Saturday, January 31, 2015

Selma: America’s War at Home

Library of CongressImages: civil rights marchers in Selma

The historic march for civil rights featured in the new film, “Selma,” was sparked by the death 50 years ago this February of a Vietnam veteran, Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot by an Alabama state trooper. As chilling scene after scene in the film shows, Alabama in 1965 was a dangerous place for a black-skinned war veteran to join a peaceful demonstration for the right to vote.

Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death in seeking to exercise the rights of democracy he fought for in Vietnam was the tip of cascading war casualties at home.

“A state trooper pointed the gun, but he did not act alone,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said at Jackson’s funeral. “He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff who practices lawlessness in the name of law… He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam and cannot protect the rights of its own citizens seeking the right to vote…”

As noted by historians and featured on the King Center website, “Jackson’s death was eulogized by Dr. King and was the inspiration for the Selma to Montgomery March that occurred a few days later, leading to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

“Selma” is a rare feature film that puts viewers into the harrowing setting of Americans demonstrating peacefully for a just cause and taking vicious beatings from police officers and fellow citizens who hate people challenging long-established traditions. 

While critics debate aspects of the film, the events it depicts were the real deal—an historic clash of cultures in which hard-eyed men with guns lost the battle to peaceable protesters willing to endure brutal violence and death for their cause.

Exhorting the crowd of angry black people infuriated by a state trooper shooting Jackson as he tried to shield his mother and grandfather from troopers chasing down and beating demonstrators, King said, “Jimmie Lee Jackson is speaking to us from the casket and he is saying to us that we must substitute courage for caution … We must not be bitter, and we must not harbor ideas of retaliation with violence.”

This is not typical Hollywood fare, in which the hero saves the day with guns blazing. 

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Friday, January 30, 2015

Rod McKuen, Love and War Poet

Rod McKuen, 1933-2015     (

Rod McKuen was one of my go-to poets when I felt black and blue after serving in Vietnam. I stumbled across some of his early poetry collections in bookstores in New York and gravitated to the poems he wrote about love and loss and Army service in Korea.

There are some wounds I never
                        speak about.
Some things that words have done to me
that none will ever know…

McKuen wrote in a sequence of poems set during his tour in the Korean War, published in Listen to the Warm in 1967. Obituaries popping up in the wake of his death yesterday, at 81 in Beverly Hills, California, make little note that this prolific songwriter and poet was a war vet who battled depression by crafting a monumental collection of sweetly soaring and melancholy love songs.

I was as thrilled to discover his translated from the French lyrics for “If You Go Away”—famously sung by Frank Sinatra, among others—as I was to find his scarcely known war poems. I tried to emulate his lyrical songwriting style, with no success. What provided my poetry better grounding were his grunt-level takes on military affairs.

Who made those wars romantic in the first place?
Who led us down the line in patriotism’s name…

Who told us that as huddled masses yearning to break free
we’d have to kill a man for every foot of ground we gained?...

McKuen wrote in a poem in a sequence called “Did You Say the War Is Over?” published in In Someone’s Shadow in 1969. Even in death, this poet/songwriter mocked by critics for his often sunny lyrics has much to say about the darkness he struggled to rise from.

The first combat I saw was at Fort Ord,
down the coast from San Francisco.
During sixteen weeks of basic training
thirty-six men in my division were killed
                          or killed themselves…

Six weeks into basic,
long after the infiltration course
would take another nine men’s lives,
Corporal Garner, I think that was his name,
got up from bed while the barracks slept
                                          and hanged himself
from the rafter just above his bunk….

The shape of him that morning still circles
                                        in my mind. …

McKuen wrote in “It Was Always Winter in Korea,” published in The Power Bright and Shining in 1980. This poem is posted on McKuen’s website, A Safe Place to Land, dated November 11, 2014.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

The War at Home

It has become a cliché that “18 veterans a day”—and then “22 veterans a day”—die of suicide in America. These appalling figures of the VA’s estimated daily average of military veterans who kill themselves have been reported in the news media for years. Telling the story of one of those veterans, and how his family battled the US government to change how it treats returning soldiers, will hopefully shake up enough people to truly make a difference.
That’s the aim of the authors, editors and publisher of The Wounds Within: A Veteran, a PTSD Therapist, and a Nation Unprepared.  It focuses on Jeff Lucey’s death at home after serving with the Marines in the invasion of Iraq. This is a still startling tragedy, which has been widely told before in news accounts, his parents’ testimony to various government entities, and in previous books, notably The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans, published in 2009.

The new element in The Wounds Within are the insights of co-author Mark I. Nickerson, a private psychotherapist who was trying to help Lucey navigate the VA treatment maze when the 23-year-old Marine reservist hung himself in his parents’ basement. 

“Never before has a client of mine taken his or her own life while working with me,” writes Nickerson, whose faith in his professional training and skills was shaken. “In hindsight, I was learning about a higher level of risk that can exist for veterans in the aftermath of war.” He was assisted in writing this book by author Joshua S. Goldstein.
Nickerson stayed in close touch with the Lucey family and worked at learning and teaching others how to better assist military veterans beset by nightmares, grief, depression and other symptoms of a mysterious malady that government agencies bureaucratically labeled post-traumatic stress disorder.

Meanwhile, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued to churn out, over the next decade, a generation of “lost” soldiers who killed themselves in greater numbers than died on the battlefields. Lawsuits by the Luceys and by veterans groups helped uncover a hidden crisis of VA mismanagement of treatment programs for veterans of all ages, with Vietnam veterans accounting for the vast majority of reported suicides.
The Wounds Within also tells the story of Kevin and Joyce Lucey’s campaign to change the system that they felt killed their son. I first heard them speak, in Boston in 2004, when they joined with Military Families Speak Out and Veterans For Peace in challenging the war policy that harmed so many of our own troops as well as terrified Iraqis. They challenged the VA health care system with numerous allied groups. They continued raising these concerns for the next decade, including a meeting with White House officials last summer. 

“After ten years, the reforms still don’t go far enough, but they are extensive,” Nickerson writes. “Quite possibly, if today’s systems had been in place when Jeff returned from Iraq, he would be alive.”
Among the treatments for PTSD that Nickerson feels the VA is getting right are stress management and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which he specializes in. Yet he acknowledges that many veterans were turned off by how they were treated in seeking VA care.

“An important advancement in treatment over the last ten years is the realization that the old model of deferring trauma treatment until a person is clean and sober is misguided,” he notes. This is one of the VA policies in 2004 that added to Jeff Lucey’s despair that no one could or would help him, as he tried to self-medicate with booze.
Another program the VA is getting right are the Vet Centers, which provide stress management, anger management, and various other treatment programs to vets of all eras in community settings. This is a program, which Nickerson writes the Luceys were not aware of until too late, that deserves a book of its own.