Sunday, May 17, 2009

Winter Soldier Southwest follow-up: Together Then, Together Again...

40 years of tears and one Winter Soldier
Mickey Krakowski
USMC 1967-71
RVN 10/68 to 11/69
It’s strange how some things in life fall together at most appropriate times. This year marks the 40th anniversary of my tour in Vietnam. The very recent reconnection with my brothers from VVAW after a 35 year lapse. The culmination of my struggles with the VA dealing with compensation and medical treatment and finally a reconnection with a woman I loved, that endured my deployment to Vietnam, that had in her possession a 100 letters I wrote while away. All these things felt to me as if they were predestined and that they have a purpose. I hope what I gained from the Winter Soldier gathering in Pasadena, held this past May 9, helps me heal and gives me purpose to continue the struggle against war.

A week before the conference I had a call from Jan Rhuman. He invited me to take part in the Winter Soldier Southwest and requested that I pick up, a friend from way back, in southern Colorado. I left for my journey on Friday May 8, I had to drive 170 miles to Durango to pick up a former friend and fellow revolutionary brother I haven't seen in 35 years, a fellow Marine, (Alfredo Cabrera….then Che and now Calixto). Calixto and I had 5 minutes to greet each other before we jumped into the car and drove almost a 1000 miles to Pasadena (we were so lost in our conversation that we actually got lost). The long trip seemed much shorter than it should have been as I reacquainted myself with my comrade and discussed politics as we always had. It’s always good to rekindle relationships that have a history in political and personal struggles.

We arrived early in the AM Saturday to rooms awaiting us at a hotel near the Pasadena College venue. The morning came early as Jan Rhuman (the perpetual VVAW organizer) had us up soon after 8 AM. He helped set up a Winter Soldier forum at Pasadena Community College along with Wendy Barranco of IVAW. Winter Soldier Southwest involved VVAW, IVAW and AVAW (Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan). There were also other groups that spoke, Military Families Speak Out and Gold Star Mothers (mothers who lost sons and daughters). VVAW was to start the event and supply security for the day (keeping those right wingers at bay if they came to disrupt the proceedings). Jan had assembled a crew of VVAW and VFP volunteers to guard the conference.

Jan, Calixto and myself were the first to address the auditorium about our experiences in the Vietnam war and how the conduct of war has remained unchanged throughout the years.

Jan started with the history of American conflicts since Vietnam and some of the history of the anti war movement and VVAW. Included were a number of wonderful quotes to embellish his speech. Calixto spoke next about his combat experiences as a leader of Marines and some of the events he had witnessed. His testimony was emotionally charged and at a few points he had succumbed to tears. I had to exert all the strength to keep reducing myself into a sobbing blob. My turn came next. This was the first time I ever had to speak to an audience of strangers, I was incredibly nervous and had difficulty trying to say what I wanted. I tried to speak of the unseen wounds that warriors bring home with them. I tried to explain about the frustration of a system (the VA) that disavows responsibility for our care. I felt my delivery inadequate, possibly because of my desire to not fall apart on the stage. I think now of what I could have said and hope for another chance to unburden my soul.

I wished I would have had the courage to tell what was really in the back of my mind. The pain I sometimes relive over and over during the years. A feeling of helplessness and rage.. I was a radio operator for a Battalion Landing Team 2/7 operating off of the LPH 10 Tripoli for the first half of my tour in Vietnam. The ship held 1000 marines and was capable of steaming anywhere along the coast and off load it contingent of Marines as needed for support or for operations. I directed air support, artillery fire, food and ammo drops and medivacs.

