Author's Note: This article appeared in Weekly Planet/Creative Loafing.
When I left the US Army in 1975, I moved into a duplex near the University of South Florida, where I would complete the college education disrupted by military service. One day my baggage arrived from Europe, where I had last served. In it was my khaki and dress-green uniforms, and three rows of medals the US Army had bestowed on me, surely by accident, since I was a dedicated coward. For the most of the nine years I had been a soldier, those ribbons adorned my chest. They were a part of my military uniform, yet looking at them in light of my liberation from a military life like a straight-jacket, I didn't know what to do with them. I can certainly sympathize with John Kerry.
For a while the medals and ribbons were stuck by their pins into the wall of the second bedroom which served as the place where I wrote. I wrote about the war, a great war novel, which I have not dared to look at for twenty years or more. Like me, the novel was somewhat incoherent in those days.
Unlike John Kerry, I didn't have a purple heart among my medals and ribbons, much less three of them. Me, deserving a Purple Heart? I deserved the Golden Chicken.
Nor did I have a Silver Star, like John Kerry, just a Bronze Star, and mine didn't have a V on it for valor. It was for service, I was told. There were, I think, two or three awards of the Army Commendation Medal. Where I got them or why, I can't recall.
There were a number of Air Medals, that is one award with a lot of silver clusters. Each one, I think, meant 25 hours of combat flight or 50 hours of combat-support flight. These did mean something because half the days in the war I flew in a helicopter in danger of being blown to bits. I got tired of receiving Air Medals and stopped keeping track of my flight time after a while.
We did crash into trees. We did fall from the sky like a rock. There was a captain with us whose back was broken in a crash. To say I was frightened would be an understatement. There may be no atheists in foxholes, but there damn sure are no atheists in falling helicopters. In fact, I adopted every religion I could think of once between 2,000 feet and the ground.
Then there were the campaign ribbons. A couple of them, I think. I have tried in vain to get my military personnel records a few times. Usually I want my military records every time there is no writing assignment in my immediate future. Then I think about bailing from being a writer and taking a job with the government, if they will have me, but they probably won't want Tim "Mother Jones" Ohr. This thought of bailing from being a writer is just fear, like fear in a war, only a different fear and a different war.
My father's World War II ribbons hung on his old uniform in the closet until after I drug my body, still alive, back from Vietnam. I don't know what happened to them after he died, but suspect my mother has them stashed somewhere.
Stuck on the wall where I could see them day-by-day as I wrote, my ribbons from Vietnam did not feel like they were mine. They belonged to someone else, a hero, not me. It was too late to send them back in protest as Saigon had already fallen. No one cared about the Vietnam War anymore. It was passé.
The ribbons haunted me on the wall when I wrote. They were of many colors,
with silver clusters. I think some of them had a little green or blue in them. Now that I think about, I'm sure they did.
Once an angry man in Chicago poked my medals repeatedly with an angry finger. I wish I had thrown my medals away before then. He left my chest black-and-blue. I didn't blame him. He had every right. In fact, he had more than every right, and it was just my chest.
It was a regular weekday, I think. The operations section of the missile battalion, where I was a clerk in Chicago, had just closed for the day. It's like when your office closes at the end of Wednesday. I was on my way to the Non-Commissioned Officer's Club for what the war had taught me to do - drink until the nightmares were obliterated so I could sleep.
Warrant Officer H--- had notification duty. He was a WO-3 or 4. It was the late 1960s, and the Vietnam War was raging. Daley's cops would beat demonstrators senseless in Chicago. I would see it up close and personal.
Mister H--- was a man in his forties. He was stern, red-faced, and complained a lot. I think he was from the south. I am sure he was a good man, and he had a wife and children. He was on notification duty, which meant he was responsible after hours for telling anyone whose son died or was injured in Vietnam within the area our base covered. Personally I bet with good odds that Mister H--- hoped fervently never to actually have to do this. During duty hours, there were others who did this, and after hours meant from five until perhaps ten at night. The duty was rotated between officers. There were a lot of officers in our battalion. There were a lot of military bases around Chi town - our unit alone had five. H--- wished for a little luck, to get through the night without having to tell someone that their son had died or been maimed in a senseless war halfway around the world.
