Sunday, July 22 , 2018, 9:41 pm | Fair 73º


Ken Williams: Family, Friends of Dead Also Among Casualties of War

The uncounted dead from wars come in many forms. The casualties are not restricted to the veterans alone. They also sweep out and engulf family, friends and those unknown to the combat veteran. The only sure bet of war is that it always comes home in the end.

Years ago I met this man, his wife and his kids. He was an African-American, a veteran, young and severely damaged by the war. Our first encounters were often harsh and laced with the threats of violence. Whenever he came into the department he would scare the employees with his angry and bellicose manner. Also, the Rambo of Hollywood did not do him — or other Vietnam War vets — any favors, predisposing others as well as the workers of the department to expect the worst.

America came to know Vietnam veterans as psycho killing machines, just looking for an excuse to go off. Whenever this man crossed the doors of the agency, the front desk clerks would immediately call me, in near panic, since I was the only one who could talk him down.

Our connection crossed racial boundaries. It was a relationship forged in the jungles and mountains of Vietnam, in the darkness of the malignant heart of war.

He was a thin man with pronounced neck veins that bulged whenever he went manic, which was most of the time that I saw him. I could see the madness of the war in his dark eyes — the intense, thousand-yard stare and the struggle that he put up trying to outdistance its deadly grasp.

Once there came an unexpected clarity to them. I was unsure if it was insight as to how to put the war behind him, or if he saw himself on the other side when his life of pain would be finally put to rest.

My heart would break when he went ballistic with his children in tow. Their eyes would widen to the size of saucers with fear and confusion. The look his wife would first give him, and then me, was almost too painful to bear. Her sorrowful eyes seemed to ask, “Why him? You’re both combat vets, so why him and not you? What did he see, what did he do, that broke him so? Why couldn’t it have been you, and not him? Why are you relatively normal, while we live in the hellacious backwater tide of that insane war? Why?”

Sometime later I was called to his murder trial — that is, he as the victim. The defense attorney wanted me to testify to my interactions with the dead man. He wanted to exonerate his client, the killer of my fellow brother-in-arms. He needed to establish the fact that my dead comrade had engaged in suicide, “at the hands of another.”

I couldn’t disagree. The man was killed by that war as surely as if it had been a North Vietnamese soldier, and not an American citizen who had pumped him full of lead. His name will never be on the Wall, but it should be. The man who had killed him will never be counted as a casualty of that crazy war, but he should be. His wife and children will never receive a medal for the courage they showed nor the hurt and pain they endeared, but they were war victims and veterans in every sense of the word.

His death and their pain should be branded into all of our hearts. It is in mine. I often see the eyes of his children and wife floating in the hellish afterlife of war’s nightmarish memories, a place where all too many vivid recollections and harsh truths fight a rearguard battle, to hold the center against the spin doctors and chicken-hawks who try to act as the gatekeepers of history. War is not glorious nor is it a game. It is brutal, mean, a savage and soul-crushing endeavor.

The wars in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam left millions dead, and millions and millions more wounded, the land ravaged and incalculable damage to the veterans, their families, our society, the peoples of those lands and total strangers.

Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years, and is the author of China White, Shattered Dreams: A Story of the Streets and his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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