Coming Back From The War

by Lee Thorn
as told to Mary Ciofalo

This is a redemption story. Lee Thorn's story. Lee is a vietnam veteran who helped create a communal and successful effort to end the war.

        Redemption has a host of meanings, and the ones that apply to Lee are: getting or winning back; freeing from what distresses or harms; releasing from debt or blame; recovering; fulfilling a promise or pledge. Lee lost a lot in the Vietnam war. So did many others. Some lost their lives. Some lost their limbs or their sanity or their sense of purpose or their capacity to function without drugs or alcohol. Lee made it out of that time not intact, but redeemed. His is a remarkable story.

        "Coming Back From the War" is included in my book in progress on redemption. What follows are Lee's words, which I have carefully shaped into a story. The book includes many such stories told to me by people who, like Lee, have endured extreme situations and have been redeemed. I'm a psychotherapist, and I work often with people who have been tortured or raped, endured violence or been singled out for other degrading treatments. What I've noticed is that my clients often experience a deep sense of exile; they feel amputated from themselves, from family and community, from the human condition and from the Divine. Redemption ends exile. Psychotherapy helps individuals change and find wholeness. Some of the most powerful agents of change-forgiveness, mercy, atonement, surrender and grace-are usually not discussed in the therapy office. And yet these are subjects I find myself returning to again and again with my clients. Even though Lee doesn't mention most of these subjects by name, almost all of them play a part in his story.

        -Mary Ciafolo

        I grew up with my two younger brothers in Kansas City, Missouri, the first twelve years of my life. When I was five we moved to a new house one block from a Methodist church that we went to, and that church became my refuge. Some of the people that worked there watched over me; that's how I always felt. I went there any time I wanted to. I went over there when I felt too tense.

        When I was six or seven I learned about racism. I lived in a segregated community and went to a segregated school. Everything was segregated in l949. My mother had a black maid who came in once a week. We lived right across the street from school and I had just learned to ride my bike. I used to ride it around the school yard in the summer. This maid brought her niece to live with her and she was six years old, too. I had some sense that I was supposed to feel that this six year old girl was below me, but I also went to church. I learned there that Jesus loved me. I wasn't taught that Jesus loved me because I was a white boy. The church's teachings just didn't fit for me with the values that I heard about when my parents talked about 'niggers'. I chose the values I heard about in church.

        So this little girl and I played all day. That was fine. As long as we were in the house my mother didn't care. Then I took her across the street to the schoolyard and I taught her how to ride my bike. That night my parents scolded me. They told me I had done a terrible thing. It was okay to play with this girl, but not in public. That just broke my heart. They said, "We're going to teach you about this." They took me to what they called 'nigger town'. They said, "See all those yards. See those people. See how they live." I just bawled. I couldn't believe that they talked that way about people. From then on I fixated on justice, particularly racial justice. When I came back from Vietnam I had the same focus. I dealt with that loss the same way I had with my childhood ones; I focused on justice.

        By the time I was l2, I had checked out from my family, pretty much stopped talking to them. I usually walked out, Christmas or Thanksgiving, and went to my friend's house. I was unhappy and it was amazing that I didn't do worse things. The one thing I had all those years was the church. I had guidance and a sense of spirituality. I thought a couple of times of going into the ministry.

        I went to U.C. Berkeley in pre-med. I would do erratically well, but then I found booze which I thought was great and I got a semester full of F's because I just stopped showing up. I left school and was going to get drafted, so I joined the Navy reserves on a two-year program.



   Being a Vet
   by Lilly Adams

   Warner Books, 1991

        My attitude was so bad that I kept getting into trouble, but I was smart enough that I was always getting out of it. I finally got in enough trouble with my boss that he ended up putting me on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ranger which was scheduled to operate off the coast of Vietnam.

        I was a clerk, running a ready room, working with a bomber squadron. I was the communications person between the pilots in the ready room and the rest of the communications system, so I was the guy who had to tell the pilots when one of them ate it. That was my first job, but I got in trouble again and so they put me on the emergency bomb loading crew as punishment. They didn't train anyone and it was very dangerous. I just went up there and did it. It was OJT (on the job training). The flight deck itself is the most dangerous place per square yard of any location in most wars. People would get blown off or get burned up or get seriously injured in some way.

