George W. Bush Library dedication attended By President Obama And former presidents. (Photo: Getty)Responding to the fawning morning coverage of the opening of the George W. Bush presidential library in Texas Thursday, independent journalist Jeremy Scahill mocked the cable news outlet MSNBC by tweeting:
“This is such a singular moment,” said MSNBC’s David Gregory in the interlude between the presentation of the First Ladies and the subsequent introduction of President Obama and the former US presidents: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter. “It’s not just pomp and circumstance,” Gregory said as the US Army band rolled drums and the trumpets blared.
The Pledge of Allegiance followed. Shortly thereafter, former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice took the podium to deliver a series of introductions.
MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews set the frame for the network’s coverage by saying, “No one wants to talk about Iraq on a day like this.” Instead Matthews repeated time and again, what people really wanted to know was what Obama and former first lady Barbara Bush, seated next to one another on stage, were chatting and giggling about.
As the ordered ceremony continued—with each former President taking turns with a few remarks—anti-war activists proved Matthews wrong by utilizing the official #bushcenter hashtag to voice their opposition to the Bush legacy and calling the former president a ‘war criminal’:
The library, officially called the George W. Bush Presidential Center, is located on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas and was designed to honor—critics argue ‘to re-write’—the legacy of the former US president whose administration led the country into two foreign wars, opened the Guantanamo Bay prison camp as a way to avoid judicial oversight of detainee treatment, initiated rendition and torture programs within a global network of CIA-run black site facilities, oversaw the creation of a vast national surveillance apparatus, and ushered in the largest financial crisis of the modern era.
Outside the event, more than 200 peace activists protested behind police barricades against what they called Bush’s “crimes against humanity”.
In an interview with USA Today earlier this week, George W. Bush repeated what he has often said about his legacy by remarking, “I did what I did and ultimately history will judge.”
For many, however, that judgement deserves no further delay.
Asked in an interview to suggest what the world should remember about the Bush legacy, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange responded by saying:
A good place to start would be laying out the number of deaths caused by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. At Wikileaks, we documented that from 2004-2009, the US had records of over 100,000 individual deaths of Iraqis due to violence unleashed by that invasion, roughly 80% of them civilians. These are the recorded deaths, but many more died. And in Afghanistan, the US recorded about 20,000 deaths from 2004-2010. These would be good facts to include in the presidential library.
And perhaps the library could document how people around the world protested against the invasion of Iraq, including the historic February 15, 2003 mobilization of millions of people around the globe.
And Common Dreams contributors Jodie Evans and Charles Davis write on Thursday:
George W. Bush presided over an international network of torture chambers and, with the help of a compliant Congress and press, launched a war of aggression that killed hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. However, instead of the bloody details of his time in office being recounted at a war crimes tribunal, the former president has been able to bank on his imperial privilege – and a network of rich corporate donors that he made richer while in office – to tell his version of history at a library in Texas being opened in his name.
Kill a few, they call you a murderer. Kill tens of thousands, they give you $500 million for a granite vanity project and a glossy 30-page supplement in the local paper.
Bush’s legacy is reflected not in his library, but in the regular bombings that rock Baghdad, killing dozens at a time. The Connecticut blue blood turned straight talkin’ Texan is of course welcome to tell his side of the story. That’s only fair. But let him do it at the Hague.
Last month, on the tenth anniversay of the start of Bush’s invasion of Iraq, wounded Iraq war veteran Thomas Young, who remains in hospice waiting to die, wrote an open letter to Bush and his vice president Dick Cheney which included:
I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all—the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.
I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.
Ending his letter, Young wrote to Bush:
My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.
Back in Texas on Thursday, just as Bush closed his remarks at the library’s opening ceremony, a tear caught his eye and he swallowed a sob as he returned to his seat. There was no apology for the war, the many deaths, or torture. There was no confession or acknowledgement of sin or error. The military band rose to perform “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” as the other presidents, their wives, and the crowd sang and applauded.
