By Joe Ragonese
Demons, we all have our own, but the demons of war are a special kind that never go away. All veterans of war are affected by the experience, but not all are damaged by it. Those who faced the most trauma usually suffer the worst demons. It is a rather natural thing, we are raised to respect our fellow man and to treat others as we wish to be treated. The demons appear when we oppose our nature.
Killing and mutilating other humans is not something usually taught, except in warrior societies, like the Spartans or Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. The rest of us learn from youth to respect life and that of our neighbors. When combat soldiers are sent into war, all of that must be unlearned and we have to behave in ways that are opposite of our nature, and training.
The worst damaged by war seem to be those who find themselves in situations where they lose complete control of events. Man believes that he controls his environment, it is what separates us from animals; but in war, inches make the difference between life and death, not our intellect, training or education. We lose all control of our destiny. A bullet can be an inch away from our brain, or an inch inside of it. We cannot control the path of that bullet. That type of trauma dictates the demons we suffer the rest of our lives.
My uncle, a combat infantryman in the 45th Infantry Division in WWII, suffered dementia near his death. Among his last memories were those in a foxhole near the German border from France. While he lived a full and successful life, his demons never left him; only he never let on that they affected his sleep at night. Others, from other wars suffered in the same way; I’m guessing that if we could interview a Roman Legionnaire that he would recall his demons as well.
One hot and humid August day in the middle 1980s found me and another detective searching a wooded area for a kidnapped pre-teen female, and her male abductor. While members of the patrol division, aided by local law enforcement, walked the wooded area the other detective and I went to a position where the patrolmen would drive the pair to us.
Every step we took brought up a mass of mosquitos, combined with the heat and humidity, something snapped in my partner’s mind; if only for a few seconds. During those seconds, he was back in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, and the black uniformed suburban police officers were Viet Cong dressed in their black pajamas.
He saw the four walking towards us between the trees and ducked behind a fallen log. He pulled me down with him and said that he would take out the two on the left, I was supposed to kill the two on the right. It took me several harrowing seconds to convince him that we were in Chicago and not Vietnam, and the men were fellow police officers, not VC. His demons had caught up with him in the daylight, not just in his sleep.
A short while ago I was talking to a young over-the-road truck driver, and after he learned that I was a veteran, he confided in me that he is haunted by the first man he killed in Iraq. He was the .50 cal. machine gunner in a Humvee turret while his squad was blocking traffic to check for IEDs. A car approach and refused to stop. First, he fired a warning shot in front of the vehicle, and when it refused to stop, he put a short burst into the driver’s side of the car.
He explained that the top of the driver’s head was shot away, leaving the bloody mass of brains exposed; the dead driver’s eyes were open, staring at the Humvee. The trucker explained that the bloody brains looked like a bowl of spaghetti, but the staring eyes are what he sees in his dreams, each and every night. Although he was in more combat after that incident, it is that man’s eyes that stare at him in his dreams.
Demons of war, so many combat veterans suffer them silently, because no one else understands. Combat veterans either learn to live with them, or they take hold and deprive the veteran of normality in life. Every now and again those demons slip to the surface, either in someone’s dreams or, like the detective searching the woods, they control the mind; if only for seconds. Have you ever seen someone jump for cover when a car backfires, for that second that man or woman may have been back in combat jumping out of harm’s way.
This writer believes that only someone who has faced that level of danger and capriciousness of combat can understand how those demons affect a person. Too many times one hears someone tell a veteran to get over it, you’re home and safe now. They do not understand that the demons have followed the vet home. You cannot simply turn off war’s affects, no matter how much your loved one wants that to happen. So many vets remain silent, seeing their own demons and never sharing them with the public. It is why we see 22 suicides a day by veterans, it is their way of silencing their demons.
In a tragic situation at the Pathway Home, a non-profit post-traumatic stress disorder clinic within the Veterans Home of California-Yountville, a patient shot and killed three woman who were a part of the treatment team there. Afghanistan veteran, Albert Wong, 36, shot and killed Jennifer Golick, Clinical Director of Pathway Home, Christine Loeber, 48, Executive Director of the program, and Jennifer Gonzales, 29, a clinical psychologist. Wong was removed from the program for unspecified reasons by Golick, which may, or may not have triggered his murderous response. We will never know his reasons, only that he suffered from the demons of war, and they won.
This writer does not condone the murder of innocent people, and cannot excuse Wong for his murders because of his demons, I can only understand that his actions were the culmination of everything that happened in his life, including combat in Afghanistan, and that he was unable to cope with it. It was a tragedy on too many levels to state here, yet a tragedy is what it was.
War has many victims, the four dead in Yountville, California, last Friday, are the latest casualties of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yountville Mayor, John Dunbar, said it best when speaking with reporters, “We lost three beautiful people yesterday, and lost one of our heroes, who clearly had demons which resulted in the terrible tragedy we all experienced.”
To our politicians who send young men and women to war, please remember before sending our next batch of youth into harm’s way, that wars do not end with an armistice, they live forever in the lives of its airmen, marines, sailors and soldiers, and affect their loved ones in ways that we forget all too often.