That day, Mister H--- was not lucky.
He singled me out to accompany him because of those three rows of medals and ribbons on my twenty-one-year-old chest. The medals never did me any good. They did me no good that day. I understand why John Kerry tossed his away.
I took a sedan out of the motor pool. I didn't want to be in the sedan with Mister H---, who had a yellow telex between his hands in the back seat. He kept reading the yellow telex and smoking cigarettes. (A telex was a precursor of the fax.) I imagined Mister H--- was practicing reading those unpleasant words.
The family lived about a half hour from where we were stationed in Arlington Heights. There was a race track in Arlington Heights where horses ran. All the soldiers played the horses, and one of our cooks was a jockey who always had half the daily double.
The family with the dead soldier had a large house on a hill with a pebble driveway. It was a upscale suburb, the heartland of an American dream for the middle class. Their son should have been coming home with a marching band. Just a short-haired, plain boy with a little acne, but he was the heart of a home.
My recollection is that Mister H--- hoped I had the wrong address. He wanted me to drive around the block. It was possible he wanted me to agree that no one was home. "There's someone home," I said, "look at the truck in the driveway." I don't think he wanted to know the truth. He was a tough man when it came to inspecting the mating of nuclear warheads which could destroy a city. He was firm and strict, and we were all afraid of him in the operations section for his critical and sharp tongue. But when we arrived at the home of the parents whose son had died in Vietnam, Mister H--- could not will himself to leave the sedan. I went to the sedan door to open it for him, and I begged him to hurry. A woman, probably the dead boy's mother, was already near the door, and could been seen through the glass with the curtains.
Poor Mister H---. He stood, he shook, he held the yellow paper between his trembling hands, and his perspiration turned the paper wet. Our boots crunched on the pebbles. The woman behind the door was calling to her husband to "hurry quick."
"What's happened to our boy?" she asked, opening the door. "Is he dead?" to which I had to say, "Yes," but it was as if she didn't hear me. "Come quick," she called to her husband. "It's about our L----."
Chicago wasn't my first post upon returning to the United States. First I had gone to Montgomery, Alabama.
Our unit played softball in the afternoons. I have never been good at catching, although I am fairly good at hitting. We had extra innings late into the night as I tried my hand as an outfielder.
The WACs in our outfit lived on Maxwell Air Force Base. I lived on Gunter AFB, until I got a girlfriend and spent my time by the capitol where George Wallace was governor. The game was on Gunter. The WACs had missed their bus while watching us play ball so I offered to drive them across Montgomery to Maxwell. It was about halfway to Maxwell when the white Imperial pulled up next to me. Angry young white men yelled, "What's wrong? Can't you get a white girl?"
The three WACs in the car with me were black, something I had been blithely unaware of, and I was white, a color I never felt.
True to life, I gave the punks the finger. This was not a wise thing to do, as we careened around Montgomery while the level of insults magnified. They shouted all the things you could expect from lower-class white kids whose only way up seemed to be keeping somebody else down. I saw a sign which said Police Station. I turned into the station. The Imperial skewed away. To a cop on the curb, I said, "Those guys are chasing us."
The cop looked at me coldly. "I wouldn't stop here if I were you. You better keep on moving."
Took his advice and moved, but I kept thinking how I could have survived Vietnam only to be killed by pig-eyed racist white boys in Montgomery.
"What's going on?" the girls in the back seat had asked. They couldn't see from the low seats in the back of my Plymouth. They could only hear. The WAC beside me, who had seen everything, said sadly and without any anger, "Some white boys misbehaving." I'll never forget the look on her face, not fear or rage, but just enormous sorrow, a well of sorrow so deep no white person can truly feel it, although for a brief instant I was close.
A few nights later, I was driving from a Montgomery nightclub. At a red light, a Mustang pulled beside me. A young white man in civilian clothes and possessing a crewcut pulled a pistol out and aimed it at me. "Pull over," he said. He claimed to be a policeman. I didn't see any badge. I floored my car and found a marked police car and asked the uniformed cops for help.
They arrested me for drag racing after I argued with the uniformed police. The last straw for them was when I said I wouldn't get any justice in Montgomery. Then the cuffs went on, and I went into the back of the cruiser.
