One soldier’s story

Published 8:51 am Monday, November 10, 2008

Every day, I hear the radio commercials about the U.S. Army and what they can do for you. The voices talk about becoming who you were meant to be, about integrity, leadership and other glorious things. One voice even talks about now becoming the rock for his family. Now, because I know better, I will tell you a truthful story about many soldier’s lives because the truth needs to be told.

What does a soldier see?

A soldier sees that he can do things he could never admit to. He sees the horror in children’s eyes. He sees his brothers lose their lives or become injured in ways he can’t even begin to comprehend. He sees all the things his government won’t talk about. He sees all these things time and again and again and again.

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What does a soldier feel?

After a very short time, most soldiers learn to feel nothing at all. Sadly, they now have no futures, nor do they have any pasts. They try to just keep living in the present because it is the only thing they really have. The soldiers who can’t learn to feel nothing at all roll up into balls and slowly leave life as we know it. A soldier doesn’t have many choices.

What is a soldier’s life like?

You’re stoned, it’s dark outside, and it’s very, very quiet. The fighting starts and the darkness and the quiet are gone in a couple of seconds.

Now the lights and the colors are brighter than anything you ever seen before. The sound is deafening and it is louder than your ears have ever heard. You just do what you have to do. Sometimes the fighting is for a couple of minutes, sometimes for a couple of hours, sometimes for most of the night.

Then it dies down and the darkness and the quiet returns in a couple of minutes. You wait for the sun to rise to do the counting. You just do what you have to do. In the morning, you get stoned and try to get some sleep, anywhere. When you sleep, you do not dream, ever. You wake up and you get stoned. During the day, you try to clean yourself up and tend to the many diseases you now have. You clean your weapons. You have a meal or two. You write some letters home and read some new letters if you get some. You play cards with other soldier who have nicknames like Cowboy and Bongo. You win some money and you feel lucky. You laugh out loud at yourself for feeling lucky because if you had any luck at all, you sure as hell wouldn’t be where you are.

You help Frank read or write some letters because he doesn’t know how to read or write. You have a laugh or two with The Hunter; he’s always funny. You sit and talk with Tuscon; he tells you he’s not going to make it. You get stoned with him, shake his hand and tell him you’re glad to have met him. You give him a hug and you walk away. You know you’re not going to go anywhere near him when the darkness comes. You play with the children if they are around. You watch The Professor dance to his music. You look at the pictures that Rogers just got from his wife; she’s very pretty and you feel bad that they can’t be together like newlyweds should be.

The temperature has dropped from 120 degrees down to about 100 degrees. You know the day is almost over. As you check your gear, Coco comes to tell you it’s time to go. You get stoned together and head out to wait for the darkness to come. The days and the nights are all about the same. In the morning you’ll look to find Tuscon. Two night later, you find out that Tuscon got hit. You have no idea how some know what’s going to happen before it does — it’s too spooky to think about. You just do what you have to do.

(If you feel something, read on. If you feel nothing, ask yourself why you are hiding from reality, now and perhaps always.)

After a while, you notice the only changes in your days and nights are that you’re doing more and more drugs. It’s the only way to cope, so you just do what you have to do.

You’re like a robot now and you wonder who the hell you’ve become. You notice you don’t think about home very often; it seems so far, far away. You notice that some of the old faces are now gone, replaced by new faces full of fear. You want to talk to them, to put them at ease, but there are no words for doing that. You know that only time will change their faces; soon, they’ll look like you. Every day, you just keep on getting stoned. You know exactly how many days you have to go. You just do what you have to do.

When you finally get your ticket to ride, you give away everything you might have. Your day comes and you just walk away without saying goodbye to anyone. You give back your weapons, get on the airplane, and fly away from the only world you now know.

What happens when the soldier returns home?

When you return home, you are not prepared for the hardest time of all. Instantly, you are scared because you don’t have your best friends — your weapons — by your side. You feel guilty about the things you’ve done and you feel guilty about the things you didn’t do. You remember the horror in the eyes of the children. The government people never talk about the children and the other innocent bystanders in their wars. You miss and worry about your brothers still there. You don’t know who you are not.

It becomes evident to you that you were one person before you went and quite a different one while you were there. Because you aren’t the boy you once were, you have trouble being around those who love you the most. You don’t want them to see your eyes because you don’t want them to know that you aren’t who they think you are or you are afraid they will somehow see the things your eyes have had to see.

Elton Mertes is a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War. Mertes and his, wife, Paulette, lived on Lakeview Boulevard in Albert Lea for a number of years. Paulette worked for Tribune as a photographer. The family now lives in Connecticut but has relatives in Freeborn County.