Monday, August 22, 2011

Vietnam: Another Kind of Adventure

Ken and Bill at old battleground in Vietnam 
W.D. Ehrhart has been turning the tragedy of the Vietnam war inside-out, upside-down and sideways in a whirlwind of memoirs, articles, poems, poetry anthologies and travel pieces since surviving the battle of Hue in 1968—and living to ponder what the hell all the death, destruction and desperate encounters in Indochina added up to.

His latest literary foray is an online journal—titled “Ken and Bill’s Excellent Adventure”—of a journey to Vietnam this summer with a Marine buddy who was also wounded by the rocket explosion that shredded their shelter in a bedroom-turned-battle station. The story of this trip back in time is artfully laid out on a magazine-style website designed by Bill Ehrhart’s wife Anne, who took many of the photos accompanying the text.

As in most Ehrhart stories, there’s an unexpected twist. Ken is the nickname for Kazunori Takenaga, a Japanese citizen who ended up in the US Marines in Vietnam. And so Bill makes a side trip to Japan to visit Ken’s homeland. And then the two aging war buddies, accompanied by Anne and photographer Sachiko Akama, travel to Vietnam to re-experience old battlegrounds. Along the way, they also encounter memorable sights and historic sites in two Asian nations—Japan and Vietnam—that have created vibrant peaceful societies in the wake of wars with America.

“As we approached Hue, we crossed the bridge over the An Cuu Canal, just as Ken and I had done on the morning of January 31st, 1968, but the war was nowhere to be seen and there were no ghosts awaiting us, just a vibrant, throbbing city that was almost unrecognizable except for major landmarks like the Truong Tien Bridge spanning Song Huong—the River of Perfumes—Hue University, and of course the famous Citadel,” Ehrhart noted in a suddenly inward shift from describing Vietnam’s current scenery.

“Ken and I and a handful of other Marines had crossed Truong Tien Bridge during that first day of fighting, though we couldn’t have told you its name,” he continued. “We had tried to reach the Citadel, but had taken terrible casualties at the hands of hundreds of well-entrenched North Vietnamese firing down at us from windows and walls, and we’d had to fall back to the south side of the river, where most of the fighting took place during the first few weeks of the battle.”

“On another day,” he writes, “we drove from Hue to the old Demilitarized Zone marked by the Song Ben Hai.  We walked—stoop-shouldered most of the way—through the tunnels of Vinh Moc just north of the DMZ, where an entire village of 70 families lived underground for six years to escape U.S. bombardment.

“We walked across the river, from north to south, on the Hien Luong Bridge, destroyed by U.S. bombing in 1967, but rebuilt post-war for pedestrian traffic.  Several miles to the west of the bridge is Con Thien (‘the place of angels’ in Vietnamese), where Ken and I had spent a month living in a mud-infested, barbed wire-encircled collection of sandbagged bunkers, besieged by North Vietnamese artillery from the north side of the DMZ, but we could not go there because the area, still sewn with American mines, is too dangerous.”

Ken and Bill grin like they won the lottery as they pose for a photo together in the middle of the long-fought over bridge "straddling the 17th parallel at the old DMZ." During the war, Marines couldn’t have imagined walking across that bridge and surviving. Tens of thousands of American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians died in the battles over that geographic division.

The highlight of the trip is finding the house where the war nearly ended their lives. Better to let Ehrhart tell what it meant in the way that has made his memoirs and other writings on the war widely read around the world.

“The house, which in 1968 had had a brick wall around it, has since been entirely refurbished,” Ehrhart noted. “Looking fresh, crisp, and bright, it appears to be no older than the six-story four-star hotel built in two sections behind it, the two wings of the hotel forming an L into which the house nestles.  The grass lawn has been replaced by a tiled driveway and parking area with a motorscooter rental operation and an outdoor coffee shop.