        I had the extra duty because I had a mouth. I was the only one in my unit loading bombs. I wasn't antiwar, I was just being a jerk. It was l966 and I wasn't saying the war was bad, I was just saying, "I don't like the Navy." My duties included showing the squadron movies of the air strikes, and cleaning officers' heads. I was on the flight deck loading bombs when a plane missed the landing deck and went in the water. The canopy didn't open, so I saw them drown. That was horrible because I watched it happen and nobody could do anything, and it was slow. When I worked the ready room we lost three people and a full complement of planes in the bomber squadron. When I first got there I started talking to the pilots who were college guys like me. I got close to one guy who was a little bit older than me. He had to eject in the Gulf of Tonkin off of Hanoi, and I was on the radio following it when it happened. He got caught in his parachute cords-"shroud lines" in Navy lingo-and pulled underwater and drowned. After that I didn't want to get to know anybody anymore. That's when I really started closing down. It took me years to open up again.

        On a carrier various supply ships carrying ammo or food or other supplies came alongside and were connected to the carrier with thick hemp lines. I saw a guy that I'd known for three or four days get caught in a line, and it cut him in half at the waist.

Evil is an abstraction that enables you to look at someone and not see the person. Not see their essence.

        The turning point for me was the bombing of Haiphong. This was a big operation; basically every available plane in Thailand, South Vietnam, Guam, and on the ocean was used to hit the oil depot and refinery in the large port city of Haiphong. It was the first time they targeted a city for such a large operation. We hit it. I loaded bombs, then I showed the top secret movies of it afterwards. I remember feeling utterly shocked. I feel my body numbing now as I try to talk about it. Two things struck me at once. One was the fact that only one out of ten bombs was hitting the refinery. The second was the firestorms. The refinery was full of huge storage tanks of gasoline and fuel oil. When it was hit the explosion was like an atomic bomb mushroom of fire. But what happened around that was an intense pattern of bombs which created a wave of fire that whooshed away from the refinery and outward through the city.

        Before I saw that film of the bombing of Haiphong I had always been able to feel that what we were doing with the war in Vietnam was a necessity. We were protecting lives, or the bombing would help to shorten the war. I could believe that stuff. But then I saw what I saw in Haiphong.

        What we were doing was on a scale and with an intensity that had never been seen before in the history of mankind. Even if we were right, it was still an evil. Evil is any abstraction that enables you to look at someone and not see the person, not see their essence. In the military, you're trained to do that. When you do it on the scale that we did it in Vietnam, and if you're able to see it, (and I guess that most people aren't) it's just too much. If you can see it then you cannot deny your participation in evil.

        I saw two evils in Vietnam. One was killing the people and the other was killing the land. I showed movies of some areas so pock marked with bomb craters that they looked like the surface of the moon.

        To me, to be evil, you don't have to kill, you just have to not see. To kill is not necessarily evil, as far as I'm concerned. Evil is about not being present, not being able to form relationships to what exists. It's not about evil people, it's about doing evil. The people who dropped those bombs were not necessarily evil people, they were just doing evil things at that moment. That's where people got very confused about Vietnam veterans. They knew that evil things were going on in Vietnam. They could not believe that people like themselves could do evil things. They had never been in that position.

        What I knew was that in the moment when I was participating with those bombs I felt like another Hitler. It was very difficult for me to realize that I had gotten to that place because I had spent my time in the military denying it. Most people that I was with seemed to be able to do what they were told and separate from it. I couldn't.

        One other event that happened got me turning. The priest and the minister on the carrier, over the radio, blessed the bombs. That's when I got turned off. I stopped going to church after that for fourteen years.

        I became anti-war. There were other people on the ship that were anti-war. We talked. Two months after that our ship came back home. I was really damaged. I didn't know yet about the effect of what I had seen, or the extent of the damage for years and years and years, but I knew that I was extremely angry, and I felt used.

