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A Living Unknown Soldier’s Battle Scars: Cost of Freedom Series, Pt. 2

The following is the true, unedited story of a living unknown soldier (LUS) who served as a marine in Vietnam. This post contains graphic language and imagery. Discretion is advised.

The ground was loamy and wet and smelled of metal. With every step, his feet would resist being released from its grasp. There was a technique to walking through a rice field, so that mamasan (mother) and papasan (father) couldn’t hear you coming. His boots became living sculptures and socks became more trouble than they were worth, but they don’t call it jungle rot for nothing, so protect your feet, was the mantra. The sandy soil got underneath his clothes and cut like glass, with every move. The tiny droplets of blood became scabs, which begat blisters and eventually, became callused. The calluses were welcomed, because it actually meant relief from where weapons and packs found there resting place on a two-week, unwashed body. LUS liked to walk ‘point’ (lead his unit), because it gave him a sense of control, when in actuality, he knew there was none. They approached the village stealthily, always from the right. Always going to the right meant good luck. Watching the hooch (hut) draw closer into view on its bamboo stilts, they could see mamasan and papasan carrying over-sized baskets of rice–too much for a small family, so he now knew, that they were feeding the Vietcong (his enemy). They had to be silenced.

“Killing was doing America good”, he was told. They were taught that gooks (Vietcong) were dirty, disgusting animals who hate Americans and the idea of freedom. These were the recordings that played in his mind whenever it was time to ‘take-out’ the area. As part of the Walking Dead 1/9, they would leave their calling card, the ace of spades, at the front and back of every village, to let all know that the Walking Dead had come calling.

LUS and the other soldiers continued to approach the hooch, until they were within striking distance. He prefered to sneak up on them and use the butt of his rifle as his weapon to crack-open their skulls. Being the demolition engineer, LUS took the C4 he carried and blew-up the hooch and over-sized rice baskets, to prevent the enemy from benefiting from what mamasan and papasan obviously wouldn’t be needing anymore.

Walking around a hut, he sees a little girl, under 5 years of age, crying out in agony and speaking her native tongue of which he could only feel the intent of her words, but not the meaning. She lay on her back, still alive, with a machete wound, that had cut her from underneath her right hip to her left shoulder. She looked at him with pleading, tearful eyes, as he shooed away the pig that had been feasting on her intestines. He knew that a Vietcong unit had just been through the area, but why would they butcher one of their own children? This was one of many inconsistencies LUS would face. Even being captive in the living nightmare of war 24/7, seeing a child suffer was not something from which he could walk away. So he shot her in the head in the hopes of giving her peace, even if at the cost of his own torment.

“That child still haunts my dreams; I can see her like it was yesterday, even though it was almost a lifetime ago.”  The guilt associated with having to kill, especially a child, no matter the reason, exacts its toll for 45 years and counting. “Several of my buddies have committed suicide and I still think about it…I just want the bees to stop in my head.” LUS revealed that there were MIA‘s that remained (willingly) in Vietnam, because they were too addicted to drugs (to suppress the memories) to come home and face their new reality. They instead, befriended the ‘friendlies’ (south Vietnamese mountain farmers) and taught them how to automate their farm equipment in exchange for drugs and anonymity.

Which begs the question, how do you come home from an experience that is life-altering and be expected to be the person you were before you left? How can you just flip the switch from having no rules (then, there were no rules like today), expected to integrate back into society, as if nothing had happened? Vietnam veterans are husbands, fathers and employees, that go about life, suppressing all the anger [of the war experience] that has now disguised itself into self-loathing, anxiety and depression because it has no place to call home in a civilian environment. It puts on a cloak of deception, fearing revelation in the mind of the soldier it infects. Are the bees in LUS’s head a summation of the guilt he carries or the displaced anger that has never had a chance to be neutralized? I don’t have the answers, I wish I did, but I do hope his bees are set free someday.

