Vets carry wars' insidious pain

I awoke last night at 4 a.m. thinking about Gonzalez. It was a conscious memory, not a dream. I could see his round, dark face and the loping, off-balance gait he had acquired humping over the mountains of Korea.

Four a.m. is a creepy time, as still as death and as black as the inside of hell. Cinelli is out of town for a week, leaving me to bumble around the house alone and deal with all of the dark things that creep around the bed.

As I lay there, I let the memories of Gonzalez re-enter my head. He was about 5 foot 10 and stocky; not overweight exactly, just broad. His laugh was loud but empty and faded quickly down the hillsides, like a last ray of light swallowed by darkness. It was a laugh without purpose and often without reason.

I know why Gonzalez was on my mind. For the past several days I've been reading about the high rate of suicide among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. An Associated Press story says that an average of 18 military veterans from all wars kill themselves each day.

Gonzalez was suffering in ways we never realized. Like the rest of us, he seldom allowed any glimpses into his soul. He was from a small town by the Rio Grande, a gruff but private kind of guy who often fell into long periods of silence. I've seen men traumatized in different ways by the shock and terror of war. Silence is one of them; the war turned inward.

I think of Gonzalez in the context of suicide because one day when we were crouched in a gully waiting for orders to take a hill, there was a gunshot in our ranks, and then another.

For a moment there was no sound and then a high, wailing cry of "Corpsmen!" Gonzalez had deliberately shot himself in the foot. He'd missed the first time, if you can believe that, but still insisted it was an accident.

As I helped dress his wound before the corpsman arrived, I knew it wasn't. There was shame hidden in a corner of his expression beyond the anguish; even in pain he couldn't look us in the eyes. We knew we'd never see him again because a foot wound was a way out of the war.

He'd be shipped back to Japan, treated and sent home, unless they determined that the wound was deliberate and then they'd court-martial him.

We heard after a few months that he'd lucked out with an honorable discharge. Gonzalez had beaten the system. But then word came through about a month after that, in a letter from his father to our company C.O. It said that Gonzalez had killed himself. The war had followed him home.

We had suspected by his long periods of silence that inner turmoil was driving him to the brink. But the irony of his suicide was pervasive. Here's a guy who makes it home after months of dodging death, settles into civilian life with a job and a girlfriend, and abruptly kills himself. It wasn't until we brought our own nightmares home that we knew why. War is an insidious disease that affects a soldier's mind even if his body makes it through the gunfire.

It locks toxic memories into the deepest parts of the brain, holding them in chambers beyond conscious thought until they explode with the horrifying suddenness of a hand thrust up from the grave.

There is no way to avoid the persistence of war when you're in one.

And when you leave the killing fields, war continues to pursue the person that had been you; it is always just beyond conscious vision, lurking in the darkness on the edges of memory. You can never completely shut it out.

A lawsuit filed in federal court by two nonprofit groups representing veterans brought the issue into the open by charging that the government isn't doing enough to prevent suicide and to provide adequate medical care for those who have fought for this country.

We all know that.

In Congress, voices are rising to spend more time and money to heal the wounds of the warriors dragging themselves and their memories home from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. While most will seem to assimilate, they will still carry the pathogenic symptoms of war's disease. Some, like Gonzalez, will end the pain with a bullet.

At 5 a.m., I arose from bed and began to write this column. The new day's first light was washing slowly through the darkness. Night was passing. A single dog barked an affirmation of life into the rising sun. There was a newness to the morning, a sense of beginning again, the possibility of another chance at life. I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes and thought of Gonzalez.

He'd had no chance at all.


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