A veteran named Jim was manning a booth at Operation Chillouts Vets Summer Fest which was held a month or so ago. I think his table was set up to help veterans who were suffering from injuries both physical and emotional. The exact details of all he does, fails me a bit. I do know that he does as much as he can. I’m pretty sure, Jim was fighting to alleviate the scars of battle in whatever form they took. He keeps especially busy working to heal the emotional scars. It turns out that those scars may actually do the most damage. I couldn’t help but admire a person with his kind of a passion.
Again, I might be wrong but, Jim was going to either perform or explain the missing man ceremony when the time came to do it later in the day. There is quite a bit of symbolism involved with the missing man ceremony. I can’t remember it all. What little I remember is that on the stage or at a gathering of veterans, there’s an empty chair and a small table. The table is draped with a white table cloth. There’s lemon and salt on the table. There’s a vase with one red rose in it. The vase has a ribbon draped around its neck. A wine glass is empty and stands upside down. The table must be frail to signify the frailty that takes over the missing and imprisoned. The red of the rose points to their courage and good intentions the missing had when their country called. The white cloth and candle, tell of the purity of their intentions and their hearts. Lemon tells of the bitterness of their plight. Salt comes from the tears shed. The candle is lit to light the way home to friends and family. It’s not the happiest of set ups but, it is telling the truth for more brave men and women than we might realize. I guess there are words said at the ceremony but, the table really says it all.
I think the most touching symbol is that the table I think, is kept near or within sight of an open door just waiting and watching quietly for a blessed return.
I believe Jim said that there are a bit over 1600 missing from Vietnam alone. I remember once interviewing an active duty soldier who works with a recovery team that goes out and finds and tries to identify the remains of soldiers from all of our wars throughout our history. He’s found them from revolutionary days to now. He’s kept pretty busy in Vietnam.
Now, that I think about it, a schoolmate of mine died in Vietnam and was never found. He was trying to rescue an injured soldier when the helicopter he was repelling from got hit and fell on him. I don’t think he’s ever been found. The area was crawling with enemy at the time and the jungle grew pretty fast. I think he’ll be found in Heaven.
Jim spoke of a nurse that was with a religious missionary team serving in Vietnam. Her name was Monica. Her group aided any injured person regardless of the side they were on. She was captured by the North Vietnamese and wound up in the Hanoi Hilton. Other prisoners said that she received brutal treatment. I believe she was the only woman among many captured, to leave the Hanoi Hilton alive.
We talked about PTSD. He said that it’s very real and a big threat to soldiers returning from war. It’s always been around. It’s nothing new. In fact, during Americas Civil War, it was known as Soldiers Heart.
I once saw a reenactment group of civil war artillery in action. They were Yankees. They fired about forty cannons on command across a field. I could actually see the cannonballs crossing the field at chest level and moving faster than anything I can imagine. There could be no dodging the shell with your name on it. I can’t imagine how awful that would have been to face. Maybe even worse, I can’t imagine how awful it would have been to pull the firing cord to release the volley. I think it would have been pretty hard to get even the smallest of Civil War skirmishes out of your mind and, wars have gotten just more grizzly since then. Soldiers Heart describes the ailment quite well. We discussed Soldiers Heart some more. As Jim talked, I remembered an old photo I once saw of very old Northern and Southern veterans shaking hands over a rock wall at a Battle of Gettysburg reunion maybe fifty years after the carnage. They were smiling at each other where years before there were no smiles at all.
Jim said how there’s now a movement to have Vietnam Veterans go back to Vietnam and tour the area where they had once fought and suffered so hard. I guess some are for it and some are not. Some do go and meet with men who at one time long ago would have killed them on sight and laughed about it all the way home. Of course our guys felt the same way about them. I’m told many of these meetings wind up being pretty friendly and, the one time mortal enemies part not feeling so bad about one another. I don’t think they talk about being sorry for what happened. Having never been party to a battle in this life, I’m not sure I could even say what goes on in their minds as the two enemies meet. The thoughts must be very complicated and yet very simple too. Somehow these meetings help.
I thought back to a year or two ago. I was playing music for a cruise night. Many veterans were in the crowd. I saw a friend of mine who was an Army Ranger in Vietnam. I’m sure he had a wild and brutal time of it back then. I would often tell this man of my nephew Blakes Marine Corps training. He was always happy to hear of the progress Blake was making. Being a proud uncle, I would tell these stories talking kind of like the way actors used to talk in the old WW II movies of the day. To me, the training was a kind of adventure. My friend loved the stories as much as I loved telling them. He’d smile and tell a story or two of his own. It was great fun till one day at a car show.
Blake went overseas eventually. He went to Iraq. While in camp, he heard a scream coming from inside a tent. Blake ran into the tent and saw his Sargent standing on his bunk pointing in horror at something on the ground. It was a very large Camel Spider. The darn things live out in those parts. They grow very large and don’t seem to be very friendly. This one had the sarge cornered. Blake, acted fast and stabbed it with his bayonet. He sent a photo home with his next letter. Darn, that was a big spider.
Back at the car show, I saw my friend walking by my DJ area. I called him over. I figured he’d love the story. As he approached, I started the story with a simple phrase, “Blake’s in Iraq!!!! He got his first kill!!!!” My friends face instantly fell from a smile to perhaps the saddest face I’ve seen in a long long while. He appeared to be instantly heart broken. He looked to be cussing under his breath. I recovered as fast as I could and said how Blakes first kill was really just a big spider. I was too late. My friend showed relief. Still, the joy had left his heart for the day. I realized then and there that I had no idea what combat veterans go through. This friend avoided me for a few months after that. When he finally came around, sometime later, I apologized for how I told the story. He accepted the apology and just said how he’d rather be over there fighting in place of Blake.
I said goodbye to Jim and left the event for Operation Chillout and headed up to my gig at the Chatterbox. I had a cruise night coming up that needed music. I was lost in thought most of the day. I guess when it’s all said and done, war and battle is not simply a John Wayne kind of thing after all. I said to myself, that soldiers have hearts that are bigger than most. Some of those hearts were hurt and are still hurting pretty bad. Pretty bad indeed.
In our time of using initials to describe just about everything, maybe we should take a tip from our Civil War veterans and forget PTSD and call this suffering what it truly is. Soldiers Heart.