War in California

     I came to California to fix up my old house and I found war.
     I thought I’d be sleeping on the floor of my house in Murrieta, a once-pleasant exurb of Riverside. But my old friend Fred put me up in a spare room at his place.
     As I got up to work at 4 a.m., I heard Fred shout in his sleep.
     “Help!” he screamed.
     Fred is a disabled Vietnam veteran.
     As I worked on my house that day, a young man I’ll call Larry dropped by to see if I needed help. I did. Larry can do anything – drywall, carpentry, mechanics, you name it. He appears to be in great shape – smart, physically fit, level-headed, polite.
     Larry did two tours in Iraq. He was a gunner – .50 caliber machine-gun. He graduated from boot camp on Sept. 12, 2001.
     Larry had a heart attack after he mustered out. From stress. It happened on Christmas Eve, 2008. Larry is 25.
     Here in the United States we don’t see the results of our wars. The 100,000 Iraqi dead are just a number.
     Nor, unless we are related to them, have we seen any of the 4,260 dead U.S. servicemen and women, or our 46,000 wounded.
     One reason we didn’t see them, of course, is that former President George W. Bush barred the press from seeing the bodies come home.
     In one of his last interviews in office, President Bush said he would “miss” his private visits with the parents of dead soldiers.
     But President Bush did not attend a single military funeral during his eight years in office.
     That son of a bitch.
     For the vast majority of Americans – including me – our casualties of war are as invisible as a dead Iraqi or a GI in a box.
     But Fred and Larry are casualties of war, and they’ll drag their wounds around with them for the rest of their lives.
     Fred and Larry are the lucky ones. They say so themselves.
     Fred said I should tell Larry that he qualifies for disability benefits, and that he should ask for them. I delivered the message, but Larry wanted none of it.
     “I’ve got buddies who lost arms and legs, and I’ve seen the benefits they get,” Larry said as he patched drywall. “It ain’t much. No, I got out of there with all my arms and legs and I’m thankful. I’d feel bad asking for benefits.”
     Fred was not surprised. “That just shows how badly he needs the benefits,” Fred said.
     Fred is a sweetheart of a guy, a gentle musician. He is 100 percent disabled from Vietnam. I could tell you what happened to him, but I won’t. It’s very unpleasant.
     Fred devotes most of his time to helping other veterans and fellow sufferers. He cried when I told him that Larry wouldn’t apply for benefits.
     “You know me,” Fred said. “You know my soul. I’ve killed people, Bob. I’ve killed people. And for what?”
     During the invasion of Iraq, Larry said, they killed anything that moved. They stacked up the bodies and rolled on.
     “These people that are all happy when we go to war, they don’t know what they’re asking for,” Larry said. “You wouldn’t know to look at me that I’ve been to war. But I’ll drag this stuff around forever.”
     When he returned to Iraq for his second tour two years after the invasion, Larry said, they had to account for every bullet. They were not supposed to shoot, or to shoot back, unless they could “prove” that they had been threatened. And they had better be able to prove that they shot at the right people, too.
     “It’s bullshit,” Larry said.
     Did he think that the Iraqi people liked him or hated him?
     “They were nice to your face, then they’d try to kill you the next day,” he said.
     It’s Vietnam on fast-forward.
     Larry doesn’t like Iraqis. He doesn’t trust them. He wants nothing to do with them, in Iraq or in the United States.
     That’s war: senseless death, destruction and hatred.
     In our fat, lazy ignorance, Americans don’t see that we are inflicting this upon ourselves.
     Here in bright, sunny Southern California, war is all around us. We invited it here. Come on in, Death, we said. Rah, rah, rah! Hooray, Death! Come set a spell. Come kill what’s left of our souls.

%d bloggers like this: