Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Being there

By Dr. John R. Bomar a decorated and disabled veteran of the war in Vietnam
When you’re a soldier in an Army of occupation in a hostile land it’s open season on you’re a** every minute of every day and night. And hunting season is always open – it doesn’t ever close. It’s a deadly game of hide-and-seek tag and you are always “it.” Even though you may forget it for a minute here and there, somehow, it’s always in the back of your mind. The hair between your shoulder blades that runs up your neck never really lays down. For a soldier in a war zone of bitterly resented occupation it’s the ultimate watch-your-back kind of place.

For those who love war and making war, the ones caught up in the thrill of it, the ones who love their killing weapons, it’s exhilarating. You’re never more alive than when you know you could be dead in a second. You can always spot these enthusiastic warriors, they’re a bit psycho and over the top about everything. Maybe its because they’re usually the first ones dead.

In the middle of a life and death struggle everything slows down, way down. Each second is a minute. Supercharged with adrenaline, that most natural speed-rush in the world, everything moves in slow motion. Time doesn’t stop – it stretches out, way out. And when the s*** hits the fan you learn one thing real quick – there are two kind of folk in this world – those who face it and run toward it and those who turn their back. Running toward it isn’t so much about being brave, it’s just the job, somebody has to do it, it’s what you’ve been trained for. It’s a big mess in the making and somebody has to stop it, clean it up, and get things back in order. You don’t really think about the danger in the middle of it, no time for that, you just think about what needs to be done first, then next, then what next after that. The focus is on one thing at a time, first thing first, then second then third, simple thinking, second by long second. There’s no time for worry when you’re living a minute in each second and a day in an hour. Only when it’s over, when the screaming and yelling are done, is the time for reflection. Only then can you safely sort things out, about what happened and how you did, about what you could have done better, about the danger and maybe about the luck of having dodged the bullet again. But, by then it’s just a distant thing, something you did that needed doing, and it’s only a memory, done with and gone.

They say the best warrior never gets mad. When everyone else is screaming their heads off, he’s the quiet, thinking one, the strategist. When time comes for action, he’s usually the one that everyone looks to first, automatically. The cool head in the middle of chaos and confusion, and red-hot fear, always draws attention to itself and is given the mantle of leadership. It must be one of those tribal, survival things handed down to us from our cavemen grandfathers, buried in our genes.

Leadership always seems to migrate to the detached, flexible strategist in the middle of a battle. High emotions and fixed and rigid thinking will get you dead real fast. I guess its because in war zones almost nothing ever goes as planned. SNAFU – situation normal, all f***** up – is the byword when you’re in uniform.

The spit and polish of peacetime duty must be some kind of alter ego makeup for the filth, stink and mess of war. When you’ve been made to roll your socks, make your bed and tuck in your trousers just one way; when the brass on your buckle, the buttons on your jacket and the boots on your feet have been kept shined to perfection, keeping up with a clean change of underwear, a bar of soap and your finger nail clippers comes natural in a war zone. When life gets primitive the small things get a lot bigger.

Nothing builds friendship like shared hardship and suffering. And living in a war zone involves lots of misery for everyone, no matter your rank or station. FUBAR, “f***** up beyond all recognition,” is the other byword when in service to your country. When morale sags and troops lose faith in their mission you hear it a lot, along with a lot of other four letter words. “Cussing like a sailor” has nothing over the other branches of service in a war zone. It’s the vent that lets off steam.

One never forgets those first few minutes in a war zone. Your mouth is dry, your heart is racing, and you’re all eyes and ears, ready for anything. Later, with the dullness that time brings, the world around you turns gray and it feels like the life has been sucked out of the air you breathe in, you live in a void. Depression surrounds you like a fog, and the shrill cries of the dead and dying, the maimed and tortured, scream silently at you from nowhere, and everywhere. Those who have suffered the most, the shell-shocked of war, move like robots on auto-pilot, their fixed gaze on a far away place. When they look you in the eyes you see a desperate longing, a pleading, to see if you know the place, if you have been there too, the horror place of ultimate corruption of humanity.

There is laughter in a war zone. It is often that stilted and nervous kind, high-pitched, like the laugh just before your first time with a woman or when you try to play a weak hand in a high stakes poker game. It’s a sissy laugh. Or you may hear the laugh of the cruel cynic, harsh and mocking, as if to say “all of life is f***** up, so get used to it.”

War zones are places for dying and God never lets you forget it, 24/7. Not for a minute. Only those who have never smelled it or tasted it rush quickly to its rotting banquet. You never forget it; it stays with you always. It’s as if a part of you never left, or maybe its that you realize you left a part of yourself there.

John R. Bomar
Arkadelphia, AR

Dr. John R. Bomar is a decorated and disabled veteran of the war in Vietnam. He served in the Army Security Agency, a branch of the National Security Agency.


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