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Legion Of Merit

By Robert Bruce Drynan

Rural road approaching Baghdad – August 2008

 

Carl Henderson hunched over the wheel of the humvee as it thundered down the dirt road toward Baghdad, throwing up a billowing rooster tail of dust behind it. It worried him, because the dust trail could alert ambushers ready to detonate a roadside bomb . . . shit, roadside my ass, right in the middle, right under us!  His recurrent headaches the result of the last IED had deeply unsettled him. He was now assigned as the colonel’s driver and as a result he was no longer sent on the patrols subject of the hidden ambushes. But his apprehension never left him; if anything, it intensified. He thought of Jerry Carter. The kid had survived a blast, but he’d be singing soprano for the rest of his life.  Shit! Shit, shit! This fucking light colonel is gonna get me killed.

         Carl glanced over at Lieutenant Colonel Givens. The man’s sense of urgency radiated from the jut of his jaw, the set of his shoulders.  Givens had learned that the army’s chief of staff had arrived in the Baghdad headquarters on an unannounced inspection and Givens wanted to be present, visible.  Carl observed that ambition dominated the man’s every action. The bastard ordered his battalion to conduct unofficial body counts, inflated them and found ways to insert them into his action reports . . . a la Vietnam.

         The colonel’s head swiveled to Carl, who still stared at him.  “Godammit Corporal, keep your eyes on the road. No flat tires, no incidents  . . .” The colonel looked away as Carl returned his eyes to the road.  They were approaching a village.  He heard the colonel add, “You fuck this up and I’ll send you back to humping an ammo-can on patrol.”

         Carl recognized the first mud brick “hooches” as they appeared on both sides of the road.  He slowed behind a three-humvee patrol moving sluggishly through the huddle of single story huts, the people out in the roadside smiling and waving. As they approached Carl touched the brakes again.  He could see guys tossing candy to the kids running beside their vehicles.

         “Godammit . . . Private . . .!   Move it. Go around!”  The address, “Private” not “Corporal” was not lost on Carl.”

         Carl swung out to pass.  His repeated blasts on the horn scattered the villagers in panic.  The patrol began to move aside to allow him uninhibited passage.  As the lead vehicle faded to his right it exposed a boy waving a small American flag. Too late!

         Carl felt the thump as he struck the child, felt the whump, whump as his wheels rolled over him. Carl stared into side the mirror, saw an arm detached from the pile of rags further back . . . still clutching the flag that fluttered angrily in his dusty wake.

         Carl stood on the brake and the vehicle began to fishtail. The colonel slapped his shoulder, “Go! Go! Go!”

         “Sir?” Carl shouted.

         “Move it, Corporal.  The kid shouldn’t have been in the road. The patrol will have to clean up the mess.  I’ve got no time for this.” Carl didn’t notice his promotion back to corporal.

         The terrified eyes of the Iraqi boy would stay with him as long as he lived.

* * *

Marysville, California July 2012

Colonel JoAnne Hazlet sat facing Carl S. Henderson’s young widow and his mother. Hazlet wore her Class A greens, bearing her campaign ribbons, and at the top of her display rested the red, white and blue ribbon representing the Bronze Star.  It bore a “V” device for “valor.” She also wore the ribbon representing the Purple Heart, awarded for injury in battle. These were indeed very rare decorations to be found on the breast of a woman soldier. She leaned forward, balancing a cooling cup of coffee in her left hand. “Thank you both, for consenting to see me.  I can only imagine how difficult this must be for you.”

         The older woman responded, “Colonel Hazlet, I understand from your letter that you want to inquire into the circumstances surrounding my son’s death, his . . .” She struggled to control her emotions.   “My son’s suicide,” she finally managed to get out.  The younger woman reached out and took her mother-in-law’s hand, a tear trickled down her cheek.