Charles Rangel sure thinks so and I have to confess, given our track record since Vietnam with an all-volunteer army fighting our awful and unnecessary wars, perhaps he’s right. I am certainly torn when it comes to imagining a re-instated draft that requires all young Americans to serve their country in either military or civilian roles for 2 years. Remembering the anti-war movement that was very connected to the draft during Vietnam and how our government responded got easier for me this week, since I have been watching the incredibly powerful Oliver Stone series, “UNKNOWN HISTORY OF THE U.S.” and the last episode (#7) I watched Friday morning before school was all about the war.
Arguments continue to this day as to whether it was the degree to which the draft affected so many of my generation that gave rise to such a movement and whether that movement caused Nixon and his cronies to question our endless seeming involvement in that “mistake,” as John Kerry, now Secretary of State, called it. But if there was more “shared sacrifice” as Rangel describes it, would Bush’s administration have thought twice before beginning the horrific wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon is now obligated to consider whether women upon turning 18 will have to do as their male counterparts have been doing and register with the armed services. Rangel wants this country’s leaders to much more deeply examine what they are doing when they support such grand mistakes as the two wars Bush and co. began and he feels if they were obliged to consider the effects on a much broader swath of the population, they’d be much less likely to rush us into war. If he’s correct then I could support such a draft…
Rangel, who has pushed for years to bring back the draft, said the Pentagon’s decision to allow women to serve in combat means that they too should register for the Selective Service.
“Now that women can serve in combat they should register for the Selective Service alongside their male counterparts,” Rangel said in a statement. “Reinstating the draft and requiring women to register for the Selective Service would compel the American public to have a stake in the wars we fight as a nation. We must question why and how we go to war, and who decides to send our men and women into harm’s way.”
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed an order rescinding the ban on women serving in combat units last month, potentially opening up as many as 237,000 positions to female service members.
The move raised a number of policy issues, including whether women will now be required to register with the Selective Service. The Pentagon is required to report on how changing the ban effects the constitutionality of the registration being males only.
In an interview on MSNBC, Rangel said the draft should be reinstated because the majority of Americans make “no real sacrifice” when the country goes to war.
“The Congress never gets a chance to vote up and down on these war questions. Every president just puts our kids in harm’s way and we just foot the bill, but there’s no real sacrifice in what’s going on. Less than 1 percent of American families are involved in the military and they really pay the price for it,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
He argued that a draft would make the executive branch think long and hard before sending troops overseas.
“Take my word for it, if every time a president was about to put our kids in harm’s way, we we’re thinking about our kids and grandkids, it just wouldn’t happen,” he said.
Rangel’s legislation would require those between the ages of 18 and 25 to perform two years of national service in either the armed services or in civilian life, while the All American Selective Service Act would force women to enroll in the Selective Service System.
“If this country has its security threatened, I would like to believe that all of us, no matter how old we are, would want to do something.”
Crucial as it is for women to have the same opportunities and benefits as men who do comparable work, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s announcement that women can now serve in combat positions in the military should not be misconstrued as a step forward for women. Lt. Col. Tamatha Patterson of the Army with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Photo: Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times)
As the women’s rights advocacy group AF3IRM GABNET said in a statement on their Facebook page,
The Pentagon lifted a ban on women in combat, stating that women can now serve on the frontlines. We in AF3IRM know that this is already common practice and that women of color and transnational women are already disproportionately over-represented in the US military. They are pushed into military duty due to poverty and lack of other options.
We do not celebrate this new “elimination of a gender-based barrier.” We do not celebrate sending us women overseas to kill other women and children in someone else’s name. (emphasis mine)
According to a study by the PEW Research Center, women now make up 14% of the enlisted ranks and 16% of the officer ranks. A look at the racial breakdown of those numbers is instructive,
While 71% of active-duty men are white (including white Hispanics), only about half of active-duty women (53%) are white. The share of white women in the military is also significantly smaller than their proportion in the civilian female population ages 18-44 (78%).
More than three-in-ten (31%) military women are black (including black Hispanics). This is almost twice the share of active-duty men who are black (16%), as well as more than twice the proportion of civilian women ages 18-44 who are black (15%). In addition, more women in the active-duty force than men in the active-duty force and civilian women ages 18-44 are of mixed racial background or some other race.3
The share of Hispanics among women and men in the armed forces is similar (13% vs. 12%, respectively), and the share of military women who are Hispanic is smaller than that of Hispanic women ages 18-44 in the U.S. civilian population (16%). But the number of Hispanics enlisting in the active-duty force each year has risen significantly over the last decade. In 2003, Hispanic women and men made up 11.5% of the new enlistees to the military; just seven years later, in 2010, they made up 16.9% of non-prior service enlisted accessions.
