-year-old’s death to Agent Orange,
among other causes. For decades John and his family had been fighting the Agent Orange battle.
So many guys passed away. Of late, a lot of the guys have been getting sick. He gave instructions to his wife not to pin on his medals when he was placed in his casket. Others noticed it too.
He didn’t want his medals on because he would not have been in this state if it had not been for Vietnam. In the back of their minds comrades also know many of them will not reach old age.
His passing is a reminder to them all. They did not mind going to war and dying in the hands of the enemy but to slowly die from a silent killer has had a devastating impact
on their lives.
Army buddies don’t fade away, they just die.

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