The medivac experience was my lowest point in my time in Vietnam. It had nothing to do with killing but of watching death occur. I had been out on a number of operations and had never experienced more than a few medivacs in a day.. Between November 20 and December 9 of 68’ we went out on an operation called Meade River. The purpose of the combined action was to move the inhabitants of nearly 141 small hamlets in the largest of the County Fair operations to date. We received incredible resistance along our route and paid a high toll for the numbers we killed. 500 marines wounded killed in a two week operation. We had only 1000 KIAs and POWs to show for it. A very high price to pay.
On one particular afternoon we had been caught in a cross fire and had a high number medivacs of wounded and dead. I tried to make myself useful between incoming choppers. I helped in any way I could, triaging and holding the hands of the severely wounded. I held the hand of a new guy in our company as he lay dieing. I listened to what he wanted to tell me, all the time telling him everything will be alright. He told me things to tell his family, friends and loved ones. I didn’t have time to write these things down. He died while I sat at his side and I felt incredibly helpless that I couldn’t get him on a chopper and to the hospital for treatment of his wounds. He passed away before I even knew his name, my promise of relaying his wishes an impossible task. His life slipped away on a muddy rice paddy dike slick with blood. I was mourning his loss, my helplessness in aiding him and my failure in helping him survive. A deep rage started at the corps of my being, I was going to extract revenge any way I could.. The months that followed were filled with my anger and torment of my victims. The phrase we used was that “We leave no witnesses!”.

The operation was a horrific experience, I witnessed the inhumanity of war and our failure to serve the people we were supposed to protect. There were further events that occurred during that operation. We had difficulty moving some of the handicapped citizens. Many of the old men and women were unable to walk and carry possessions. It was expected of us to help out. What we chose to do instead was to turn the duties over to the ARVN forces accompanying us to this village. Rather that carry their own, they chose to take four of the old men into a hut and killed them, just to save time.

As I listened to the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan warriors tell their stories, my memories came flooding back. The story was the same for most of us, the background a desert not a jungle for the latter. Many wept at the podium and in the audience, I wept with them too. The soldiers let loose a torrent of stories each one more horrifying than the last. The stories of torture, murder and personal acts of revenge. Stories continued of watching comrades die and the rage that followed. A simple explanation of my PTSD is the things we do, not in defending our country or the country we liberate, but how we exact revenge for loosing friends in the field, and in the process, unleash an uncontrollable rage and vengeance. We are soldiers and we react to situations without process.

The thing that the audience could probably never understand is that these recollections aren’t just words expressing what soldiers feel. To a war veteran they are also combined with the sights, sounds and smells that coincided with each event. The smell of burning huts, the cries of mothers, sons and daughters mourning lives lost before their eyes. The screams of the interrogated as young American soldiers ask unanswerable questions in English. The sounds of gunfire and artillery nearby, thumping of helicopters and the attitude that the only way to survive was to waste and raze everything in our path..

The conference continued when MFSO spoke next. They all suffered the fear of an eventual knock on the door and expectation of the two soldiers outside bringing them bad news. Families of deployed soldiers suffer their own PTSD and continue to live the horror as they watch their children, after their return, sinking into drug and alcohol abuse and self destructive, violent behavior. They are driven to support their children’s choice of entering the service of the United States and live in constant fear of how it affected their children

The last to speak were the Gold Star Mothers, women who lost children. I couldn't attend because I knew I had left Vietnamese mothers without their sons. I had souvenirs to prove it, I collected ID‘s of the dead.. I could only imagine what it would feel like to lose a child far to early in life.

On my return drive home, Calixto, a Nuevo York, Puerto Rican, claims to have healed himself of his PTSD through his own beliefs in spirituality and meditation. He asked me if I believed him when he said he was cured, my answer was immediately and unequivocally, NO! I gave him the “Look“ over the top of my sunglasses. I have no doubt that he too would question his rehabilitation.. He never argued in his own favor, he just patted me on my shoulder and we continued the drive. We talked till we were both too hoarse, regaling in the good old days, talking revolution and telling war stories, we both cried together. We both wondered the same things, did any of our demonstrating and revolutionary work serve a purpose? Did we change any government policy? Not.

Did we help someone decide not to join the military and become a government pawn? Yes we did. Did we focus attention on our returning warriors and their immediate needs? Yes! It's frustrating we could do no more back in the 70‘s, and yet, we still wish we could do it again. I dropped him off in Durango, CO and after a couple of hours sleep continued the final leg of my journey home.