More than eight-in-ten post-9/11 female veterans say they joined to serve their country or receive education benefits (83% and 82%, respectively). Fully 70% say they joined to see more of the world and almost as many (67%) say they joined to gain job skills.
However, there is one key difference in the reasons that men and women joined the military. Some 42% of female veterans say they joined the military because jobs were hard to find, compared with one-quarter of men.
The take away here should be that we need to take a good hard look at the ways in which we are failing these women in regard to job training and job availability in the civilian world because as it stands now, we are effectively asking the most disenfranchised among us to fight our wars, and this move only makes it more dangerous for them, regardless of rank and benefits.
So yes, equal rights and benefits are necessary, but not at the expense of condoning a system that requires us to kill and destroy for empire and perpetuates a myriad of harms against women, against men too, and against Mother Earth.
It is also hugely ironic that Panetta’s announcement came the same day that Congress was holding yet another hearing on the intractable problem of sexual assault in the military. The truth is that women are more likely to be attacked by other members of our military than by any enemy. The New York Times’ Gail Collins makes the unfortunate suggestion that having more women rise in the ranks might,
make things better because it will mean more women at the top of the military, and that, inevitably, will mean more attention to women’s issues.
Sexual assault in the military is not a woman’s issue. It is an epidemic and a national disgrace that is a direct result of the misguided notion of militarism that posits that strength comes from asserting power over others. Militarism has never been good for women because, among other reasons, it places them in harms way by armies that rape and assault women as a de facto military strategy and because women are more likely to become refugees, unable to support themselves or take care of their families and placing them in further danger of physical and sexual attack.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also makes the argument that more equality will lead to more respect and hence less sexual assault in the ranks, but the military is still a top-down power over structure and women who do serve in lower ranks will continue to be vulnerable. And let’s face it, we live in a country where Congress just failed to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act and where we still don’t have the Equal Rights Amendment and the Senate has yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The disrespect of women’s rights, safety and well-being is a de facto national policy in the U.S.
It is being said that drafting women will inevitably follow and I am not in favor of that any more than I think drafting men is a good thing. Let’s be honest about the mission of the U.S. military. It isn’t to defend this country, there hasn’t been a war for that purpose in my lifetime. Instead we have repeatedly engaged in military operations for the sole purpose of asserting empire and domination.
If the purpose of the military was truly to defend the citizens of this country and make it strong, they would be protecting women from violence in their own ranks and in every city in this country. They would be building up our shorelines to protect us from the inevitable further flooding of climate change. They would be re-building our tattered roads and utilities and installing solar panels so that we do not depend on non-renewable resources (of which incidentally they are one of the biggest users).
But instead, our military serves as the global bully, taking swings at whomever we don’t like at at any particular moment, with little heed to the negative impact that has on us all. And every time there is a war, civilian women who live where the war is being fought are victimized. And here at home more money is poured into the military while social services, education and health care are desperately underfunded and for poor women and women of color we perpetuate the cycle that propels them to join the military for reasons such as getting an education and job training.
So yes, equal rights and benefits are necessary, but not at the expense of condoning a system that requires us to kill and destroy for empire and perpetuates a myriad of harms against women, against men too, and against Mother Earth. That is a false and harmful premise of equality that we must reject.
It’s been almost 3 months since my last post – months spent watching our supposedly democratic country dealing with an election season characterized by too much money being spent to promote far too much dishonesty and hypocrisy while the War in Afghanistan disappears into the nether reaches of newspapers and the effects of over 10 years of war on our soldiers, our veterans and their families becomes a sideshow. I have not been inspired to add my voice to the clutter of voices – until this evening, this first evening of the sun setting too soon on a spectacularly beautiful autumn day. I have spent it feeling thankful that my family was not seriously impacted by Hurricane Sandy and I contributed to the Red Cross relief efforts to help those whose lives will never be the same. I also spent some time this afternoon reading the story my daughter, Maddie, my hero for her work in a special education high school in the South Bronx, sent Susan and me about the latest recipient of a “Blissful Bedroom” makeover. His name is Omar and here is his situation and why he is receiving a makeover of the room he shares with his 11 year old brother:
Omar is a very sweet, loving and expressive young man who is 20 years of age. He is challenged with cerebral palsy which makes him reliant on a wheelchair for mobility and completely dependent on others for all activities of daily living, such as eating, transitioning, bathing, toileting, dressing, etc.