         “What Mom wants to say, what we want to know, is why, at this late date, the military has suddenly taken an interest in my husband? There was certainly none when we tried . . . when Carl tried to get help at the VA regional headquarters in Sacramento.” The young woman’s voice was modulated, but JoAnne detected the subliminal anger that the soldier’s wife struggled to conceal.

         “As you may recall, several years ago,” Hazlet responded, “I exposed the fact that women were being thrown into combat in Afghanistan and Iraq in direct contravention of a Congressional order to the Pentagon. I was forced to resign as a result of my statement to a senate hearing.  Two years ago, I wrote an article for the Sacramento Bee …”

         “Yes, I think I remember,” The older woman remarked, “It caused quite a stir,”

         “Well,” JoAnne continued, “on the strength of that article, the Secretary of Defense recalled me to active duty and assigned me as ombudsman to his office, totally outside of the chain-of-command.” She smiled grimly, “You can imagine that I am not very popular in some circles.”

         “But that doesn’t tell us what brought you here,” the older woman insisted.

         “This year, some highly motivated journalists in Texas dug into facts the Pentagon has gone to great lengths to squelch. They reported that among soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan last year, 349 took their own lives. That exceeded combat deaths by 55.”

         Hazlet watched the surprise in the women’s eyes.  “That’s not all,” she continued, “The VA, revealed a further estimate that national guardsmen, reservists and those separated from the service, all Middle East combat veterans , were taking their own lives at an astounding rate of 22 every day.” Hazlet, unable to hold her gaze on the two women’s faces, looked down and finally regained her composure. “Doing simple math, that’s a little over 8,000 annually. If we were to publish that as a combat casualty rate over there, do you think we would still be in Afghanistan and Iraq?”

         Both women had tears flooding their cheeks. “What happened to Carl over there?” The soldier’s mother cried, “What did they do to him?”

         Hazlet sighed.  “You would have to tell me.  In specific terms I have no idea what happened to your Carl.”  She touched the block of ribbons on her breast and withdrew her hand in embarrassment. “I have experienced combat.  It affects everyone differently.” She shook her head, “And the specific event or events that may affect the psyche of an individual may vary dramatically. The impact of those experiences is not a reflection of weakness or a lack of courage . . . please, remember that.

         “Mrs. Henderson, I am collecting information about the failures in our system and our services to combat veterans, particularly those disabled or suffering mental disorders resulting from their service. These flaws must be corrected so that we won’t count another 8,000 post battle casualties during the next twelve months. Please, tell me about Carl after he came home.”

         The older woman began, “When Carl came home on leave following his tour in Iraq he had completely changed from the happy, fun loving person who went away.  Don’t get me wrong, he had his serious side. He was still in high school when 9/11 occurred.  He was outraged, as all of us were. He decided that he would join up.” She reflected a moment, “But his father, Big Carl, told him to listen carefully to everything the war promoters had to say.  He said that nothing is as it is made to appear.”

She gazed at Hazlet, who nodded encouragement.  “My husband went to Vietnam.  He admitted that he enlisted because he thought he would be fighting for a just cause . . . protecting democracy. He came back to me, not a broken man, but a bitter skeptic of all the ‘tripe,’ as he called it, that the politicians and puffed-up generals with their fancy ribbons and medals . . .” She reddened as she glanced at Hazlet’s row of ribbons. “I’m sorry, he wouldn’t have meant you.”

Hazlet shrugged and smiled, “I’m sure that he wouldn’t.  No one who has truly experienced war at its ugliest would promote it.”

“Carl said that most of the politicians who sent him to Vietnam had never smelled gun smoke and arranged it so their own children could avoid service, the same for those of their cronies, the ones Eisenhower described as the military-industrial complex.” She looked at Hazlet, who simply nodded that she should continue.

“Carl came back from Vietnam angry and dispirited. He refused to talk about what he experienced, what he did over there.  He discussed his experiences with two of his friends from high school, Vietnam vets like him. That seemed to give him some peace.”

Hazlet prompted, “Yes but what happened to your son when he left the service, when he came home?”