I leave behind my own trail of tears, in my lone drive over the mountain passes. Driving alone in my car I was able to express the grief I feel for all my fallen brothers. I cried while agonizing the burden the surviving warriors have to carry on for the rest of their lives. I also came to realize that the older we get the more we realize the impact we leave in our wake and how it will affect us until we are gone.

The words I write are 2 dimensional on paper, they don’t have the 3D effect that the mind produces when memories flood back. I wish I could just make them go away, I wished I had served not only my country better but that I had helped save an oppressed people. Instead my memories are filled with the oppression I delivered, the lack of compassion I could have afforded the frightened people of South Vietnam. War is Hell and many, including myself, have to contend with the fires of shame and regret every day of our lives. Our purpose now is to make others realize that our conduct in wars need to be addressed, our returning brothers in arms need care and support and that things need to change so history isn’t constantly repeated.

For this winter soldier the war never ends and the memories flood back with every news report and newspaper article. The truth is never completely revealed, only the soldier knows the truth.


Anonymous said...

I will never know how veterans of unjust wars can go through what they have, and then turn around 30, 40 years, or maybe even 2 weeks later, and still have the faith and courage to to reach out and still try and make things better for all of us. Thank you for this Mickey, Calixto, Willie, the infatigable Jan (the list goes on), for reminding us that history is important, that there life-long consequences for sending our children to fight wars for profit and power, and that the human spirit can rise above the worst personal catastrophies and still come out singing. Thank you for your service and welcome home. Love you dearly, Di

Anonymous said...

I was the 18 year old girl, madly in love with you in 1969, who continued to rally for you, writing letters nearly everyday, devouring each one of the letters I received from you in return. And what precious letters they were, Mickey. How could I do anything but hold onto them for the past 40 years? They told a story, a very sad story of a young, scared soldier. I'm so very sorry you had to endure those atrocities of war and so glad that you are able to rise above the horror of it and share your story now. I'm so proud of you for reaching out to our new soldiers returning to us. You do indeed have a very meaningful purpose in life now. Thank You. Love Always, Joyce

marinemomof3 said...

I was a participant of this event and I'm not known as a woman without words. I know these guys will attest to it at least :-)

I still after one whole week can not adequately put into words what Winter Soldier Pasadena meant to me.
My thoughts in my mind just keep on running full speed. The only panel that I had the honor of watching was the VVAW panel, except the panel for Military Families Speak Out, of which I was on.
I did not have the courage to listen to the IVAW panel. After I listened to an interview on Youtube, I was satisfied with my selfish decision. My son is in the Marine Corps, along w/his ex wife, my daughter in law and my on in law is also a Marine. IVAW Veterans are just way too close to my reality for me even to summon a few moments of bravery.
I am truly ashamed that I did not even say hello to one Gold Star member. Does anyone understand that? It is like when you hear someone has cancer or another illness, you think to yourself even though you know better, 'will I catch it'? So to that brave and courageous panel, please accept my apologies and know that someday I will approach you and hug you and cry with you, but I can't do that just right now.

Winter Soldier Pasadena for me was the most electric day of my life (that includes 2 marriages and giving birth to 2 children) and the most heartbreaking. The only word I can come up with is POWERFUL.

Many cried that day and for days later, myself included. I have three very brave, courageous, dynamic, SURVIVORS that I have ever met. I am so proud to have them all as friends. I would not trade one of them, even meeting my new friend Calixto for the first time.

I was honored to be with another hero of mine that day, Carlos Summers. A strapping young man who served with the 82nd, my brothers old unit from back in '65 to '67. I adopted Carlos that week end, and was able to get him hooked up with a tall blond outside working the tabling. Carlos, you just hit up your new adopted mom, day or night, I'm here for you.

In closing all I can say is that they are all my HEROS. Luminaries
in my eyes.

I will close with the words of the 'faithful' above "Thank you for your service and welcome home. Love you dearly, Dawn

Anonymous said...

I feel proud to have known you and see the long way home to which you have arrived. Life's travels never end nor does one's experiences. The 18 year old girl today is still that wonderful now woman! So glad you can share your life with us & all who need to hear it. Warmly, Eleanor