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Posted by on July 14, 2011 in Culture Choc

 

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A Living Unknown Soldier’s Battle for Independence: The Cost of Freedom Series, Pt. 1

This is not your typical, ‘hip-hip-hooray, it’s Independence Day,’ kind of post, but is still a tribute to not only our lost veterans, but also to the living ones. We will starkly look at the continuing cost of freedom for soldiers and how this battle is still raging in the minds of veterans wanting independence from their pasts. In this series, we will explore the causes and effects of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder): coping with suicidal thoughts from reliving the past daily, loss of contact with family and friends and most of all, the lack of understanding (validation) by others who can never truly understand the non-refundable personal sacrifices made.

When most civilians think of Independence Day, we envision spending time with family and friends, barbecuing and setting off fireworks while celebrating a day off from work. We might say grace for the soldiers lost, but what about the one’s still living, still coping? On an intellectual level, sure, we know what Independence Day is, or do we? Do we truly understand the cost of our freedom?

The inspiration for this series comes from a man who has elected to stay anonymous for many valid and understandable reasons, but most of all, until he can make peace with himself. From candid interviews with our unknown living soldier, we will explore the psyche of a Vietnam veteran who is still trying to reconcile his past, still suffering from a war that many have forgotten and replaced with the ‘war of the week’ headline mentality. His account is a first-hand, in-depth perspective of a Marine who served nineteen months, from 1969-1971, deployed to Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam and operated from the DMZ (demilitarized zone) of Da Nang, Dong HaQuang Tri, Hue, Khe Sahn and Caviet.

Our unknown, yet living solider was part of the famous 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, the so-called, “The Walking Dead.” This title was given to the one-nine (1/9) when Ho Chi Minh declared he would, “kill them all, so just consider themselves dead walking,” announcing over a loud-speaker (in English), just before the siege near Song Nu Yi River in 1966. After that infamous siege, “Di bo Chet” (the Walking Dead) name stuck. As foreshadowed, the Vietnam one-nine infantry battalion suffered the most casualties in marine corp history. Based on a typical battalion strength of 800 Marines and Navy hospital corpsmen, 93.63% (747) were Killed In Action (KIA) and 0.25% (2) were Missing In Action (MIA).

Always Faithful –– ©1997 Doug Todd

Here are those who have borne the battle

Those, in the crucible of combat, tried.

Tempered and turned of the finest mettle,

These were The Sons of America’s Pride!

The First Battalion of The Ninth Marines,

Hammered and forged in the fires of Hell;

Built of their blood and their broken dreams,

A legend for scribes, unborn, to tell.

They fought like Warriors and they died like men

‘‘Till their page of history was stained blood-red;

And they earned from foe as well as from friend

That Honorable title, “The Walking Dead”!

These were the Sons who stepped forward bravely–

Courage and Strength and Faith un-tried;

To fight as the Valorous “Always Faithful”.

These are The Sons of America’s Pride!

The following video contains mature content:

Our soldier, who we will call, LUS (living unknown soldier) to protect his identity throughout this series, started out like many others, wanting to serve his country and protect his and his family’s rights–freedoms. Economic times were hard and the prospects for a seventeen year old then, were slim. The opportunity to help his family through the difficult times and to serve his country by ‘saving it’ from communism, seemed like a win-win. He saw the images of gallantry on TV, along with the ads and was inspired to follow in the footsteps of his father: to make a difference for his family and country. Is there any more noble cause (to an American) than to fight for freedom? Freedom is a founding principle of our country and is a vein that runs very deep in the psyche of an American soldier and particularly, a Marine.

So at seventeen, LUS enlisted September 2, 1968 (his birthday) and headed for boot camp on November 5, 1968 at Camp Lejeune as a demolition engineer. Little did he realize the full impact of that decision, where it would take him or the cost of freedom for which he would be fighting. In the coming few months, we will tell you in detail about his personal journey and hopefully, you will have a better understanding of the impact of freedom on our lives that we now enjoy through a day off, eating BBQ, baked-beans and potato salad.

