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Leaving Private Ryan

I have nothing left from the Korean War but a diary and a camouflage helmet cover.

The diary is in a drawer somewhere and the helmet cover has been turned into a lampshade that sits on a shelf in my writing room, which my wife refers to as the Chapel, so many sermons emerge from it.

I got rid of my Marine uniform as quickly as I could because I just didn’t want any lingering connections to that part of my life, except for the camouflage helmet cover which somehow stayed with me.

There are enough images in my head and enough dreams in my nights to remind me of that war, that conflict, that police action, 50 years ago, and now there’s even a movie.

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I realize that “Saving Private Ryan” isn’t about Korea, but war is war and hell is hell and it all came flooding back as I watched the film amid a tense and silent audience.

The Second World War was history’s last great, patriotic battle, and Steven Spielberg and writer Robert Rodat made the most of it in “Private Ryan.” Every war after V-J Day was bothersome, time-consuming and even downright annoying, but old Double-U Double-U Two was, well, fulfilling.

The battle scenes in the film are about as realistic as you can get, from the terrifying confusion to the immense and drumming silences, from the roar of exploding artillery shells to the terrible screams of the dying.

But I kept wondering as I watched it all, where was Private Ex?

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That was what we called anyone whose name we couldn’t remember or didn’t want to think about, the guy among us with no special identity. Unlike a movie where major characters are pretty well defined, war is composed of a lot of grunts whose faces blend into the background. One of them was Private Ex.

He was a fat little man from Nowhere, U.S.A., who had no friends and hardly spoke to anyone. Someone said he’d delivered mail in a small town in the Midwest somewhere and had no relatives. He never got mail of his own and wasn’t included in most activities.

I remember him especially when we limped back into regimental reserve one summer day, all shot up and war-weary. He was off by himself as usual, just kind of sitting there doing nothing while the rest of us drank beer and tried hard to forget that which was not forgettable and never will be.

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We had a hospital corpsman with us who was good at hypnotizing and making his subjects act like damned fools. It was our primary form of entertainment so we asked him to hypnotize Private Ex.

Ex agreed to it because for a moment at least he was a part of something. The corpsman put him under and said when he came out of it he’d have a little candy-striped dog in his arms named Pogie. And then he snapped his fingers.

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Private Ex looked around for a moment and then began petting his imaginary dog and talking to him in loving terms. He held the dog like a mother holds a baby, radiating a warmth we’d never seen in him before.

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There were laughs all right as the candy-striped dog did tricks and fat little Ex romped around like a kid. But then someone went to grab the dog and Ex spun around and knocked him on his ass, screaming, “Don’t touch him!”

As we thought about it later, we realized that the guy probably had never owned anything in his life and that nonexistent dog was dearer to him than anything we could possibly imagine; a lonely man with a warm possession.

It got even more serious when a captain came by and, demanding that the game end, tried to approach Ex. He also got decked. The corpsman had been trying his damnedest to snap Ex out of it but nothing was working, and when he tried again, Ex ran to his tent and came out with a loaded .45.

He stood there with one hand clutching his candy-striped dog and the other holding that .45, daring us to try and take his dog. His whole life existed in that imaginary world, clutching the one thing that made him real.

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The corpsman worked for an hour and finally got Ex’s attention and brought him out of it OK. We went back to our beer in silence and Ex just sat there like he always had, looking alone.

That’s the way war is sometimes. Not just shot and shell but an awful isolation of spirit. It’s in that singularity of existence that we learn about ourselves and glance briefly into the souls of others in the raw awareness that reality provides. It’s an emptiness that lingers long after Private Ryan has gone home.

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Al Martinez’s column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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