Maddie is part of a small group of educators who have taken it upon themselves to re-decorate the bedrooms of young people whose lives are incredibly challenging and you can see a remarkable short film about Omar here:
There is a song sung at Passover entitled, “Dayenu,” which means, “It Would Have Been Enough,” and truthfully either let alone both of these afternoon pastimes would have been sufficient for me to emerge from my silence to write about, but then I found the story which gives this post its title. I have often wondered how those who are the children of Vietnam veterans have been affected by their parents’ service and I have certainly had some encounters with some who have been deeply impacted, but I definitely felt like my consciousness was raised when I read the story that follows. Christal Presley has written a book, THIRTY DAYS WITH MY FATHER, that chronicles her own desperate journey through the PTSD she inherited from her father’s year-long service in Vietnam. It is a harrowing article about what is surely a very difficult book to read, but one that I feel should be required reading for all politicians who will ever face having to decide whether to send young men and women to war. The last part of the article when Christal tells about meeting the daughter of an Iraq War veteran who suffers from PTSD is riveting and tragic as the same type of trauma that characterized her childhood is occurring with this young child. This is what the focus of the election should be addressing and until and unless we have such candidates I fear we are bound to keep fighting useless wars with countless casualties.
A daughter faces demons of father’s war
By Moni Basu, CNN
updated 10:56 AM EST, Sun November 4, 2012
It took Christal Presley many years to understand how a war that took place before she was even born had marred her life. Her father, Delmer Presley, was traumatized by a yearlong tour of Vietnam, which in turn affected Christal.
(CNN) — Inside a trailer in Honaker, Virginia, is a 5-year-old girl who loves lemon-lime slush. She sleeps in a room with a quilted bedspread and matching purple curtains. She adores her cat Tiger, dogs Smoky and Rusty and a black, pop-eyed goldfish.
Her family is poor, and she is eating potted meat, blowing away cracker crumbs that fall into her lap.
“Daddy,” she whispers when her father, a welder, comes home. He does not respond. His eyes are wild. He collapses into a rocking chair, his hands trembling, his breathing labored.
She doesn’t understand her father’s strange behavior. It’s as though he’s in the grip of the devil.
She hides behind the couch, her knees press against the shag carpeting.
Later, she will remember this moment as the first time she was afraid of her father.
A hole in her soul
Christal Presley, 34, held her breath for two seemingly endless days in mid-October. In Honaker, more than 300 miles away from her home in Atlanta, her father had just received a package in the mail. It contained an early copy of Christal’s new book. On the cover: a sepia-tone snapshot of Delmer Presley holding his rifle in Vietnam.
Christal had staked her whole life on words crafted from love and pain. But what would they mean to her father?
Delmer Presley, Christal Presley’s father, was drafted before his 19th birthday and served a year in Vietnam.
Would they offer comfort like the conversations that resulted in the book? Or would they act as another trigger point for a man who never left war behind?
The trauma began in Vietnam, affected Delmer and then, Christal, says psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, a trauma expert who served on the committee that defined PTSD in the post-Vietnam era.
Christal, he says, suffered profound injury. And it stayed with her.
Outwardly, her life appeared successful: She settled in Atlanta, owned a house, worked as an educator.
But she always felt a hole in her soul. She didn’t know her father — or herself.
How was it, she wondered, that a war that ended before her birth had marred her life in so many ways?
The book became Christal’s salvation — “my last resort to find happiness,” she says.
But she worried about how her father would feel seeing his troubled life exposed to the entire world. Encourage him to read the ending first, she told her mom. That way, he will understand: It’s not just an ugly portrait of pain. It’s a book about healing.
Christal grew up affected by the post-traumatic stress disorder that her father suffered after fighting in Vietnam.
