Bruce Kallsen posted this on Facebook, and I took the liberty of re-posting, and I share it here. All these damn wars keep taking their toll, years — decades — after they are officially won or lost or abandoned. Bruce Kallsen’s brief moving story of one man’s re-awakening gives us the slightest glimpse of the awful reality.
Memorial Day has finally become a special day for me. I had never honored the day, until MD of 2006. For whatever reason, I decided that weekend to put out a flag to recognize the holiday. My wife Becca has strong opinions about her Victorian house, and my placement of the flag didn’t meet her expectations. I immediately went into a rage….so strong that it was obviously inappropriate…even, or especially to me. It had finally happened. The ghost I carried inside had finally raised its ugly head, and in a manner which made it very recognizable.
In 1972 I crashed upon landing on the USS Midway after a night mission over North Vietnam. My Bombardier-navigator, Bix, and 5 others were killed. Bix ejected and went over the side of the carrier, probably drowning in an unconscious state. Five others were struck by my aircraft or parts of other aircraft I hit, or ingested fuel when their refueling rig was broken by the contact of my aircraft.
As I rode the aircraft up the flight deck, trying to power it off and into the air in order to eject, it became apparent the aircraft wouldn’t fly, so I shut it down and rode it out. My awareness was incredibly accelerated, and it became apparent to me my little piece of the cockpit would end up between two aircraft. The plane might be destroyed, or nearly so, but where I was headed looked safe. I rode it out. Some very courageous flight deck fire fighters followed right behind me extinguishing the flames from my critically damaged aircraft even as I was still moving. As they got closer to my aircraft, their vision was obscured by the flames and smoke of my aircraft. The Air Boss, in the tower, talked them closer to extinguish the fire.
The next day we held services for those killed. I attended, but experienced no emotion at all. I was flat-lined, no feeling, and it was immediately apparent to me this was inappropriate. PTSD wasn’t a term in the normal lexicon in 1972. But I knew I should have feelings, very strong ones, and wondered how to bring them forth. The flight surgeons were only interested in how soon I could fly again. I started flying combat flights 10 days later.
But now it was Memorial Day, 2006, and my rage told me the ghost had finally arisen. Five years followed of recurring anger, therapy, and inner search. I am very thankful to report that Memorial Day finally has the special meaning for me it should always have had.
Here’s to those we’ve lost, and to those still with us who are lost in their inner conflict. We lose 22 veterans a day to suicide, more to remember on this special day.