By Ron Rogers
Best Defense office of veterans' affairs
There were four of us left in the VA Clinic waiting room in Morehead City, North Carolina. There was a rather bulky fellow with a huge shock of white hair and half-asleep, a woman waiting to drive a neighbor home, a young veteran of Fallujah and Helmand, and myself, a Vietnam veteran.
The woman, a bright senior, and I started out talking about the man she was driving and that conversation morphed into Afghanistan and getting the heck out. I mentioned that the hardships of Korea, the "forgotten war," made Afghanistan pale by comparison. The older gentleman seemed to wake up and mumbled an apology for jumping into the conversation and he was welcomed -- of course. He was a retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant who had fought in Korea and Vietnam. He acknowledged that Korea was the forgotten war and told a brief story about his unit "resting" behind the lines, but still having to man defensive positions. One night he was handed a .38 revolver (!) and sent to man the front gate of the compound. It began to snow and soon it had piled up to shoulder height. Two days later they were able to reach him and relieve him on post. Note that he did not talk about the cold, the lack of food and water, or the hardships of the fights that preceded resting. We talked some more about how, in Vietnam, he had gotten tired of the infantry and changed his MOS to aviation ordnance, and he spoke of his gauging the intensity of the battles by the amount and type of ordnance he was supplying for the planes. He observed that it was not going well. And then he was called back to see the doctor.
It was running very late and was now 1730 (for a 1530 appointment). Next the woman's friend came out and they left. I was now alone in the room with a rigid, taciturn, powerfully built young man who was standing at parade rest facing the door and wearing a backpack. His face was a slightly hostile mask. I asked him if he was a veteran and he said yes, he was a Marine. I observed that he must have been in Afghanistan and he replied that he had fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I asked him what he did and he said that he had been a "door kicker." He said it with both pride and resignation -- he was not happy. Part of it was due to the fact that his wife hadn't shown up yet to take him home. He phoned her and it was clear that they were not communicating well. I took a chance and said that I had observed that many younger veterans were seemingly angry and asked if he was doing OK. He revealed the very sliver of a smile and said with some hesitation that "he was doing OK." He said that he had spent 10 years in the Corps and that at the very end, he too had changed his MOS to aviation and proudly said that he had worked on Harriers. Then it turned out that both he and his brother had fought in the same places and made the same shift to aviation. He politely listened to my mentioning that I had read books by Bing West, who West is, and also Little America. When I said that West had explained the folly that led to the vicious second Battle of Fallujah, he acknowledged that with an angry nod and a "yes." Then I mentioned that in Little America General Nicholson had been described as a nice man with the wrong instincts about where and how to fight. It was clear that this former NCO was not happy with General Nicholson at all.
Just then his wife drove up and he said, "Time to go home to my three kids." I exclaimed "three?" and he smiled. I asked if he was now working as a civilian at Cherry Point and he showed surprise and said yes that he was working on Harriers. I said that that was a good job and that "I had found that the best thing to say was ‘welcome home,' so welcome home." He smiled for the first time and said, "that was right -- welcome home," and we shook hands and he went out through the door to join his wife.
Now alone in an ever colder waiting room, I marveled at the parallel careers of these two Marines, separated by fifty years, but sharing the same thought processes -- that kicking doors had gotten old and it was time for a change. And, just as comfortable as "the Gunny" was with his life, this new veteran Marine was going to go through a difficult transition to reach that place as I had noted his demeanor and his difficulty in communicating with his wife on the phone. They were going to have to learn to communicate and perhaps deal with his demons or their marriage would come to an end. He is a fine young man.
He and his brother are home now, but are we helping them to get all the way home?
The author served on active duty and in the Reserve for 23 years and was lucky to spend most of that time in Army Special Forces, with a diversion to Intelligence. While in Vietnam, he served both on an "A" Team and with DARPA. As a reservist, he served in OSD. In civilian life he has been an editor for McGraw Hill, a civil servant with USIA, and an IT manager in Washington. He is now retired on a boat in North Carolina.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.