The last five years of my counseling career, I facilitated a therapy group of combat veterans. The members were all Vietnam veterans with the exception of two Korean War vets. These two men were older, one in his 70’s and the other over 80, were both Marines and always sat together. The older man, I’ll call Jack, was born in France. At the age of thirteen, he and his mother fled Nazi occupation. He joined the American Merchant Marines and sailed back over to Europe, transporting material in the war effort and witnessing much death and destruction. After leaving service in the Merchant marines, still a young man, he joined the Marine Corps and was sent to fight in the Korean War. I’ve worked with many veterans over the years and Jack, hands down, experienced more threatening and dangerous situations and did more actual fighting than any veteran I’ve ever worked with.
He was a gentle, sensitive man who empathized with others. He had an open heart and often became tearful when group members talked about their experiences. He often said that the Marines turned him into a “killer monkey” and even though he wasn’t suicidal, he welcomed death because it would finally give him piece.
One day in group he referred to an experience shared by another group member as a “Sunshine Cake Moment”. None of us knew what that was, so I asked him to explain and he told the following story. When the Chinese communists entered the war, Jack was with his unit in the northern part of South Korea. At that time in the war, waves of Chinese soldiers were pouring over the border to aid the North Koreans. The battle was intense, non-stop and lasted for days. Finally after a horrendous night of fighting, the battle over, there were hundreds of dead bodies strewn all over the hills. It was early morning and Jack was in his foxhole. He discovered a few bits of food rations and put together a little desert the soldiers called a sunshine cake. It was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted. He had survived the long battle and felt more alive than ever. He described a sense of peace that transcended his life circumstances. He had no past and no future, only the warm sun, the cool air and the delicious sunshine cake.
The other group members related to his story. Some told similar stories, none quite so dramatic, but all having the same theme, an extreme sense of peace and heightened awareness in the present moment. I thought of a time in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood. It was the middle of winter in the Ozarks and we were out for the day of training. They marched us everywhere for miles and miles and I remember feeling exhausted most of the time. On one particular day, after marching for hours, we came to an open field. Our packs and rifles were heavy, my shoulders and feet hurt, and my legs were tired. The Drill Sergeant stopped the column in the middle of the dirt road and yelled, “fall out, smoke em if you got em and go ahead and suck on your canteens.” We all knew we would be able to rest for a short while.
Each of us found a place in the field. Some guys lay down on their backs, resting their heads on their packs. I sat on mine. Removing my boots, my body relaxed from the day’s activities and weeks of deprivation and abuse. I remember the warm feeling of the sun and the smell of dry grass. The sky was deep blue with a few puffy clouds and the winter air was clean and cool. I was at peace and totally free. It was a “sunshine cake moment”.