|The First General
2007 by Joni Bour
Not all war veterans develop post traumatic stress disroder, but for those that do, their sacrifices are untold. For this reason, Joni felt compelled to write about one man and his uniform and she felt compelled to tell the world that wars, no matter the justification, never really end for those sent to fight.
The uniform and the soldier were inseparable and had shared many things in one particularly long year in the young man‘s life. Both the living through and survival of that year shaped everything the man did or didn’t do ever since. Just one year made the young man old before he had finished being young.
They had been together through Boot Camp, when one whispered the Three General Orders to the other and won the admiration of their peers. When one crawled through the mud the other got dirty and when one ran 5 miles it was certain the other was equally soaked with sweat. The young soldier, lean, bristle-headed and tanned graduated as a Private First Class but they were both in the picture with his father as his mama snapped a picture. When the soldier’s father had grasped his shoulder and reminded him to keep his head down and his butt in a foxhole, years later the uniform was still imprinted with the memory of the firm grasp of a father‘s wisdom. The soldier had tried desperately to comfort his mama as her tears fell upon his lapel when he left for Vietnam, but when he could not, he would still find comfort in the feel of her salty tears left upon his chest.
They had climbed aboard an airplane acting fearless though scared nearly witless and traveled together for a day in a plane full of other buzz cuts with similar emotions. They thought they were ready and trained for the evils of war, but their hard lesson learned was that no one has ever been prepared for the evil man heaps upon another. They slept in holes half filled with mud, standing watch on lonely, bitterly cold nights as the hardening soldier ate peaches or cold beans from a can and wiped his mouth on his sleeves. They sweated pounds of salt and fought elephant grass, bugs, snakes and the decay of their morale. The uniform took everything life and death dealt the soldier; blood, sweat, tears, and filth, shielding him from every assault. He had been shielded from the stuff they sprayed on those damn jungles, though more than once he had nothing but a sleeve to stop the resultant bloody nose. The uniform had become a tattered symbol of survival and strength and in some ways it lent the soldier support, confidence and even a reputation of being tough and reliable. It set him off from the crowd of other soldiers in the rear who had never seen the face of death and served but never sacrificed anything but time.
When you lived on the edge of the insanity of war every moment was strained and every decision was emotionless and calculated. The uniform was more than just fatigues, it was his identity, his shield and his friend. The soldier had precious few friends in the time of war. In fact, he was afraid to care about much more than what he wore on his back and carried in his own two hands. You could only cry so much when someone “bought it“, before you couldn’t see straight and you got yourself killed. So the warrior made a decision he would not care about anyone except one buddy and his girl back home. Until one day, the even harder soldier was betrayed by the girl who wrote in her letter that she could no longer love a man who could die in a far off war she could not support. This was more proof to the man that he needed only what he wore on his back and carried in his hands. This was driven all the way home when only days later his buddy was taken away as well. A buddy he laughed and shared his boxes from home with and even slept along side, was killed when he stepped on a landmine. The soldier had quickly wiped his tears and snotty nose on his sleeve before anyone could see and roughly protested when the Sergeant told him that he would be escorting his buddy’s remains home. Truth be told, the soldier was afraid to go home, for he had been so long in-country and away from the real world, that emotion, politeness, closeness and even hot running water were all distant memories. Still, the Sergeant had insisted so soldier squared up his shoulders and did the unthinkable, prepared to go home. The soldier cleaned up, shaved and put on his dress uniform, including a lanyard attached to his shoulder that indicated his specially appointed detail and did the right thing, he took a hero home. On the long plane ride home, he sat stoic not saying a single word, and communicated with only a nod once in a while to the stewardess. Mostly, he stared down at the buttons on his tunic, and tried to make sense of his conflicts. He felt relief at having lived and guilt that his buddy had not, and found no common ground between the two. He left the plane in Seattle to face a small crowd of shouting people when a braless hippy girl walked right up in his face and spit on his chest. He had been trained to kill a man with a chop to the throat or rip his eyeball out and he could have then, but his training failed him as he stood there all alone in a crowd, dumbfounded, insulted and betrayed by his very own country. He felt like a robot and did not want to attend the burial of his only buddy, but again, he squared his shoulders and did the right thing.
He returned to Vietnam to finish his tour, because that was what he had been trained to do. When it was near the time to go back to the world, he was afraid of going home, afraid he would not fit in, afraid he was abandoning men who needed him. But eventually he pulled himself together and in the cleanest uniform he owned, went home. Again when he arrived at the airport there were signs that said, ” End the war” and “ Stop killing the babies” and though he had no part in starting that awful war and had certainly killed no babies, he began feeling something similar to shame, hung his head down and walked quickly into a world that would not welcome him home. When he had arrived at his childhood home his mama had nearly fainted at the shock of her only son walking through the door, it seemed he had forgotten to write to tell her he was coming home. He walked through the house up the stairs, into the attic and tossed his duffle bag and all the evidence of his year in Vietnam to the furthest corner of the dimly lit space. He had started to walk away, but returned, placing a large box of old clothes and a pile of magazines on top of the beat up and smelly bag, then, finally satisfied the bag would go no further, he thought he was ready for his life again and walked back down the stairs. Many months later, still living in his parents home, he noticed while looking for a winter coat in the back of his closet that his uniforms had been hung neatly next to his high school letterman jacket and smiled, knowing his mama had been the one who snuck them there.
