Randall Vallee sent this to us and I'm proud to be able to provide a forum for his thoughts.
How do you begin to tell a story about yourself and your experiences during a war? Where do you start when you know that there is no possible way to explain to someone what you have been through, knowing they will have no idea what you're talking about or how it makes you feel to even think about it? This has been a perplexing question I have asked myself numerous times and yet I still have no answers. Do I feel an obligation to share my memories and experiences that have plagued my mind since I returned home from the Middle East? Maybe I do have an obligation, so that others might learn from my experiences, or maybe it's nobodies business but my own. So, how do you begin to tell a story that has no appeal to your average person in the first place? How do you begin to compare and contrast one war to another war; I don't think I would even begin to try.
When I think about my time in the Army as a Cavalry Scout in the Middle East, I have a difficult time believing anyone else other than those I served with really cares and why should they when that war is now a piece of history? When I start thinking about how I would begin to tell my story I inevitably end up asking more questions of myself than I truly have the answers for and maybe that's the reason for the difficulty with writing about my experiences in the first place.
I could begin with, once upon a time"¦ But I wouldn't be telling a fairy tale, even if at times it might seem like one to those who were not their. Could this then be the foundation for understanding an individuals experience during war? The prerequisite of understanding can only be forthcoming if you had been a participant of the war in question? This doesn't seem right, but then again, I know in my mind that I could never explain to anyone the horrors of war nor the lasting affects it has on those who fought them, if in fact they had not been there.
Maybe I could begin to tell my story by explaining the political ideology behind the war and then rationalize my involvement and actions as a soldier; but as a soldier I knew it wasn't me who made these decisions, so how could I rationalize my involvement when I volunteered to serve my country in the first place? I can hear the old saying in my mind even as I write; you knew the job was dangerous when you took it. Truly, I don't believe anyone really knows how dangerous the job really is when they take it, but that has always been the way of military life. By the time you do grasp the reality of the situation, it's to late to reconsider the exact reason(s) behind why you're where you're at and doing what you're doing until after the fact and by then it may be to late, but you're not really concerned about the circumstances at that given moment in time; you just want to get through the day alive and in one piece and to help your buddies to do the same. Although, at some point the question arises, why, is someone actively trying to kill me, did I kill their dog or something? When and where one asks the question is not really that important; coming to the realization that someone wants to kill you is enough enlightenment for the time being and time is not relevant, as the enemy takes no issue with this notion, sooner is usually better than later and simply means one less infidel.
One very real issue that did exist during Desert Storm when compared to other wars was the fact that there existed a front, middle and rear of the battlefield. This could explain why some troops saw little or no combat. Although, I have pondered the ability of how one receives a Bronze Star without stepping foot on the battlefield; instead brings coffee to an armchair general who is sitting four stories underground in a filtered and air conditioned building running the war, that would not represent my story.
There also exist the notion that the length of a war is how we distinguish combat veterans from non-combat veterans, thus qualifying the validity of the veteran's status. This of course is utter nonsense, but I am still surprised that this kind of thinking exists.
If you arrive on the battlefield and it's your first day in country and on that same day you have your legs blown off, are you any less a combat veteran? Or, is it the fact that an appendage(s) is now missing that qualifies one to be a real disabled combat veteran? This is the mentality I have observed after I returned home from the Middle East; re-enforced with bumper stickers that read, "I'm no Desert Hero, Just a Vietnam Veteran". While these observations are probable story material, I still don't know if I could tell my story.
Movie "Star" Jake Gyllenhaal believes he is qualified to tell my story, even though he has no common point of reference to start from. Gyllenhaal did after all play a part as a Marine in the movie Jarhead, so this surly makes him an expert on the subject and was the reason Gyllenhaal could make such a profound statement when he said, "US soldiers were sent to the desert for 122 days and they sat in the same tent and did nothing, except a little too much masturbating." Well, I know this is not an accurate representation of my experiences during the war. Nor was the movie "Three Kings" representative of myself, or anyone I knew.
I could begin to tell my story by talking about the sick, dying and dead veterans of the first Gulf War, but I have been told it's all in our head and if anything is wrong with a veteran of "˜that' war, let's place the blame on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), because researcher(s) like Pat Eddington in his book "Gassed in the Gulf" had it all wrong and then lied to Congress. It's really all just a big conspiracy, after all, we know the government has never lied to our veterans and the American public and would never have sold chemical of biological technology to Iraq. Well, this won't work for my story either, because I don't want to write a fictional story, I want to tell the truth about my experiences as a Gulf War veteran.
So, here I am back were I stared; how do I begin to tell my story? I think the sick Gulf War veterans are telling my story, even if no one believes them. And, by those who fought the Iraqi Army prior to the official ground war beginning. Sure, I know a lot of Iraqi's waved white flags and defected, I saw it on TV too when I came home. Mostly, my story is being told by fellow Gulf War veterans, by preferring to say nothing, because it's just easer to maintain anonymity. Maybe no one has ever thought about telling a story by saying nothing at all, I suppose that's something to think about. When I'm asked about my service in the first Gulf War, I respond with an affirmative, to the question. I was in the Army and was a cavalry scout, yes I fought the enemy and they fought back and yes I knew and witnessed solders killed on both sides. But if given the choice, I too prefer my anonymity, because in the end I did my job and its just easer to avoid questions I don't want to answer. I have learned some very important lessons since I returned home. The first is that nothings the same. The second, no one has any idea what you're talking about or how you feel. And probably the worst thing for me as a disabled veteran, who has all his appendages is that no one really cares. I won't begin to speak for all Gulf War veterans, only myself when I say, its just easer to keep some things to myself and I guess that's my story.
No explosions, no body count and no heroics, although I could share many of these details, in the end it's about just having survived.