        So again, justice. I was back on the Berkeley campus two weeks after I got out of the Navy in September, 1966. I started organizing within six months. We called ourselves Veterans for Peace until 1971 when we merged with and took on the name of an East Coast group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The first big meeting of VVAW on the West Coast was at my house. We started out with five of us in the beginning. By the time I stopped doing it in 1974, our West Coast organization had gone from those five people to thirty thousand. We organized lots of guys, and produced events and protests and marches.

        We did things like capture the Vietnamese Consulate in 1971, at the same time that the Statue of Liberty was taken on the East Coast. It was all nonviolent. It was done to get visibility in the press, to directly link the puppet government in South Vietnam to Washington's horrible policy, and to get people together to help each other.

        We were also doing things with active duty guys all over the place. If they got in touch with us, we'd help them get lawyers if they got busted for fragging, or for organizing. We also trained organizers who were active duty to work with other active duty people in every service.

        I helped the guy who organized Academy graduates-guys who had been through one of the military academies and were officers, but were on their way out. We also let people know about a lot of covert things that we had information about. For example, the CIA's involvement with heroin in Laos and Vietnam.

        It got very organized. In fact, by l972 every military unit of any size in Vietnam had an insurrection. Not just one guy saying, "I'm not going to do it," but people working together saying, "I'm not going to do it." In short, mutiny on a large scale.

        In the summer of l972, during the Republican Convention in Florida where Nixon got renominated, we held The Last Patrol, which was four convoys of mobilized Vietnam veterans converging in Florida at the convention. We were trained in military maneuvers, which was a good thing because a lot of police didn't even want to see us. On the East Coast every time a convoy went by a military base, they'd go on it. They'd be welcomed. The guards would open the gates and the convoy would drive onto the base, and they'd get applause from the barracks all the way through.

        The organizing and resistance was a heart movement that in fact succeeded. We didn't realize it, partly because of drugs and alcohol and partly because we were very young. And in a sense we didn't succeed because people were still getting killed, and our measure of success was, all our soldiers out of Vietnam and no more killing. In order to do that work with that intensity, with that amount of energy and emotion and strength and community and brains and all the rest, we worked with a crazy kind of fervor. There were a lot of people just like me doing it, and all of us were pretty nuts. You can't maintain that energy for a long time. You can do it for a couple of years when you are young.

        So this is where it ties into redemption. Our perspective in those days was, by and large, coming from a heart place. There were some guys who were in it from a head tripping ideology. But for all of us the objective was to stop the killing of people who we identified with as if they were us, as if we were all pieces of the same body. They were the American guys who were still in Vietnam. We wanted to get them the hell out. We were willing to do whatever it took. We restricted ourselves to non-violence. If we had to overthrow the government to meet our objective, then we would overthrow the government. We didn't want to necessarily; it was just too much work. Actually we didn't want to be doing any of the things we were doing.

        At one point the national organization had 65,000 members. At the height of the war there were probably 650,000 soldiers in Nam. Our organization had enough people, we were well networked and well organized in a very anarchic guerrilla way.

        There's a redemption aspect to what we did. On one level it was about guilt for what we had done. But it was more, in my case anyway, a real feeling that things had to change. I wanted that war to bloody end, because it hurt too much. It was like the racism in my childhood; it gave me a place to put all my rage and use it constructively instead of just destroying myself or somebody else.

        We were the most revolutionary group in the country. There's no two ways about it. There was mutiny in Vietnam, there was mutiny on all the bases here. The government was so scared of us that we are in the Watergate tapes, and Nixon himself was involved in the repression of our organization. The size of the oppression was part of the reason why people didn't hear much about us. Also a lot of what we had to say and a lot of what happened to us was unbelievable. When it was in the paper people didn't believe it because it was so far outside of their regular experience. When we talked about the heroin in Laos and Vietnam, people just wouldn't believe it. Although it was reported, it took five years for that story to get fully out.