Wishing for normal
Christal was only 5, but she remembers clearly that day when her family came undone. Her father, on his way home from work, had come upon an accident on the highway. His friend, Josh Coleman, was dead.
It was the first time Delmer had seen a body since he returned from his yearlong tour of duty. Thirteen years had passed, but instantly, his mind reeled back to Vietnam: to underground tunnels brimming with snakes and booby traps laced with sharp punji sticks that skewered his buddies like meat.
Christal never knew normal again.
Gone was the man who gave her piggyback rides, ate mud pies and smiled as he watched her play an angel in a school play.
Delmer vacillated between depression, silence and sheer rage.
He locked himself in the bedroom his wife had decorated with shadow boxes filled with Delmer’s medals, Army boots, hats, dog tags and a worn pocket-size military-issue Bible. The room screamed war, Christal says. She was scared to enter.
At Christmas, Delmer never watched Christal open presents. She could hear him playing music in his room.
She learned to resent the guitar her father loved so much. She wished he would spend time with her, speak to her, seek solace in her.
When a truck backfired or Christal dropped a plate by accident, her father leaped up and went into soldier-at-war mode. Christal hated going out to eat at noisy restaurants — everyone just stared.
The worst moments came when he picked up his shotgun and left the house for Little River, announcing to Christal and her mother, Judy, that he was going to kill himself.
As time passed, Christal forgot the daddy she’d once known.
Judy, a Pentecostal Christian, believed you had to be perfect to reach heaven and kept the family’s struggles secret.
Christal pretended to the outside world that their life was normal.
Once when she was 6, she stole a neighbor’s photo of a family trip to the beach. She cut the family’s smiling faces out and replaced them with pictures of herself and her mom and dad. She showed the doctored photo off in class, describing for her classmates what a great time they’d had.
Leaving a war zone
Ironically, it was Delmer’s trauma that enabled Christal to escape her parents’ home.
Until then, every birthday had not been a celebration as much as it was a countdown to the day she’d turn 18 and be able to leave.
The federal government paid for her schooling at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. That’s because by then, the Army had declared her father 100% disabled.
When Delmer returned from Vietnam in 1970, psychiatrists were just starting to recognize PTSD as an impairment. The first diagnosis for Vietnam veterans did not occur until 1980 when Christal was 2.
Veterans weren’t encouraged to seek help, like they are these days. “My dad just thought he was going crazy.”
As frightening as it was for Christal to leave Honaker and be alone for the first time, she felt liberated.
“I was so tired of living in a war zone,” she says. “I really thought my father ruined my life.”
As a girl, she had taken a razor from her mother’s sewing kit and sliced her skin open. She cut herself with an ink pen and stapled her hands.
Hurting herself was a way to be close to her dad. He was in such pain, she thought, that she would be, too.
In college, she mixed anti-depressants with rum and tequila and drank alone. She wanted to numb herself like PTSD sufferers do.
She had her father’s eyes — and his behavior. Severe mood swings. Anxiety. She was hypersensitive to sounds. She stood back and skimmed the crowd in a room, looking for the quickest exit. She was private, reserved. She didn’t trust people.
She told Delmer she hated him.
She went through boyfriend after boyfriend, craving a man’s touch, looking for the affection her father had never shown.
She dreaded driving back home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. As she approached winding John Douglas Wayside in Abingdon and began her climb up the Virginia mountains, she had flashbacks.
She saw herself as a child wrapped tightly around Delmer’s legs, trying to prevent him from going down to the river to kill himself. Or lying on her bed, curled into a fetal ball.
In college, she saw a therapist regularly and didn’t speak to her father, except peripherally, for 13 years. In that time, she came to understand that her troubles were related to his.
“My father got that way from being in Vietnam,” Christal says. “I got it from being around him.”
A baby Christal sits on Delmer’s lap. He found solace in his music and would sometimes play the guitar eight hours a day.
After college and teaching jobs and a brief marriage, Christal settled in Atlanta. But she ventured in several directions in search of an inner peace: to holy sites in the Indian Himalayas, to the halls of academia, where she earned a doctorate in education.
Always, she came up empty.
She’d begun writing as a way to understand herself, and work through her problems. One day, her coach in a writing group challenged her to take on the subject she feared most. Her father.
