One year, one month, and eighteen days.
That’s all most of the people in his life know about his time in Korea.
But I know he volunteered. His father had driven an ambulance in World War I and his older brother had become a doctor so he became a medic. He was responsible for the health and well-being of the men on “his airstrip” a pit-stop for planes to refuel after unloading napalm before returning to their aircraft carriers safe at sea.
Once a Korean woman brought her baby to him. As he held its limp body he realized he had no way to tell her the child was already dead.
He is dying now, and though he loves his wife, his daughter, and his god fervently it is the face of that woman slowly realizing her baby was dead that he sees every night.
And has seen every night since that day.
But, until a few months ago he had never told anyone that story. He never told anyone that coming home from combat is “living in a nightmare only worse, because in a nightmare no matter how bad it gets you wake up. And, you never wake up from coming home from combat.”
When he first got home he built a wall between himself and his experiences with alcohol. Through sheer will he overcame his addiction. He found god and he found love. He found a calling. He will be the first to tell you that he has lived not just a good life, but a rich life, a beautiful life that still moves him to tears when he reflects back on it.
What he will never tell anyone is that nothing in his life makes up for the darkness of what he experienced during his “one year, one month, and eighteen days.”
He doesn’t understand why these memories are so present now and understands even less what compels him to talk about them after a lifetime of leaving them untouched. Sometimes when his wife visits and hears us talking she shushes him, literally, and asks why he would want to waste his time remembering that.
I will not share any more of the secrets he has shared with me here. I will say he has happy stories, funny stories, the types of callow anecdotes you would expect about one’s first time away from home. Stories that make me laugh. But the stories he comes back to, the stories he needs to tell again and again are not like that. Those are the stories that when I finally say goodbye and make my way back to my care paralyze me with weeping.
Telling these stories is not therapeutic for him. They leave him feeling like his “bones are tired.” But he tells them anyways. Even when he is half-asleep I can hear him telling the stories. After a lifetime of not-telling, now he needs to speak, to share, sometimes even re-live.
He has sheltered me from a ground-assault; begged for a chance to give a young soldier penicillin instead of shipping him off to the surgeons for amputation; screamed as a plane came in too fast on his short landing strip and exploded in the jungle beyond. Then he comes back to his room, lost and shaken, impossible to comfort.
He wonders if he is a good man. He prays that his god will understand. It was combat. He did what he could. He didn’t hate anyone, but he didn’t want to die.
In my role of as an End-of-life Doula, I can only listen. I have known combat veterans- in my family, the parents of my friends, my peers. But I always been the one not told. The one, sheltered or deemed too removed to ever understand. I don’t know if every one who sees combat comes back with a part of themselves no amount of goodness can make feel better. But this man did. And so I stay present for his darkest moments.
He volunteered one year, one month, and eighteen days. But what he gave was his life. Not his mortality, cancer will take that, but his self. Because part of him never came home from Korea.
When today first became a national holiday it was to celebrate the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month. Armistice Day. The beginning of the end of a war that was supposed to end all war. Now it seems war is an inevitable part of our reality and so today represents a day when we honor all those who have served.
I can’t help but wonder if we really understand what they sacrifice.