Please do enjoy a wonderful celebration and as you do, try to think not only of the ones lost in war, but also of those who are still fighting the living soldier’s battle. The battle for independence from personal guilt, the external pressure to justify their experience to those who never served and the understanding of the price veterans pay daily for our freedom. Happy Independence Day and deepest thanks to all soldiers: past, present and future for the freedom we enjoy today.

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2011 in Culture Choc

 

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Expat relations: where have my old friends gone?

Over coffee this morning, I told my husband about a weird dream about an old friend. Long story behind the crazy dream (they rarely make sense to the waking mind, do they?), but more importantly, I started thinking of my old friendships and how the expat experience not only changes you, but also how your old friends relate to you as well.

To give you a bit of background first, back in my hometown (Memphis), I was part of a small but tight group of friends that worked together and played together. We looked forward to our lunches and then to our weekends plans with one another. As time went by, our lives changed with the advent of children, job promotions and losses and other family circumstances. However, we were still able to survive all those life events for 15 years. Friends forever! We toasted to it and declared it on many occasions, that no matter what happens, we will always remain friends.

At the time, I know we all believed it and wished it to be true. But after moving to Charlotte, NC, I began to feel the distance when I would go back home to visit. They all had lots of laughs, private jokes and experiences that they shared, that now had to be explained to me. I felt myself swallow hard with the realization that time and distance were starting to take their toll. My ‘tier one friendship circle,’ as I call it, was starting to deteriorate. It reminded me of the Millennium episode of  Seinfeld  when Jerry fell from the top 10 on the speed dial.

It was a year later, that I moved to France. After living in France for almost another year, I returned home again for another visit. What little familiarity that existed two years ago was now completely gone. The once comfortable ramblings had been replaced with deliberate and calculated chatter that only takes place between friends of friends desperately trying to find common ground. The magical connection was gone; Camelot had ended. My friends were vanishing before my eyes between uncomfortable pauses. There were even some friends that were no-shows. I’m not sure which was worse, the trite conversations with the living ghosts of my past or the absence of the ideal friendship that no longer existed. Maybe it was both; maybe they are one in the same.

In speaking with another friend about my angst over the apparent transition with my tier one circle, he told of how the same thing happened in his and his wife’s lives. He told me that you are the one who changes, it’s your friends who have stayed the same. I protested and said, “But, I’m the same person I’ve always been. I don’t understand why…” and in that moment, he stopped me and said, “no, you’re not the same.” Looking even more bewildered than before, I asked him what he meant. He proceeded to tell me that once you’ve experienced certain life events, you change and often without you noticing. It is inherent and inevitable.

Courtesy of Google Images

Funny how you don’t feel it happening, but it’s like a bowl of candy that starts out half full. With each day and each experience that challenges you, stretches your mind and touches your soul, you add another piece of candy to the bowl. Before long, you realize how much sweeter your life has become and how much you want to share this bowl of candy with all you meet.

There are things that can steal candy from you bowl, such as becoming sour on friendships that change or disappear all together or having one foot into a new culture but not yet fitting in; but if you can push past these feelings and understand that it is part of the process, you can live the sweet life! I would be a liar if I said that letting go (of old friends) has been easy, but I now understand that I was the one who left them. I changed. Although we’ve not discussed it and may never have the chance after all that has happened, I know that they are probably mourning the death of our former friendship too.

We all know that the old dies to make way for the new, both literally and figuratively speaking, but it still hurts when we loose a loved one in any capacity. Sometimes they are still living when we lose them and that can be what hurts most, the seemingly unfinished business of it all in wondering, why? So as an expat, your relationships will inevitably change but in the process, try to enjoy the ride. Enjoy your friends and family while you can and stay open to the new friendships that will inevitably replace some of the old ones. The process will be painful but it’s still worth the ride. ‘Profite de la vie’ (enjoy your life) y’all!

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Pardonne moi, but your French tongue is in my American ear…

In case you may be thinking we are going to discuss something tawdry, sorry to disappoint (some of) you, but hope you’ll stick around for the explanation. In trying to interpret how an American ear interprets the French language, I got a chuckle from thinking about the circa 1980’s commercials for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups®.