“The house itself is now the business and administrative offices for the hotel, the Duy Tan (named for yet another emperor).  A young woman inside who spoke English told us that the hotel had been built in 2004, but the house dated to 1920.  That was the clincher.  This was the place.  We were so amazed to be here, alive and happy and 62 years old (well, Ken is 63), that we did not have the presence of mind to ask if we could go up to the very room itself.  No matter.  This was close enough.

“That evening, Anne, Ken, and I, accompanied by Sachiko Akama, the photographer who traveled with us, went for an evening cruise on the River of Perfumes.  On board with us were eight Vietnamese singers and musicians in traditional garb who performed traditional Vietnamese folk music for us.

“When they were finished, they gave us each two paper bags with candles inside.  The tradition is to light the candles, make a wish, and set the bags afloat on the river.

“I cannot begin to tell you how magical that evening was, how profoundly satisfying, especially for two ex-Marines who had nearly died only blocks from that river so many years ago.

“Later, standing on a balcony of the Mercure Hue Gerbera Hotel, Ken and I looked out over the city and the river bisecting it.  We could see the huge red and yellow Vietnamese national flag flying above the Citadel, illuminated by floodlights, the university that had been used as a refugee center during the battle, the park that had been our helicopter landing zone, the roofs of what had been the MACV compound (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam), even a corner of that building we’d been in when we’d been wounded, now dwarfed by the hotel built around it.  But the streets were crowded with noisy, jostling, energetic people on foot, on bicycles, in cars, in buses, and of course on scooters, scooters, and more scooters.  Vendors hawked postcards and fresh bread and river tours.  The river flowed with colorful tour boats.

“The bridge, with an unbroken stream of motorscooters going in both directions, blazed yellow to green to blue to purple to red and back to yellow.  The Huda beer sign cast a neon ribbon across the water.

“We did not speak.  There was nothing to say.  This is what we had come to see. A country.  Not a war.”

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Welcome Home

Eli Painted Crow and fellow vets in "The Welcome"

Bob and Moe Eaton’s marriage, shadowed for more than 30 years by nightmares from the war in Vietnam, was about to implode. Ken Kraft, an Army officer who proudly served in Iraq, felt betrayed by his son’s refusal to carry on the family tradition of military service. Eli Painted Crow, a former Army drill sergeant, felt betrayed by the nation that sent her to war on dark-skinned, tribal people like herself.

These were just some of the rubbed-raw emotions that a couple dozen war veterans and several family members brought to an unusual retreat in Oregon. In this deceptively quiet setting, a film crew recorded real life dramas brimming with outbursts of bitterness and laughter, tears and hugs, dark humor and dawning revelations. The focus of the four-day gathering, just before Memorial Day 2008, was to sort out what they wanted to say—in a poem or a song or a concise statement—to a crowd of people preparing a public event to welcome these warriors home from war.

“I’m asking you to f------ listen!” Eli Painted Crow shouted at the other participants in a particularly tense point in the new documentary called “The Welcome.” A retired Army sergeant and Native American peace activist, Painted Crow was fed up with interruptions as she attempted to explain how she felt about her deployment in Iraq, where fellow soldiers called combat areas Indian country. “I just want to be heard with your hearts,” she added, before stomping out the door to cool off. “If you don’t hear me with your hearts, I can’t heal.”

In another scene, a member of Veterans For Peace said he felt like the enemy in Vietnam. Another Vietnam vet retorted that he wasn’t the enemy but killed people who were the enemy. That set off a whirlwind of war justifications by other veterans.

Such scenes pull viewers intimately into the inner turmoil of the aftermath of war that swirls through many veterans across America. Throughout the 93-minute film directed by Kim Shelton, veterans and family members openly struggle to tame the turmoil long enough to find some pathway to healing.

“Sometimes you stumble into something out of a sense of duty or good intentions only to find yourself absorbed and overwhelmed beyond anything you might have anticipated,” a reviewer for The Oregonian, Shawn Levy, wrote of this low-budget film that was an audience hit at the Ashland (Oregon) Independent Film Festival this spring.