I was put in a hot cell with a plastic bed. Less than two months back from Vietnam, I had been put in jail for a crime I did not commit and for questioning justice in Montgomery.
Across the hall, a black man wailed out the names of the books of the Bible. "Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy...."
In a few days, I happily paid the fine, glad to be leaving Montgomery for Chicago, never sure there was a connection between the two events. The cops and the racists didn't care if I had three rows of medals and did a tour in the Nam.
It was a sunny afternoon when Mister H--- and I came to the door. The highways around Chicago were filled with busy traffic, lots of its stopped or crawling. WGN probably had the news or the Cubs on. It was a good year for the Cubbies, who would blow it in the end to the Mets. Ernie Banks and Billy Williams still hit home runs.
Only a few nights before, my medals and the war almost killed me again in the person of J---. He tapped on my medals and said, "Hey, sarge, you been in the Nam."
In Vietnam, I was in the Big Red One, but J--- was in the Cav. He would show up nightly at the NCO club to drink himself to sleep like me. J--- told me he liked killing gooks. He wanted to kill some more. "I want to really fuck them up," he said. He might volunteer to go back for another tour.
"I got something to show you in the car," J--- said. "OK," I replied. He could have had a body there or a rattlesnake. We got into J---'s car. When he reached across me, I thought he probably had a bottle in the glove compartment. Instead, he pulled out a forty-five.
"Nice piece, J---," I said, as he put the barrel against my forehead and chambered a round.
J--- laughed. I thought, either the lunatic is just testing me out or he's going to kill me.
"Let me have the gun, J---," I said. He took the cold Colt from my forehead and handed me the pistol. He sure took a long time doing it, or maybe it just felt long.
The next day, I went to the battery commander, who was among the people J--- intended to shoot and kill, and we got J--- some help. I'm afraid to find out what happened to J---.
The father yanked open the door. The mother screamed, "What's happened to my boy?"
Mister H--- stuttered. He could not read the telex. His head hung, he began to cry.
I took the yellow paper, wet from Mister H---'s sweat and tears, into my hands. I read it precisely, pronouncing each word, starting with "We regret to inform you." I felt like a machine, just like I felt in those helicopters, smacking into the tops of trees as we flew over the jungle.
I was cold and machine-like because someone had to do it, and it was me.
"Bastards!" the father roared forth.
His face was red, veins stuck out on his forehead, his fists were clenched at his side into giant wrecking balls which wanted to hit something. He was a man who worked with his hands, a simple man of simple beliefs. He was the apple pie of all American beliefs - God, honor, country, duty, family - a man like my father.
"We have to elect Wallace!" he said. "God damn Johnson and the generals. They should have died. Not my son."
"Hit me," I said, "hit me."
The middle finger of his right hand began poking at my medals.
"You've been there. What are we doing there?" he yelled at me.
"I don't know," I said.
He poked and poked, while his wife collapsed against the doorjamb. I sort of took her in my right arm and said, "I'm sorry,"while the father's middle finger prodded and prodded at my medals. I didn't care. I still wanted him to hit me if it would help.
"No, honey," his wife said. "Take it easy. It's not their fault," she said, indicating Mister H--- and me.
Still the middle finger drummed on my medals and my chest. Then suddenly, within seconds, he stopped, and his anger left him.
"Hell," he said, "you're just about his age."
"No, sir," I said. "I'm two years older."
"Nineteen, twenty-one, what's the difference?" he said, then he began to cry. He put his big, red and meaty hands over his eyes.
I don't remember much of the rest of the afternoon. Mister H---- had to drive back because I couldn't drive. I sat in the front seat with him, not wanting to sit in the back alone like some officer. I do remember having a big glass of scotch with Mister H--- in the officer's club. It tasted good, and then it was morning.
The reason I could not drive that afternoon was that I spent it thinking of the boy who died and other young men who had died. In the First Infantry Division, we didn't call our dead by name once they were dead. They were no longer private so-and-so, or even Butch or Lavon. We called them giants. You put your giants into a body bag and your giants on the floor of a helicopter. Before landing, the pilot would call over the radio that he had a giant or giants aboard so someone would come take them off his hands. Before rigor mortis set in, the bags could roll around a little on the helicopter floor. After a while, the giants didn't move any more. The giants were someone's son, and in Vietnam, in my personal opinion, the giants died utterly in vain. The giants flew on after I got off the helicopter. The giants went to graves registration where military morticians did whatever they did to bodies before they stuck them into coffins, which now we now can't photograph and put on the news.