“This is all part of it, Colonel.  When our son, Carl Junior, graduated from high school, he came to us, he was seventeen, and requested that we sign the waiver for him to enlist in the army. His father refused.” Nodding to her daughter-in-law, “Kathy tried to dissuade him, too. They were just sweethearts then.”

Kathy broke in, “We planned to go to Chico State together and get married after we graduated.  We both wanted to be teachers. I told him I was going on to college. I wouldn’t wait until he got back. He wanted to get married right away.  I told him ‘No, you go be a soldier and we’ll see what happens when you get back.’ She blushed, “I went to college, but I waited.”

The older woman resumed, “His father argued that he was a fool to go. Little Carl got angry and retorted, ‘What’s the matter, you don’t think I’m man enough?’ Our son thought he was off on a great adventure. His father knew better, but never discussed it with him again, and when our son turned eighteen two months after he graduated, he enlisted.”

Carl’s mother put her hands to her face and sobbed, “I begged Carl to talk to him again, but Carl was as stubborn as his son . . . he just looked at me sadly, ‘He’ll have to find out for himself.’ ” She continued sobbing and waved at Kathy, “You tell her what it was like when Carl came back from Iraq.”

Kathy picked up where her mother-in-law left off.  “We got married on his leave as soon as he returned from Iraq.  He seemed different, withdrawn.  I was so glad to get him back in one piece, but as but turned out, appearances were deceiving.  I think he was supposed to get permission from his commander, but Carl just said, ‘screw him.’ Well, he actually said something a lot stronger. He never used that kind of language before he went into the army, but I decided he would change back to himself when he returned to more normal circumstances. But the normal conditions never came back.

“A few weeks after he returned to Fort Carson where he was stationed, he shouted that same kind of language at his commanding officer In front of the whole battalion. He accused that Colonel Givens avoided combat, that the Legion of Merit was being awarded because the colonel needed some fruit salad on his chest. Carl faced a court martial and was discharged from the service.”

“Yes,” Hazlet commented, “the Legion of Merit is the perfect medal for an ambitious military bureaucrat. Carl’s outburst earned him an ‘other-than-honorable’ discharge. But, please continue, Kathy.  What was his reaction when he returned after the court martial and dismissal from the service?”

“He came home, sullen and angry. I overheard him when in one of his fits of rage, he yelled at his father ‘that son-of-a-bitch forced me to do it and then blamed me, and they gave him a medal and me the boot.’ She reddened from her use of the epithet, but finished, “Maybe Carl shared what they blamed him for with his father, but he never said a thing about it to me.”

She continued, “Carl became more sullen. He drank too much.  Once when I tried to discuss his problem with him, the look on his face frightened me.”

Carl’s mother broke in, “He seemed withdrawn and silent when he first came back, even before they were married, but I figured it was a temporary reaction to his experiences over there.”

Kathy continued, “He seemed always to be tired, but he couldn’t sleep more than a few hours at a time.  Sometimes he had violent dreams when he did sleep, he kept crying out; sometimes just crying.”

Hazlet bored in, “Any other symptoms?”

Kathy hesitated, “He was impotent, he was afraid of intimacy.” She blushed, “He was the opposite before he left for Iraq. At first he apologized, but later if I made any gesture at intimacy, he’d get angry.”

His mother added, “We’d heard of Post Traumatic Stress. His father and I tried to get him to go to the VA. Finally, he agreed to seek help. He said he went to the Sacramento VA Out-Patient Center, and they told him his problem was nothing and would eventually go away. She hesitated, sighed, “My husband had just had the car serviced. He checked the speedometer against the mileage on the service report.  He told me Carl hadn’t gone to Sacramento. The car hadn’t been driven more than ten miles. At the time I wondered what motivated my husband to check. But I know now that his father understood the problem. On son regarded asking for help as a sign of weakness, the same way Carl’s father felt after Vietnam.”