“From virtually the outset, with a poem by Laura Carpenter, a veteran of Afghanistan about to deploy to Iraq, ‘The Welcome’ drills directly through any emotional reserves you might bring into it,” Levy added. “You're unsteadied, startled, galvanized, and brought to sobs again and again.  There are dark jokes and harrowing accounts of the hellish confusion of war and its grip on the memory.  There are angry outbursts as the various veterans try to establish terms of respect and conduct with one another.  There are wry laughs and monumental silences.  And there are staggering moments of courage in which the veterans look as if they're merely speaking aloud but in which they are actually performing open-heart surgery on themselves -- in front of an audience and a movie camera.”

Amazingly, the participants ignored the camera as they candidly interacted with each other and with retreat leader Michael Meade, described by the filmmakers as a “mythologist and story teller who specialized in working with traumatized communities.” Meade’s ritualistic mixture of Native American chants and Irish stories grated on Eli Painted Crow and another Native American woman veteran. But after an outburst about respecting traditions, they participated on their terms.

“One of the ways to heal is to find out what our gifts are and begin practicing giving them,” Meade said, in guiding the group to write poetry, which he defined as “the speech of the soul,” in preparation for a Memorial Day event at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

Retired Army Captain Ken Kraft wrestled with how to make sense of a phone call he’d gotten in Iraq that his son had deserted from Army ranger training and denounced the war. He felt betrayed, he said, and bolted from the podium back to his seat. At the Memorial Day event, Kraft praised the intense interaction at the retreat and read a poem about his pride in being a soldier and noted that he was trying to reach out to his son.

A young woman veteran shyly read a poem about the shame of a sexual assault by a military superior. Another young woman vet read a poem about older veterans reaching out and clearing a path for them.

Cynthia Lefever, whose son was severely wounded in Iraq, read a poem about a dream in which rows of wounded soldiers marched down a road toward her, beseeching: “Be our mom—for God’s sake, bring us home!”

“I found a voice I didn’t know I had,” Mandy Martin, another of the retreat participants, said in a recent PBS television interview. "The impact has been pretty immense," she said of the veterans' healing project. A follow up on the film website notes that she now works at the Department of Veterans Affairs as a congressional communications officer.

Moe Eaton, whose husband Bob served in Vietnam, read a poem about his frightening mood swings and suicidal statements. “Me: Why can’t you count your blessings? He: I don’t know.”

Bob Eaton then haltingly told a story, which he said he’d never been able to tell his wife, about surviving a battle in Vietnam and having to shovel up the remains of dead soldiers blown apart by artillery explosions. “I thought every f------ night that that was going to happen again,” he added.

At the Memorial Day event, Bob Eaton pulled out a guitar, stared at the packed auditorium full of neighbors, friends and strangers and brought down the house with applause when he growled “I was heavily medicated for depression. I wanted to get off the medication and took up the guitar. You’re the first audience I’ve ever played for.”

“You’re coming home/ Feeling all alone/ Thousand-yard stare/ Nobody there,” he sang and then stopped, nearly breaking down. The audience clapped again encouragingly. “When will it end?/ The guilt and the shame/ Now it’s back again,” he continued.  “That old war/ It still haunts me.”

In a recent PBS television interview about the film, Moe Eaton said the couple’s participation in the veterans’ retreat “had a lot to do with saving our marriage.” She realized, she said, that Bob’s war nightmares wouldn’t go away by continuing to say “get over it.”

For Bob Eaton, playing a song he wrote at the Memorial Day “Welcome Home” event launched a new career singing at veterans’ gatherings. “It gave me the courage to keep going,” he said.

The documentary was made by Kim Shelton and her husband, Bill McMillan, who are both therapists in Ashland, Oregon. They created the Welcome Home Project to provide resource materials for communities interested in holding similar events and are seeking film festivals and organizations that would be interested in hosting showings of the film.

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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Poetry and Cannons

Governors Island, NYC
The last time cannons were fired in battle at Governors Island in New York harbor was in 1776. After a long run as an Army and then Coast Guard headquarters, the ancient forts and cannon, 19th century officers quarters and rows of barracks were given over a few years ago to New York to add to its tourist attractions. It’s been a long time since this tranquil setting has been disturbed by the upheavals of war. So it was that a highly emotional raising of voices amid the old battlements on Governors Island recently was from participants at the First Annual New York Poetry Festival.