In those days when I was trying to write beneath my medals stuck on the wall, I didn't think about John Kerry much. I didn't know he had thrown away or returned his medals. I would have known how he felt, though, because those medals marked me for things I never wanted. They represented things I never wanted to do and places I wanted to forget. I think that if you have spilled your blood, not once but three times, you have a right to do whatever you want with your medals. How dare people who have not spilled their blood criticize John Kerry over his war record. How dare they question how serious one of his wounds when he spilled blood two other times. No wonder John McCain has come outraged to his defense.
I wasn't brave like John Kerry. I didn't volunteer for a second tour of duty. I didn't jump off my boat and track down a Viet Cong and shoot him dead. I didn't save anyone's life. I didn't spill my blood.
Yet I had medals, and I must admit that one day I looked at those medals stuck on the wall of my duplex and wondered very hard about what they represented. Not what the people who gave them to me thought they represented, that's for sure.
There are people who still believe in the Vietnam War. They regret we didn't do it right. I run into them once a while. They think if we had dropped more bombs, sent more soldiers, and killed more Vietnamese, we would have had victory. If only our resolve wasn't sapped by people like Jane Fonda and John Kerry, they'll say. It wasn't Jane - don't blame her. It damn sure wasn't John Kerry. Our will was sapped by all those young American bodies coming home in their flag-draped coffins to good, hard-working American people who had lost their sons - and probably for no good reason.
It is the same type of scenario I am beginning to see every night on the news. In the Vietnam War, the government had weekly body counts. They told you how many enemy died and how many of our sons, friends, husbands, fathers, lovers. They don't do that in this war. I think they don't want us to know. They leave it to you to compute the dead from the confusion on CNN. Even one senior administration official in charge of the war wasn't sure how many of our men and women had died and bled in Iraq when asked recently.
When a child dies in a war, it is like a boulder hitting the center of a calm lake, sending shock waves in all directions. The death marks the men who served with him, then it marks all those who come in contact with the family. It marks the man or men who killed him. It leaves in its wake a family tragedy, before it cascades onto society and all of us. War leaves behind damaged people like J---, and others in far worse shape because their injuries cannot be repaired with time, love, and counseling.
Violence is circle, like a wheel, and when you start it spinning, you never know where it is going to stop or how hard.
What you have just read above spewed itself in one sitting out of a well of inner anger I did not know I had. In retrospect, I can see the anger arose out of a combination of current events: the return of more and more Americans from Iraq in caskets, the arrogant maligning of John Kerry's war record in the recent election, and what he decided to do
with the medals he earned, and sick acts toward Iraqi prisoners who are helpless human beings.
It is a characteristic of a liberal mind that it is not closed. Thus, I have read and re-read the above words many times since my subconscious launched them to insure they are true. I find myself asking if there were three WACs or two in my car? Did I truly take the mother in one arm? Did J--- put the pistol against my head or just point it at me or was he pointing it at my friend, Bill McGlothlin, who was with me? Is it possible Mister H--- read the telegram while I couldn't speak? I decided these things did not effect the deeper meaning of what I had written. I believe it to be true.
On the drag-racing arrest, however, I find I was not entirely honest. Another sergeant and I drove across Montgomery on US-231. He drove a Corvette, and I had a Plymouth Baracuda. Between us we had about 800 horsepower, and the cars looked like they were drag racing when they were parked. On the other hand, both of us had drank a beer or two at a nightclub and were holding our speed to the limit because we didn't want to be stopped. It is therefore possible that an off-duty policeman might have misinterpreted what we were doing and conscientiously pulled us over. It is certainly possible in the passage of thirty-six years that the gun in his hand may be in my mind and not a real event. On the other hand, this is what I remember, and what are we, but what we remember and do.
It is not like me to leave an article without a bit of hope, a glimmer of how to make things better. That information is within the article, and it is for each of you to seize it.