        We did Winter Soldier investigations all over the country. The name comes from a Patriot writing from Valley Forge about the soldiers who stayed in the Revolutionary War during the hardest part, the winter. In the investigation, vets told about what they had done and witnessed. They were always extreme things. Guys would say, "I dropped this guy out of this airplane." "I did this kind of torture." "We bombed this place." "We shot these women." "These children." "These babies." Just flat told it. A lot of these guys would have loved to have been prosecuted as war criminals, because it would have opened stuff up. We got publicity around the first Winter Soldier Investigation in Detroit, but we had a hard time getting that publicity because people just couldn't believe what we were telling them.

        Eventually we got taken over, mostly by exhaustion. The national organization got taken over by the Revolutionary Communist Party. As soon as that happened, the membership went down 90% in one year, and it never regrew. The network is still there though. There are still guys around whose homes I could go stay at no matter what, and I would do the same for them.

        Six months after we started organizing VVAW out here, I met Van Todd. He was just out of the service and he was having problems. Within six months of when we started, he committed suicide. It was really a shock to us because it was one thing to be mourning the guys that were still overseas, but it was another to have someone who made it home kill himself! It reminded us that the war was still going on here, as well as in Vietnam. We knew we had a problem with the vets who had come home. Every week we got somebody out of jail who had done something stupid, and just about every week we would have to talk somebody down off a drug overdose, or get involved in some really weird life-threatening situation. It was incredibly intense because at the same time we are doing very effective political work, at the same time we were taking tremendous heat from the government, and at the same time we were all emotional wrecks because nobody knew what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was and we were trying to help one another alone.

        A lot of people wouldn't speak to us. We knew too much, way too much, not just about the war but about things in general. We were active in Wounded Knee when the feds went up against the Native Americans, we were active in Cairo, Illinois where poor people in public projects barricaded themselves in against their city government as protest to the poor conditions they were subjected to. We brought caravans of food and went through the police lines. Because our reputation, well deserved, was that we were nuts, a lot of times the cops wouldn't mess with us. Most of the guys at Wounded Knee were vets, and a lot of white vets and black vets backed them up. These stories have not come out yet. Sooner or later they are going to. It was a short period of time. It was a very intense time. Nixon was masterful in that he was able somehow to keep the country together in those days, because we were very close to civil war.

        In 1974 I helped write the legislation for the Vet Centers. We started working with Post Traumatic Stress. The Vet centers were it initially, because hardly any vet would have anything to do with the Veterans Administration hospitals because they had injured so many friends. The idea of the Vet Centers was peer support, peer counseling. At the same time there was a fight to get the psychological establishment to recognize PTSD so we could get some treatment for our people.

        But that was the kind of world that we lived in in the 70's, where people who had been damaged or hurt in the war had no place to go. Also, we represented the dark side for many people of our generation. We had a tendency to be alienated anyway, because all veterans of all wars are somewhat alienated. They just see so much of what other people don't normally see or want to know about. But in our case we were in a double bind. We got more stress instead of less when we got home. It didn't make any difference whether the people we met were liberals or conservatives, every one had something critical to say about us. Liberals called us "baby-killers;" conservatives called us "losers" or just walked away.




   as quoted in

        I dropped in and out of Vet stuff for most of the 70's and 80's. I had lots of jobs, lots of alcohol. I married and divorced; married and divorced. Finally, 11 years ago I got clean and sober.

        I still didn't know much about myself. Two years sober I went into therapy with a woman in Berkeley. She took me on for about four years. I told her I wanted to talk about Vietnam. She said, "When we get to that point you should go see someone else." She didn't feel confident talking with me about it. So we talked about childhood stuff for four years. It was very helpful.

        Six years ago I applied for disability for PTSD. I started going to group therapy at Swords to Ploughshares, a nonprofit vet self-help group. I was usually the only guy that wasn't homeless in the group. It was good; it helped me.

        In 1990 one of my mentors died and I was really sad. I started thinking about rituals and grief. What I wanted to do was a mourning ritual for Vietnam. I knew it could crack something inside of me, something that needed to open. I also wanted to do it for other vets. We did it in l992 with Matthew Fox, a theologian; Robert Bly, a poet; Malodome Some, an African shaman; Michael Meade, a mythologist; and a cast of hundreds.

