Tuesday, July 17 , 2018, 11:49 pm | Fair 65º


Ken Williams: The Price of Glory

For many combat veterans, the horrors and pain of war don't lessen; they become part of their being

A Marine vet of the war in Afghanistan kills himself rather than face the future knowing his war memories are forever. The point of how long-term memories of the horror of war linger and fester was driven home to him when he looked about the rap group and saw Vietnam vets — he just wasn’t up to his life being ruled by his nightmarish memories.

Article Image
Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson. (Williams family photo)

Something went horribly wrong, as almost everything attached to war inevitably does. The mistake we make is trying to convince returning combat vets that it will be otherwise, that somehow the dreams and memories fade with time or at least lose their horror. They never do, and they never will.

Each combat veteran has his or her own memory of war, the particular incident or incidences that over time become woven into the fabric of their being, until they can no longer tell where one ends and the other begins. The bitter pain doesn’t lessen, but it does become familiar, and in an odd way natural — the memories and nightmares become who you are, and you them.

As time goes by, you find yourself retreating easily and often into that alternative world — one you share with no one else on this side of the divide. It’s a sacred space that you pretend with others you don’t retreat to on a daily — or, if lucky, only on a weekly basis — even decades later.

With time, the people you shared those particular moments with in war become your friends. Actually, they become your confidantes — family like, and you hold on dearly to them. They could be the other Marines on a hospital ship or the burned civilians you met but never shared a word with. But communication did happen. It flowed between you and them regardless of cultural and linguistic differences.

They could be the Marines you shared a fighting hole with while mortars embedded themselves into mother earth and shocked fear into you while shredding the air with jagged bits of death. These comrades of the nether world didn’t even have to be alive at the time of the encounter. They could be the Marines on your ward who died a horrible death by malaria, or the sergeant killed in the ambush, the one you carried in a poncho with his arm dangling. You remember how death looked in his eyes, his fear and knowledge of death’s visit. You saw in his eyes the feeling of hopelessness when he realized there was nothing he could do about it.

Alive and dead, without a word spoken, you share consecrated space with all of them. It’s a time and place captured within your soul that is peppered with the sounds of death, both personal and impersonal: the terror in men’s voices, the hard quietness of the maimed, the cry of grown, combat-hardened men reduced to a child-like state. It is also the smells of napalm and white phosphorous, of wet decay and fear that populated the land then as it does that part of your mind now.

All terrible wounds that we inflicted on one another in the name of patriotism, nationalism or religion, but really it was simply driven by fear and hatred. A fear and hatred so primordial, so profoundly overwhelming and so evil that you find your tongue tied in knots and you stutter into silence when even trying to share its existence with those who haven’t experienced it.

Yet time and again you retreat to this place — a state of existence where part of you becomes alive and only there, that real estate of the mind that you have spent a lifetime building fences around. Alone, without the presence of others, it is only here that you can drop the pretenses that the war was left behind, that you have moved on. Here you accept the harsh reality that you never did and never will. It’s not a question of will power but of what is. You’ re accepted for who you are, with all falsehoods dropped. A part of them as they are of you — that place and time forever frozen within your soul.

At times, the knowledge, the fear and the seduction that with death your soul will be pulled back to then — to them — nags at your conscious. Just maybe the forever of purgatory is to be with them in that place. It’s the siren song of combat veterans — one that, with time, you find a small part of you welcomes. You have found acceptance, a place where you finally belong. The falsehoods can be dropped as the horror reclaims you, welcomes you — the real welcome home.

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the last 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.

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