I have learned the hard way that families who have never had a military member have no understanding of what being deployed is all about. To those who have a deployed member or have paid the ultimate sacrifice, I salute you. You are what makes this country free and you are the ones that understand what the U.S. flag means to those who fight for it. Thank you!
Now I am going to share a longer piece, one I wrote for a current writing class. A young female classmate told me I shouldn’t have used a colloquial word like firefight, she had no idea what it meant. I was more sad than angry……….
A Guide to Peaceful Sleep
I was nineteen years old leaning shirtless against the wheel of a blown up jeep trying to light my cigarette. My hands were shaking so much I couldn’t do it. A dirty older soldier, maybe twenty-three, came out of the bushes and dropped beside me. The crease lines around his eyes and the dirt under his nails said he had been in Viet Nam a while. Our body odor almost masked the smell of death, smoking vehicles and burned artillery shells.
He held a flame to the end of my smoke. “Your first firefight?”
“Yeah. Are they all this bad?”
“Sorry to say, this was a mild one. I’ve been in some that lasted days.”
“Is it ever quiet?”
“If it is, you know there’s trouble coming.”
“You been here long?”
“My second tour. I volunteered to stay.”
“Why would you do that? From what I’ve seen so far I’ll be a one and done, if any of us even make it out of here.”
“I was looking forward to going home and just before the end of my first tour I got a letter saying my girl had married somebody else. I knew my Dad didn’t approve of the war and I didn’t want to face his questions about what I have had to do here. I figured I might as well stay and try to do some good.”
I looked at the guy sideways and asked, “There’s good to be done here?”
“Are your hands still shaking?”
When I realized my hands were still I must have gotten a surprised look on my face.
It was payment enough for the guy. He continued, “As far as the war goes, I don’t know if any of us are doing any good. I made it my mission to help the replacements adjust by letting them in on a secret another guy told me when I first arrived.”
“And that would be?”
“Sleep is hard to get here. Some tense rest in between adrenaline rushes will have to keep you going. When you get the chance to relax concentrate on a place or time when you felt completely safe and it will help shut off the sounds and smells. You get what I mean?”
“I think so.” I took a drag. “The summer I spent with my grandmother comes to mind. At night I slept under a quilt she had made that had fan shapes and the wedges of the fans were made with all the different fabrics she had used over the years. She’d sit and tell me what she had made from each fabric and for whom. I learned about my family from those stories. A lot of things about my Mom when she was a girl.”
An artillery shell went overhead and we both flinched.
The older soldier continued, “That’s exactly what I mean. When you close your eyes, you imagine that colorful quilt and your grandmother’s voice. It’ll help your brain relax so you can get some half way decent rest. ”
“Can I take that to the bank?”
“Can’t guarantee it.” He stood up, and walked out of sight while field dressing his filter.
He left so quickly I had to call after him. “Thanks.”
The first chance I got, I wrote my grandmother and asked if she still had that quilt. I told her I would like have it, no matter what shape it was in. A few weeks later, which seemed like more than a lifetime to me, I got a letter back. Grandma said she would make sure I got the quilt and also wrote all her memories of that summer. I read that letter so often, it started to fall to pieces.
I never saw that guy again. I’m not sure he wasn’t an angel. I shared his advice with anyone who would listen and I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Nam.
Today that quilt is on a chair next to my bed. When I can’t go to sleep because I’m still questioning why I got to come home and my buddies didn’t, or the vivid, noisy nightmares wake me, I reach out and hold on to it. I concentrate on the family stories it displays and wait for my grandmother’s loving, soothing voice to take over in my head.