        We held it at Fort Mason here in San Francisco. Thirteen hundred people attended. There were three altars. One was built by a woman who had spent three years in Vietnam as a correspondent. One was built by a Vietnam era vet. The third was built by a Turkish civilian, a woman who was accidentally disabled in a Kurdish bombing in Istanbul.

        The three altars were carried in by vets and placed in front. Behind the stage was a large scrim that represented a hillside with openings in it with skeletal figures in the openings. Michael Meade opened by talking about the context, and ceremonies, and evoking the spirits of the ancestors to help us with this activity. Robert Bly started the ceremony, working to create a sense of anger. Some people screamed out their anger.

        The second piece was about sadness, lament, and tears. Michael Meade led that section, reading poetry and talking about his own experience as a Vietnam era vet. He had everybody hold each other's shoulders, and then we all sang with him, "Johnny We Hardly Knew Ya." That's when I started feeling the sense that I was really looking forward to -of the connectedness of people. There were peace activists in front of us, people in their seventies. The woman reached back and rubbed my shoulders. We were all very supportive of each other. They knew I was a veteran, and I knew they weren't veterans. That kind of thing seemed to be going on around the room. That was the height of the connectedness in the event, and it was in sorrow. There were a lot of tears.

        The third piece was about reconciliation and it was done by Matthew Fox. Not everybody was ready for this one, but the reconciliation part was important for me. People were given flowers to leave at the altars, and were invited to go on a walk to a nearby beach. As we went we sang a Zulu lament that Michael Meade taught us. At the beach right at the edge of the ocean was a wooden altar and we all deposited our lit candles on it. It was getting stormy. There was no moon and it was totally dark. One of the people who had led the ritual said, "If there are people that you want to particularly remember, just say their name." Many, many names were said. I mentioned the guy that had committed suicide, Van Todd. I really had been looking to let Van go. I don't think I've said his name since then until now.

        Then the altar caught on fire. It was a huge blaze. Bly said, "I think this is the end." Just as he said that the skies opened up and torrential rain fell. It put out the altar and basically it put us out, too. I had on a suit and I was soaked through the underwear. When that happened I felt, "Well, we did it."

        The immediate effect on me was I quit my job within a month and went on disability. I started working very intensively on mourning all the other events in my life that were incomplete. Many of those had to do with deaths of friends and family members that were not war related. And not just deaths, all the losses. I wasn't immobilized or depressed at that time, just very sad. The psychiatrist I was seeing said, "You don't have to quit your job and walk away, you can do it with some grace." I got help-I didn't stop eating, I didn't drink, I didn't drug-I kept in touch with people and I spent full time dealing with myself for about a year. At the end of that time I went back to school. I also started working out and taking care of my body for the first time ever.

        I had two very close friends die this year. I felt more able to deal with those deaths in a responsible way, in a way that served me, that was respectful of the family, and that honored those people, than ever before.

        Because the first traumas happened to me when I was so young the redeeming of myself is not so much getting back something that I lost as it is creating something that never existed. I'm discovering more about who I am in the world, and in my relationships-how I act in the world and how I connect. I spent so many years being a professional angry vet. I'm not as angry as I used to be. I'm not as sad, at least in this moment, as I used to be. For me the redeeming has to do with my family, my wife and my children. I like these people a lot, I can actually have quality relationships with each of them. It's great for them and it's great for me. The other side of it is I accept my limitations. I have severe post traumatic stress. I have a hard time getting to sleep. I have horrible nightmares. I wake up early. Occasionally I have flashbacks and I have extreme startle reactions. I have the whole kit. I accept that fact. It's like any other disability. The issue is not debilitation. The issue is improving my quality of living.

        For a long, long time I've tried to live my life as a prayer. I try to act my prayer. This works for me. It works better and better as I let go of my resentments and losses one by one.

Lee Thorn writes, teaches MBA students at the University of San Francisco, and plays, usually not in that order. He is married, helps raise three sons and attends St. Gregory's.


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