“Where is your husband?  Why isn’t he here with us?”

“You didn’t know, Colonel?”  Mrs. Henderson lowered her head, hands twisting together in her lap, “Carl took his own life a week to the day after our son killed himself.  He felt responsible. It’s all tied to his experiences in Vietnam, but he couldn’t bring himself to discuss them with his own son.”

The woman raised her eyes to Hazlet’s, “He came home from Vietnam with the same problem. He was ashamed of his reaction then, but he later became normal . . . sometimes he still had dreams, but they usually occurred when he was under stress or very tired. He had two friends who were Vietnam vets like him.  They met every Thursday, had dinner out, sometimes Carl would come home the worse for drink, but it helped him work his way through whatever problems he brought back with him from Vietnam.  He never spoke to me about what they discussed or did.

Carl managed to work his way through the rough spell, but Little Carl didn’t have any friends close by that he could talk to. This is a different war. Our community doesn’t share in it like we did when almost everybody had to go.  And he and his father just didn’t know how to talk to each other. Our son had no one he could talk to.

“This is a different war; damn them . . . damn all of those politicians . . . both civilian and military! I made sure my son went to the VA in Sacramento . . . I went with him.  He terrified me.  He was angry and he drove like a maniac, like he wanted to kill himself. Maybe he would have then, if I hadn’t been along. When we got to the VA, they refused him services, because of his ‘other-than-honorable’ discharge.  The clerk wasn’t unkind.  He was upset because, he told us, the army has been giving out OTH discharges like they were three-day passes. He said that the government wanted to cut down on the costs of the VA. It was even implied that PTSD claims came from malingerers who wanted undeserved disability compensation.

“The clerk suggested that we obtain a civilian diagnosis of PTSD. He said the military used the pretext of PTSD related misconduct to discharge soldiers and deny them the services of the VA. He advised that once we had the diagnosis, we should approach our congressman. He was one of the few politicians in the state who had served . . . as an infantry officer in the marines in Vietnam. As it turned out, he was able to reverse Carl’s discharge status. But that was just the beginning of our problems.”

Kathy commented, “Yeah, he went back to the VA and they put him on a cocktail of drugs; tranquilizers and anti-depressants.  He needed help, not euthanasia! Damn them!”

Her vehemence startled even Hazlet who had been through previous interviews, but still not enough to insulate her from the agonies of these damaged families.  “For several months he walked around like a zombie. And on top of that he was drinking  . . . even more than he did before he started taking those drugs. It was all downhill.”

Kathy looked at her mother-in-law, “Mom and I went to encounter group sessions sponsored by the VA. They contracted a civilian woman psychologist who didn’t know beans about the problem. She told us that the thing to do was humor Carl . . . to avoid arousing him.  Good God! That’s exactly what we had been doing” If for no better reason the violence of his rages was frightening! Two women came in after three weeks and simply stood up and shouted ‘this is bullshit’. The shrink calmly asked, ‘Isn’t your husband responding to your changed attitude? Maybe you need to give him more time.’ “

“The second woman said, ‘Yeah, they responded. My Ralph drove our car into a bridge abutment and Cindy’s husband blew his brains out. Thanks for the help!’ They turned and stalked out. Mom and I got up and followed and so did most of the others.”

Carl’s mother cried out, “What is going on over there? What are they doing to our husbands, to our sons? My God, Colonel, look at you, I know what the Purple Heart ribbon looks like, even our daughters!”

Sadness in her eyes, Hazlet responded, “The Pentagon doesn’t understand the extent of the problem? Line units are hiding the truth.  To them such reactions are cowardice, malingering.

Hazlet set the cup containing cold coffee on the table, “Maybe we can change that attitude . . . that’s part of my task in visiting you.  But, like that psychologist, the VA has been dealing in panaceas. The VA needs vastly greater funding, not reductions as we’ve been seeing.  Until then, the VA can do nothing more than throw a sponge at a tsunami.”

 

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