Remember, “hey, you’ve got your chocolate in my peanut butter…” and vice versa? As a result of this fun, yet fattening (after satisfying my chocolate & peanut butter craving) promenade down memory lane, the metaphor of how the French language sounds to the American ear began to take shape. It can be a bizarre and awkward combination at first, but in the end, great for both and yes, can even be delicious!

In hearing how native French speakers speak English, it has really helped me get over the ‘literal hump’. By this I mean, I’ve actually learned more from French speakers who do not speak perfect English. They use French structured sentences as I use English structured ones, so in turn, I get to learn how to construct my phrases in the French way. Still confused? Ce n’est pas grave (no problem)! Let’s take some common French expressions and translate them into the literal English meaning:

Tout à fait ! (in French: “You’re right!”)

  • As an American learning French would hear: “All have done!”

Qu’est-ce que c’est ? (in French: “What is it?“)

  • As an American learning French would hear: “What is this that this is?

Ce n’est pas grave ! (in French: “No problem!”)

  • As an American learning French would hear: “This no is not serious” (Oh, contraire, I think it’s getting very serious!)

After learning some common and well used French vocabulary words, I thought, cool. I have the basics down, so when I hear those words spoken, I’ll immediately understand. Wow, isn’t French fun? I thought to myself. However; with the sentence structure being so different from English, I would often get stuck in the literal translation and become very frustrated to learn that I still could not make sense of the words when put into a standard French phrase. As my father would say, “I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it.” It sounded like a lot of random words, just thrown together with no rhyme or reason.

My ears would recognize someone say, ‘child….refrigerator…tonight’. But it was like playing connect the dots between French words. The words I recognized were either spoken so fast that I couldn’t understand them or they had not yet been added to my mental vocabulary bank. This resulted in multiple interpretations for the same phrase, such as “my child’s dinner is in the refrigerator for tonight” or “my child climbed in the refrigerator tonight,” I had no idea! It was a bizarre mix of clarity and confusion in one sentence (not sure which would represent clarity, the chocolate or the peanut butter–you decide).

There are also many words in French that have multiple meanings depending on how they are used in a sentence. Case in point: on my wedding day, my now mother-in-law (belle mèrereferred to my wedding outfit using the word, ‘toilette.’ Naturally, I thought she may have been asking me instead if I needed to go the toilet or perhaps did I want some’ eau de toilette‘ (perfume). So, I reflexively responded, “non, merci” (no, thank you) and then wondered, what if she really was comparing my outfit to the toilet in some way? Not the most comforting thought on your wedding day, but when I realized that “toilette” has the following meanings:

1) refers to your total outfit

2) to freshen up as in “faire la toilette”

3) “a cabinet de toilette” (dressing table) or “mettre sa toilette” the act of getting dressed

4) the bathroom

The veil of confusion finally lifted. My mother-in-law had actually complimented me on my outfit. Who could guess that it is possible to receive a compliment using the word, toilette in French? In the end, we all had a good laugh.

Putting all jokes and similes aside for a moment, learning French has been one of the greatest challenges of my life, and at 43, by golly, that’s saying something. Having learned Spanish in high school and college, I honestly thought learning French would be a breeze. Maybe it would have been if I was younger, I don’t know. Maybe age has nothing to do with it at all, but the fact remains, it has been much harder than I’d imagined. So I continue to press on (speaking French like a precocious 3rd grader now), knowing that the reward will far outweigh the frustration some day soon. Bonne toilette, y’all (and take that any way you like ;))!

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Faux pas on aisle 4!

Thank you Google Images, I couldn’t agree more!

When thinking of shopping in Europe, one conjures images of sidewalk markets brimming with fresh fruits and veggies from the farmer’s garden. Those certainly exist and my husband and I enjoy them on Sunday afternoons. But just like in the US, there are chain stores where you get your non perishables as well. This is how I received a crash course in French grocery store etiquette.

