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Ken Williams: Fighting ‘The Other’ Overseas Only to Become The Other at Home

Suspected Orange County serial killings of homeless exposes a bitter truth about war and its consequences

So now John is dead. A Vietnam War veteran, ironically, he finally found peace in a very violent act. His alleged killer? Another war veteran — this one a Marine from Iraq.

According to the suspect’s family, John’s alleged killer was tormented by the war, tortured by the demons that he brought back with him. Again, according to them, he saw the dead.

The dead and those horribly maimed by the violence of war come home with all of us. Those memories become a constant companion to combat veterans, rearing the reality of war to distort our everyday existence.

John and three other Orange County homeless men reportedly were hunted like animals, just the way we were taught to do in boot camp and advanced war training. My generation was taught to hunt the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army. In reality, we were taught to hunt and hate the Asian — The Other, who threatened the very survival of our country. And, of course, the war was lost. The NVA won, yet we are still safe and free, except for the 58,000 dead and their families. And, there are also the hundreds of thousands wounded — and their family members who carry the war around in their shattered hearts.

Being that the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian were Asian, we don’t consider the war’s legacy on them: Between 2 million and 3 million dead. Millions wounded, uncounted broken in spirit. Tens of thousands horribly mutilated by Agent Orange — but they aren’t human, they don’t honor life like we do; that is what we were taught.

But they were and are! Human, that is. Regardless of the brainwashing jammed into our minds day in and day out, our hearts knew better. In the end and upon reflection, we came to realize one thing: In reality we were simply taught to kill fellow human beings. But once we came home, we were told no more. We were supposed to lay down our arms, ignore our intense training and go back to our spiritual beliefs of “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” which had become forbidden to practice or even think. But some couldn’t do that. The horrors of war twisted all our minds; in some, it destroyed spiritual selves to such an extent that the rules taught for combat came home.

John’s alleged killer, an Iraq war vet. The killing of a National Park Service ranger at Mount Rainier in Washington, the same. A killing earlier this month in the Midwest, the same.

And where is the Veterans Affairs Department? Losing a lawsuit in federal court brought against it by a courageous group of veterans. The judge in the case ruled that the VA was in violation for not treating in a timely manner (or no manner at all) the very purpose for their existence: damaged and wounded war veterans in need of help.

Two weeks ago I visited one of the saddest places I have seen in a long time: The VA’s Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center in the San Fernando Valley, which services a lot of veterans. The staff was courteous and helpful. But as I stood in line and looked about, a weary sadness came over me. So many veterans from so many bloody wars, all struggling, years and decades later with nightmarish consequences — ones that our political leaders somehow overlook when they rush off to yet another war, or continue a war for strictly political reasons.

The place was captured in quietness — a strangling stillness that had a physical presence, cementing us in barely suppressed memories. But, of course, it had to be that way. Troubled souls of both the living and dead walked the hallowed and haunted hallways. A profound sadness blackened my soul that day.

Now we read and follow the news about a serial killer’s cleansing on the homeless. I wonder what the alleged killer would feel if he were to find out that his last victim was a veteran like him? Would that singular fact cut through his heart, seeing the homeless as the impersonal Other? As an animal that was to be hunted and exterminated?

Or did he fear that the road before him led to the streets, as it has for hundreds of thousands of combat veterans before him. Is that it? Was his murderous rage fueled by fear of his future? Or did he kill to quiet the voices and still the images?

The homeless are such an easy target; one that we can project our worse fears and force a quiet hatred upon. They are the depersonalized Other. In our own community, two troubling deaths await justice. But I fear justice is not for the poor.

If we look honestly and hard, we will also admit that justice is not there for combat veterans. Our political leaders know we will gladly hand over our children to the vengeful gods of war at a snap of a finger. They know that as a society, we are sheep before them — afraid to stand up to those who have never known the fear and hatred of war but are instead captured by Hollywood Myths of Glory.

The very same scandals that welcomed us home from Vietnam welcomes home our Iraq and Afghanistan brothers-in-arms. Forty years later, nothing has changed. We hunted and in turn were hunted by the enemy.

John came home to be hunted and killed on our street — a bitter outcome. He fought The Other in Vietnam, only to come home to become The Other.

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. His writings and opinions reflect only his personal views. He does not speak as a representative for or on behalf of any organization with which he may be affiliated. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.

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