In a 2004 I wrote a poem entitled, The Letter. At that time, magazine articles, Op-Ed pieces in newspapers and online were describing the growing problem of suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression triggered by the combat experiences of American troops in the Middle East. My late father, Joe Bell, had served in World War II in the Pacific and at time shared his war stories with me as he sat chain-smoking in his rocking chair. He was often sad, angry, unable to sleep and spent many nights at the American Legion and VFW halls visitings his veteran buddies. Little Joe, as he was called, had a standard story he told my brother, sister and I about why he didn't re-enlist after the war. "I was too short. Five foot three was somehow too short to serve in the Army; but it was ok for the prior three years of fighting in the South Pacific. "
Before he died he finally told me the truth. He was medically discharged due to a 'mental breakdown' at the end of the war. He never admitted anything was wrong or sought treatment. He was often paranoid that forces beyond his control had conspired to destroy his life and dreams for his family. The suffering of the current generation of wounded warriers brought back memories of Little Joe, my father, which led to the poem shown below. PTSD is nothing new, and neither is the pain experiened by our veterans and those who love them.
Returning home from a jungle war
on a troopship, three years now
past high school, catapulted into adulthood
to see things none should see
and do things none should
be forced to do.
Decapitated heads face down
in the sand,
bullet-riddled bodies rotting in the Pacific breezes
of World War II.
Over and out. GIs facing California,
Then the landmine exploded, trigged by
a letter from Mama.
Her house caught fire. Details deleted due to
Running about the ship, looking in vain
She was in fact alive, aok.
No way to confirm or confront. So his mind raced
forward and back. Faces of the dead, his buddies,
his foes, himself. Collateral damage now, an
officer, bystander with a tray of coffee, takes it in the face.
As the young man, the soldier who knew too little
and had seen too much, was hauled off to sickbay
to face his future.
A medical discharge, a burned-out home, a happy
Shell shock, combat fatigue, PTSD.
Sad-sack casualties continue to haunt us,
deployed here at home.
Sixty plus years ago, they returned by ship
Sixty-minutes ago they flew home from the Middle East.
Sixty plus years ago something in my dad's head
And right now in the desert
you can hear the ticking of the bomb
the weapons of mental destruction
what will gradually descend and then
Wounded souls coming soon
to a job site, a hospital, a jail cell, a living room
or a house of worship.