First, please know that I’m not the kind of shopper who:

1) leaves a cart in the middle of the aisle

2) pays by check regularly and if I do, doesn’t fill in the check prior to checkout

3) invades your personal space in the checkout

4) abuses the express checkout by getting in the ‘10 items or less’ aisle with 11+ items

Admittedly, I do fancy myself as someone of at least average intellect, but the expat experience will sometimes make you think you are, as my father would say, ‘a few bricks shy of a load’ sometimes. So, I’m confessing now, that I did the unthinkable; yes, the almost unforgivable act of taking someone else’s shopping cart by accident. But before you judge me, please read on. And hopefully, just maybe, you can find it in your heart to forgive my egregious breach of shopping etiquette.

One of my favorite movies is Mr. Mom with Michael Keaton and I couldn’t help but laugh for thinking that kind of shopping disaster could never happen to me. Let me just say, be careful of what you find funny or ridiculous, because it could happen to you!

Granted, I didn’t knock fruit over or abandon a child in the cart, but the same awkwardness and cluelessness are spot on. As we do in the US and the UK, we take our carts (or trolleys for our UK friends) and mind our path while not blocking the aisles as best we can. So naturally, I did the same, keeping my path as close to the right as possible (or would it be the left in the UK?) and went about my shopping. I wouldn’t say I received dirty looks, but people curiously looked at the cart first, then at me. I didn’t understand that you don’t push your cart around all the time to each location, you instead park your cart in a general area and walk to get the other items you need, then return to your parked cart when finished. Well, didn’t get the memo, yet again. How can something as simple as pushing a cart, be so different in another country? It was when I realized my faux pas and began leaving my cart, that I unknowingly lost it! The one I returned to had the same stuff in it as I had and was in the same general area, so it must be mine. So I thought.

Getting in the checkout lane (or ‘till’ for our British counterparts), I noticed people stacking their groceries like mad onto the belt. It was at such a fast and furious pace, it looked like an actual race. Naturally, I followed suit and began to pile my items in anticipation of being next, as if I were to win an imaginary prize. If it weren’t for my husband telling me that you have to weigh and bag your own items, I would have been up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

When the clerk was ready, she began scanning my items at lighting speed, sliding them down the stainless steel chute, as I did my best to keep ahead of her by bagging at the other end, still with my eyes on the imaginary prize. Back in the US, I remember the young man who usually bagged my groceries would ask,  ‘paper or plastic, ma’am?’ In France, you bring your own bags or purchase them at the store. It’s not posted anywhere so if you don’t know,  ‘you’re just caught with your bags down.’ In the States, it would always amaze me how the baggers could quickly ascertain which items work best in the same bag and stacked them from heaviest to lightest on top and hand you your candy or gum in one fell swoop! Now, I was just cramming the stuff in the bags as fast as I could, in an effort not to hold up the line.

After the ordeal was over and it was time to return my cart, I thought; now, I can relax. Gingerly pushing the cart sideways up a slight, uphill grade (the carts have wheels that turn 360 degrees–see previous post for more irony) to its holder.  I began to take the coin out of the slot in the cart and it wouldn’t move. I pulled and pulled and still, nothing. I saw the chain and realized, ah, ha! There is a lock that clenches the coin and triggers the engaging or releasing of both the coin and chain. This [locking system] had escaped my notice upon getting the cart, as my hubby was kind enough to do it for me.

Feeling slightly empowered by my firm grasp of the obvious, I began to insert the chain into the wrong slot (the one holding the coin) for a good 30 seconds, which my friends, is a long time in ‘Cartworld’. Then, in a stroke of belated genius, I decided, maybe I should look at the other carts to see how they lock together (better late than never I suppose) and rejoiced at unlocking the mystery! The chain inserts in the back of the lock box verses where the coin is. After loading the car with my goodies (including a few surprises, like gaining some new items from the cart switch) I collapsed into the car from mental exhaustion thinking, and I’ve got to do this again next week?

Bonne courses, y’all (happy shopping)!

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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