By Paul Nyerick, Marines
Writing Type: Prose
By Paul Nyerick
My body left the war when I boarded that freedom bird in Danang, but my mind remained glued to the jungle canopy. I vowed that all the horrible memories would dissolve when I left country, but that proved impossible. A Continental Airlines DC-10 lifted us from one living hell to a hell we had to live with, an unfamiliar USA.
The perception of our native land changed with ferocity. It became alien to me. I just couldn’t get a handle on my emotions. I was out of harm’s way but still scared. Something was missing. There was no way this experience could possibly affect me, because of my upbringing and moral grounding. Then everything changed. In my mind, I could never leave the bush. The American dream and hope in the future seemed like a distant memory. I could not shake the emotional baggage I collected during combat. Shame and guilt replaced youthful exuberance. I needed to forget the horror. This burden weighed heavy on my psyche.
All I could do was temporarily mask the pain. In 1970 there were a multitude of costumes to fit any mask. There was the lack of respect for authority of any kind that justified outlaw behavior. Laws made by the same institutions that started this conflict meant absolutely nothing. This was a recipe for confrontation with anyone who had power. Often such confrontations ended with disastrous consequences, including emergency rooms or incarceration. After surviving the Nam there was nothing to lose.
There was a burning desire to revive the adrenalin rush of combat. The mask of daredevil behavior and the lust for sexual conquest coupled with the constant drone of loud, loud music recaptured the warrior feeling. Nothing was too dangerous or irreverent. Cheating death over and over again felt so, so good.
Spirituality was just another joke. How could anyone who participated in such unspeakable acts have the audacity for spirituality? I lost faith in any god who could condone such depravity. Blasphemy gave me another vehicle for coping.
This emotional confusion craved cures -- psychedelic substances and the juice of the blue agave. Alcohol, marijuana and LSD became the temporary savior that was the most far-out mask of all. Expanding the mind with foreign substances was supposed to sort out the confusion and arrange it into the proper perspective, while eventually leading to spiritual healing. Drugs and reading books were supposed to be the answer to enlightenment. That hippie dream sounded wonderful but forgot to mention hangovers.
There was no room for honest meaningful labor. The Christian work ethic did not go along with fulltime escapism. I tried to fit into the workforce, but the mundane routine just brought back the horrors. When you spend all of your time trying to kill yourself with thrills, there is no time for societal endeavors. Besides, I was too tired to work every day anyway. Remember, there is no such thing as too much fun.
All of these physical and emotional stresses placed an enormous burden on health. Injuries healed quickly, but physical healing could not ease the emotional pain. After the body felt normal the mind ached even more. How long could this pace keep up? I needed relief so I could feel the needed peace everyone deserves. I did not want to die.
The only clarity was looking at reality deep within the mirror. I could gaze directly into the glass and feel the depths of my soul, looking through pale blue eyes at a future that seemed futile. The pain of guilt ruled my future. My future was bleak at best. I needed to release myself from the guilt that prohibited me from enjoying life to its fullest.
As I looked deeply I could only picture her eyes. Those eyes pierce through me like daggers every time I try to sleep. They were the eyes of an old mama-san who was in the wrong place for her and the wrong time for me. That wrinkled, defenseless crone was the unfortunate recipient of a grenade I threw into the bunker where she was hiding. We were ordered to blow up all bunkers to ferret out any enemy taking refuge. I pulled the pin and rolled the frag into the hole when the old lady poked her head around a corner of that underground maze. She looked at me with those piercing eyes reflecting the anguish of that misunderstood land. She knew her fate.
There was nothing I could do to save her. The die was cast, but in those few seconds before detonation I saw in her face the hopelessness of the situation. She was crying out for help, but all I could do was watch her die. Those eyes look down on me with the constant barrage of guilt. I uselessly killed another human being. The act was not only condoned, but praised. When I walked away, that innocent but deadly mistake drifted into the fog of war. It pushed me to the edge of insanity.
Those eyes would become a constant reminder of the downside of my Vietnam experience. My dreams and the mirror's unforgiving reflection eventually made clear what to do. On a rainy summer night, I got into my MGB and drove alone, south to the seat of government, Washington, D.C. No one had any idea where I was headed, nor did I tell anyone of my journey for many years. It was something I just had to do on my own. Not too many people could understand anyway.
With a six-pack of beer and my Purple Heart on the seat beside me, I drove like the wind. The top was down while it rained. Still I drove, as if I was on one final mission. The stinging rain dripped down my long hair, keeping it in place. Rain drops and a soothing wind on my face cleansed away all doubt and reinforced my resolve for what needed to be done.
I drove in the storm oblivious to my surroundings. Connecticut, New York, the entire New Jersey Turnpike, Delaware and Maryland breezed by. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, I stood in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The six-pack was gone but I was clear-headed and focused.
This White House stood stoically guarding the leader of this great nation, Richard M. Nixon. His power was unrivaled throughout the free world. He could pull the plug on Vietnam any time. but he and the rest of the shortsighted politicians were stuck in that stay-the-course mentality. All he had to do was ask the 58,200 dead if the war was worth keeping the Vietnamese people from embracing communism.
If he had asked me, I would have certainly explained my situation in detail. Since that was not likely to happen, I decided to show my displeasure for the entire fiasco in my own way. I took my Purple Heart and flung it in the air. That symbol of gallantry felt heavy in my hand. It sailed over the fence like a tiny unguided missile, landing with George Washington looking in my direction. Security lights reflected his image in that ounce of pure gold.
Instant jubilation flooded my entire being. I felt joy that I hadn’t in a long, long time. At that moment I came home. While looking at my medal on the lawn, a giant weight lifted from my heart. I could see the old lady in the bunker smiling, as if everything was all right now. It felt so, so good.
There was no way I could cherish an award that I received from the president of the United States, so I gave it back. I threw it over that fence for everyone on both sides who were affected by the scourges of combat. I threw it over the fence for my fellow Marines who sacrificed so much but were repaid with guilt and shame for surviving. We must still live with the horror. Maybe now I could travel down life’s highway with the knowledge that with this small gesture, I tried to make it right.
As the first rays of sunlight peaked over the Potomac, it was time to leave the war behind. People started going about their daily routines to grease the wheels of government. I accomplished my mission and needed to go home. I’d have a six-hour drive to sort out what had taken place on that rainy night. I gave my Purple Heart one final glance and hopped into my car. It looked at peace.
I drove near the National Mall, where the Washington Monument stood high above the rest of the history on tha hallowed ground. I shifted into first gear and drove north. I had to play softball that night and couldn’t be late. Semper Fidelis, Always Faithful, is branded on my soul. I will never let my team down.