When he had first come home, it had taken probably 4 months before he could sleep in a bed instead of on the cold hard floor and longer before he would close the bedroom door when he tried to sleep. For a month or so, he had eaten like a man being offered his last meal, shoveling, dunking and reaching across others without the slightest comment or apology. More than once he forgot to take a shower for a week or so at a time, but when he remembered, he would stand under the hot running water till it ran icy cold. For a while he used language that was unsuitable in nearly any company and had to curb more than one jungle learned habit.
In the early years the soldier’s mama pestered him to talk about the war, and to “move on”. But eventually, she stopped pestering him about going to the VFW Hall or getting the “help” she so desperately believed he needed, and just begged him to breath real air, to eat and to smile once in a while. And when eventually he became ill and was told he had a cancer associated with Agent Orange, she sought solace in the darkest corner of his closet and cried only a mother’s tears upon the same lapel of the uniform her tears had dampened some 37 years before. Perhaps she found comfort in the uniform because it had stood sentry all these years, maybe it reminded her of her son as he once was, or maybe it represented those who had murdered her son with their evil war. The fact that he had been the walking wounded for 30 years didn’t change the fact that “THEY “ had killed her only son. The fact that his body was still alive did not change the belief in her heart that part of him was dead. His own country had taken part of his spirit while the chemical companies took his body, one piece at a time.
He had struggled, and found work as a carpenter, been married twice, a father once and had a friend in almost no one. Eventually he had moved, preferring to live alone and wasn’t much for socializing. He had packed everything, except the few things he had left from the war, but somehow, undoubtedly by his mama‘s hand, his uniforms had found their way again into the solitary corner of his closet. He avoided parades and big public events because they were often accompanied by helicopters overhead and for reasons he would never articulate, “choppers” made him nervous. They had always been a welcome sight and sound during the war bringing life, ammunition or food but had also meant someone was leaving in a body bag or broken and others were left behind. Then his father died, and during his military funeral, shots were fired and he “hit the dirt” before he even realized where he was. He was pretty much a loner, except for the little bursts of company he sought when he wanted to live like “regular people”. He didn’t think he was crazy, he just knew he wasn’t normal. He knew he had PTSD, but was unable to find the strength to reach out to those who offered a hand.
The day came when the man was tired of his self-imposed
isolation and having so much emotional baggage that he had no where else
to stuff it. So he did the only thing he could think of. He threw some
clothes in a bag, drained his bank account and then went to the kitchen
for a trash bag. He went to the darkest reaches of his closet where his
mama had often retreated and pulled them down, his only friends, almost
the only ones in his life that had refused to run away, never let him down
and never once left their post. He realized with no small amount of sappy
poetry that they had fulfilled the First General Order better than any
man, for they had guarded everything within their post and had never given
up, until now, when being relieved. To his surprise, for the first time
in a very long time, his tears flowed freely and as it had always been,
they fell upon the lapel that had grown salty with sorrows of his war.
After a moment, purely on instinct, he snapped a salute and folded the
symbols of what he once was, dropped them in the bag, and walked out, closing
the door on the life he no longer needed. He drove to a local park where
he had seen a Traveling Vietnam War Memorial on display that week. He pulled
into the parking lot and three times failed to get both feet out of the
truck. He prayed in a way he remembered doing only one time before when
he had asked God to bring him home from 'Nam and without knowing how, he
finally lifted himself up and out of the beaten up truck. He pulled on
the woolen uniform and though it didn't fit as well as it had, he immediately
stood taller, and strong like the real soldier and man he had once been
proud to be and walked slowly towards the black and white monument to wasted
lives. He was lost for a few moments in a time when brotherhood transcended
friendships in a peaceful world but he never stopped moving. He felt he
would surely drown in the sea of names when without really knowing why
he stopped, removed his cap and began to weep. His body shook, his knees
grew weak and he leaned against the silent witness to his 37 years of hate
and shame and unbearable loneliness. He stood until there were no more
tears and absently reached into the pocket of his uniform jacket and felt
something he hadn't consciously thought of in at least three decades. He
slowly removed a simple steel band- a bracelet that represented another
forgotten and betrayed American son, a band he had worn for years before
he had allowed himself to give up and had stuffed it in that pocket. He
removed the uniform coat, folded it gently wiped one last tear away, placed
the band that read Tsgt Bennie L. Dexter 9 May 1966 upon its salty lapel
and disappeared into the crowd of other seekers and finders.
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Story List and Biography for Joni Bour