Open Letter to a Vet

“The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” – Douglas MacArthur

During the Vietnam War on June 18, 1965 173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion member Larry Wayne Chaffin smiles for the camera.
During the Vietnam War on June 18, 1965 173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion member Larry Wayne Chaffin smiles for the camera.

To my friend:

I am not your wife. Or your girlfriend. Or your sister. I am not your daughter or your mother. I am only me. I am someone who knows you and someone who cares and someone who loves you, which makes me a little bit of all of the things I am not.

I cannot possibly understand the things that have happened to you. The things that you have seen. The things that you know. The things you have felt. I cannot possibly imagine the loss you have experienced and the pain you have endured. Worst of all, I  can’t possibly wrap my mind around the things that you didn’t do. The things that didn’t happen to you. The ones that maybe torture you the most.

You tell me that the hardest part is falling asleep, and the worst part is waking up.

My heart hurts for those words, and for the ache that you cannot make still and quiet inside of you after all of these years.

You give up drinking, for months on end, thinking it will silence the demons, but here they are again, in your head, not giving you any rest. You drown it again for awhile, thinking the booze will numb the pain, but through the haze you still feel it piercing your chest like the bullet that didn’t hit you.

If I could give my arm to be the kevlar vest you need for that invisible bullet, I would. If I could give my leg to put a permanent end to the voice that haunts you, I would do it right now. If I could transplant some of the the peace that allows me to sleep at night into your wracked heart, I would give it up gladly. But I can’t. I can do nothing but listen to you. Or wait for you. I can be here when you need me. I can pry open the cracks when I see them and try to shine some light in those dark places that you keep shut so tight. As if keeping it all on lockdown will somehow, someway, make it disappear eventually. But it won’t, so I will keep trying to pull it out of you, one piece at a time. One bit of darkness replaced with light.

I hope to God I will never know what it is like to take another life. I can’t imagine how that violates your divine spark. It’s not right. It’s unnatural. It’s the most unnatural thing a human can do. But it doesn’t make it unnecessary. You did your job, the worst job a human can do, and you came home. You did it right. And then they set you loose like a spinning top with a broken soul and expected you to be fine. To function. You aren’t the crazy one in this world, I promise.

I will never understand the guilt you feel for being alive when the other guys aren’t. I can’t. But I can know it. I will never fully comprehend the violence that witnessing the intentional end of life for others caused to your soul. But I can study it. I can seek to understand the monsters that have followed you back from the life of service that you gave to us. And I can be here. To listen. To remind you that the monsters are not you. That the gift of you coming home means more to the rest of us than you can know. I am so unequal to the task of helping you. The fight you face is one I don’t know if I could survive, and yet I want to be here to fight it with you, however that looks.

I can tell you that if you traded places with one of the guys that you lost over there, or one of the ones you have lost back here since then, that the course of my life would be radically altered and I am only one of many, many people who would say the same thing. And not in a good way. I needed to meet you, to know you. I needed to hear you. I even needed your darkness. I needed to know the hurt you face. It made me take action. Ask the guy over the hill that told his 40+ year old war stories for the first time, because you found me. Ask the one who finally feels like somebody gives a shit that he ever served, or gives a shit that that service left him with any suffering.

All of the things you have done and seen and been and lived have brought you here, and here is where I am, and many other people who need you. Here is where your pain and your struggle opens the door for healing for others, and then in turn, for you. Because you are here. You are still here, and you need to be.

You say you only care about helping other people, making them happy. That’s why you’re still here. You know the loss of you would destroy so many people, and lucky for us, that guilt keeps you with us. For now, we’ll take it. We’ll take the guilt if it’s the thing that keeps you here. But sometime, somehow, you’re gonna be here with us, with me, because you want to be. Because there’s life here and it’s good. Because you get a chance that those other guys don’t have any more and you’d damn well better make the best of it. Because you are loved.

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