One of the delights of demilitarization is enjoying the creative reuses of former military installations. An arts center run by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council occupies a former munitions warehouse near the ferry dock. The roadways for munitions trucks and ranks of marching troops are now bicycle paths. Bugle calls have been replaced by music concerts. Cannon mounts are overshadowed by whimsical sculptures.

The tree-lined lawn in front of the Victorian-era houses along Colonels Row made an inviting setting for a poetry festival. The balmy summer day induced poetry lovers to sprawl on the grass, many settled in with food and drinks on picnic blankets. Billed as an eclectic gathering of diverse poetry groups, organized by the Poetry Society of New York, the festival presented three outdoors stages with simultaneous readings by poets with a wide variety of styles and topics, including the Nuyorican Slam All Stars, the Poetry Whores, the Mom Egg, Bowery Poetry Club and Warrior Writers.

Sean Casey, an Army captain who served in Iraq, kicked off the Warrior Writers reading to a relaxed but attentive audience with a poem tracing the swirling emotions of a soldier at the end of a second deployment in a war zone.

Two weeks to go, anticipation
Trained my replacement, he’s taking over, relief
Holding the release paper in hand, freedom
Boarding a plane for the final leg of this journey, warmth
Emerging from the gate, tension
Crowds applauding, embarrassment
Greeted by family, blank
Embraced by a loving girlfriend, empty
Reunited with all that was longed for, NUMB

At a previous reading of this poem at the Bowery Poetry Club, recorded on video by filmmaker Sara Nesson, Casey noted that this experience was set in motion by being called back to active duty after serving in Iraq and ordered to do another combat tour.

Noting how emotionally draining it was to read poetry in public, Eli Wright, a former Army medic in Iraq, presented a poem revealing a kaleidoscope of colors in ominous swirls that tracked his moods as a soldier and war veteran.

In a more chipper mood, Nicole Goodman, who also served in the Army in Iraq, introduced her set by saying, “Poetry is liberating. It’s good for your soul.” But the three poems she read were anything but upbeat. Here’s an example of the dark-night-of-the-soul mood she explored:

I am not a soldier today.
This desert wide and thick
has swallowed all of my courage up.
And so I let the sun bleed into my skin again,
All I sweat is reckless disregard.
I stopped wondering if I am to survive,
For I have died by living each day…

On the upside, Nicole Goodman is studying creative writing at the City University of New York after a rough patch after coming back from the war in which she and her young daughter ended up homeless. A profile of her in the New York Times—conveying her stark outcry that many soldiers don’t find home front support when they leave military service—brought an outpouring of assistance that helped get her back on her feet.

Another reader with the veterans’ poetry group was a woman who was in the Marines, whose name I didn’t get, who participated in a writing workshop at New York University. A fellow veteran from that program showed up, delayed by a long subway ride from the Bronx to the Battery to catch the ferry, just after the Warrior Writers session ended and another group took the stage. Yet he seemed happy just to breath in the atmosphere of a poetry festival on Governors Island.

And so was I. The last time I visited Governors Island, it was a closed Coast Guard base that occasionally hosted an open house for the public to visit. I remember feeling I’d been transported, via a short ferry ride, from frenetic Manhattan streets to a delightfully timeless New England fishing village. It was rejuvenating to return, with the military trappings relegated to history, and read poetry in such a setting.

Art seems like such a fragile reed to lean on. Yet the city of New York is relying on artists to create the beguiling sort of attraction on Governors Island that turned Greenwich Village, the East Village, SoHo and many other once rundown sections of the city into popular places to live as well as travel to, to hang out, spend some memorable recreational time and money.

Art and poetry can help people rebuild their lives, as well. That was why several war veterans were drawn to a poetry festival at a former military base on a sunny Saturday this summer.

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