Wednesday, April 28, 2010

One Upmanship

I’ve been toying with the idea of getting involved in a veterans’ organization. The last 5 years of my counseling career I worked with veterans. I became very close to many of my clients and with a few I remained friends after our counseling relationship was over. I miss those friendships. I was over at our community laundry the other day and noticed a man wearing a US Army cap. I told him I had been in the Army also and we got to talking. He was a Vietnam vet like me. I asked him where he was in Vietnam and what he did over there. He told me he was in Armor and that except for a few times back in the rear, he was out in the bush for his entire tour. He also told me that he was injured and shot at a lot. He was informative about the local groups and gave me some good suggestions for my need to be around other veterans.
But, his telling me about how hard he had it and how much danger he was in stirred up a familiar uneasy feeling inside me. When I told him our base camp received incoming mortars and rockets. He countered with, “But it’s different when the enemy is specifically shooting at you.” I had the urge to counter and tell him that I was shot at plenty of times too, but I didn’t. If I had, he probably would have said he was shot at more times or who knows what.
I had a client I’ll call Ted. At the age of 18 he was gung-ho and joined the Marines. He wanted to get into the action and especially become one of the brotherhood of combat Marines. After boot camp, despite his protesting, he was sent to cook school. He tried to get out of it, but that’s what the Marine Corps needed at the time so he was stuck. He was told he could get out of it later. He was sent to Vietnam and stationed in Quang Tri up by the DMZ. He worked in the mess hall as a cook. Even though the base camp was close to the beach area, there were no facilities like a PX or R&R facilities. It was a very dangerous place. Being so close to North Vietnam, the enemy routinely fired artillery and lobbed rockets into the base camp. He said almost on a daily basis he had to drop whatever he was doing and run for the bunker. The mess hall, being a primary structure where large numbers of Marines gathered, was specifically targeted by the enemy.
Ted said the other Marines constantly complained about the food and often blamed him. So instead of being one with the “brothers” he felt put down and unappreciated. He took a course to become a helicopter door gunner in order to get out of the mess hall and into the action, but when he put in for it he was denied, He finished his tour as a cook, came home with a serious case of PTSD and got out of the Marines even though he had planned to make a career of it.
After working with him for over a year in individual sessions, I suggested he enter one of the groups. I argued that he would find that veterans in the groups are accepting of each other and I thought that his feeling part of a group would help with his deep feelings of alienation from other veterans, especially Marines. Finally after a bit of persuasion he agreed and attended one of my groups. We began the group with routine introductions which consisted of your branch of service, where you were stationed and what your job was. This was hard for Ted because of his fear of being put down by other veterans. He did a good job of introducing himself as we had practiced. The only other Marine in the group introduced himself as a rifleman, said he was out in the field his whole time in country, and that he was hit with shrapnel blinding him in one eye, and then he looked right at Ted and said, “When we needed a break from our maneuvers, we used to take R&R at your base camp.” Ted didn’t say anything for a few moments and then erupted. “You f’ing grunts think you’re the only guys who saw any action. I don’t know where you went for R&R, but there were no facilities where I was and you probably would have been blown up by a rocket if you were there. All you f’ing grunts are alike.” He stood up and stormed out, never to return. The marine felt bad that Ted got so upset, “But we did take R&R where he was in Quang Tri. There wasn’t too much there, but at least we got away from humping the hills in the bush.”
I had to call Ted and talk him back into individual counseling. He returned and we continued our work together. My attempt to integrate him with other veterans blew up in my face and in his. Ted and I talked a lot about this phenomenon of feeling like his experience doesn’t stand up to the experience of other veterans. I don’t think he will ever get over it. Today in the laundry I felt a special closeness to Ted. I don’t know if I will get involved with other veterans or not. Avoidance has worked so well for me in the past.

1 comment:

  1. Mike, the few times I have had to go the VA hospital for something, I have noticed a hierarchy among the various veterans hanging out there. There are hardly any WWII and Korean War vets left, but the few around are treated with great reverence, no matter if they saw combat or not. Next on the pecking order are the Vietnam vets, who always go to great lengths to point out how much "action" they saw, and can't really stop talking about the subject, even if you try to ignore them. Next come the Gulf War and GWOT vets. Unless those guys are missing a limb, they aren't taken seriously by the Vietnam vets, no matter how much they try to talk about their combat experiences. I guess every generation has had the same experience with the older vets before them---but I have especially noticed that the Vietnam guys really go out of their way to identify who "had it worse" when they meet another vet. The GWOT guys don't really care about that as much---like it or not, they are more of the mindset that it is really all about who can get the most money out of they system and actually admire the guys who (legally) get away with the most. I attribute that to the fact most Vietnam vets were drafted, while the GWOT guys are all volunteers, who only got into it for the money in the first place (with patriotism coming in a distant second on third).