She decided to ask Delmer if he would participate in a series of conversations about Vietnam. Just in case things became unbearable, she set a time limit for her project: 30 days. She could stand anything as long as an end was in sight.
She was sure Delmer would refuse. Why would he speak about it now when he had kept it to himself for almost four decades?
When Delmer said yes, Christal was taken aback. She had been so certain he would not participate that she didn’t even know how to begin.
The first few conversations were strained. Delmer sounded suspicious.
But by Day Four, he was telling her how he got a draft letter just before his 19th birthday.
“It was after the Tet Offensive, the worst time to be drafted,” Delmer said. The surprise North Vietnamese military campaign is considered the turning point of the war.
“America saw right then that this wasn’t going to be a fast war,” he said. “The American people went berserk, turned against their own. They stopped supporting the war, hated us soldiers like devils.”
Christal was humbled by her father’s words. And appalled to learn of the public scorn. Such a thing would never happen today, she thought.
The conversations continued day by day, through the end of 2009.
Delmer talked about Agent Orange, the defoliant that rained down on the jungle from U.S. planes. He blames it for a tumor he developed in his right lung and cysts on his fingers.
He told her he placed men he knew in body bags for their final journey home. She asked whether he was in My Lai when U.S. soldiers were ordered to wipe out the village — unarmed civilians, including women and children. Delmer told her he was not but that he was ordered to pull guard the day Pentagon authorities went in to investigate.
Christal had read about My Lai. She told her father that 500 bodies were found. “You are wrong about that,” Delmer said. “There were 504.”
Christal had not known her father’s anguish until then — the moments he relived, the guilt he felt for surviving.
With two months left in Vietnam, Delmer welcomed another young soldier to his platoon. The commanders made Delmer trade places with the newbie, who was placed at the front of the line in their battlefield maneuvers.
Christal’s mother, Judy, was embarrassed by the family’s struggles and urged her daughter to keep them secret.
The soldier stepped on a booby trap.
Delmer never came to terms with the soldier’s death. He knew the young man had a newborn daughter he had never seen. Delmer lay awake at night thinking: “It should have been me.”
When her father shared that story, Christal was silent on the phone. She’d thought of her dad as a guy pointing a gun — not as someone who suffered.
The most important review
Days after sending a copy of her book to her father, Christal met a woman who wanted to write about her project for a blog called Family Of A Vet. They talked over lunch at Tin Lizzy’s restaurant near downtown Atlanta.
The woman’s husband did three tours of Iraq and is disabled by PTSD and traumatic brain injury. She takes care of him and her three young children.
Daughter Caitlin, 9, had come along. Christal was talking about her 30-day project when Caitlin piped up.
“Christal,” she said. “My mommy says your daddy was in a war, too.”
“Yes, a long time ago, my daddy was in a war called Vietnam,” Christal told her. “Miss Christal,” said Caitlin. “Were you scared of your daddy like I am scared of mine? My daddy yells a lot and I go into my room and hide.”
“Caitlin,” said Christal. “Sometimes when someone comes back from war, they can’t help themselves. Like a baby who cries.”
Christal had always thought her father was distant and detached because he didn’t love her. She always thought it was her fault.
“Yeah, because they’ve seen bad things,” Caitlin said.
Christal had spoken with other grown children of Vietnam veterans. But this was the first time she saw herself in a child.
Christal contained herself in front of Caitlin. But when she and her mom drove away after lunch, Christal burst into tears.
It was a week before her book launch. Christal had a calendar chock-full of media interviews. She was confident that veteran communities would welcome her book. She was less sure about her father.
It took him two days to finish reading.
The phone rang, finally, on a Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s a good book, Christal,” Delmer told her.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
“Yes, I do.”
No other review was going to matter.
In his footsteps
Along a living room wall in Christal’s home in Atlanta stands a case containing a new Alvarez guitar. Delmer bought it for her three years ago, the first time they spent Christmas together after the 30-day project.
She’d told him she wanted to learn how to play. She knows that without his music, her father might be dead.
It kept him going after he couldn’t work anymore. It was like an extra limb. Sometimes he played for eight hours a day. He loves Ricky Skaggs, Ralph Stanley. War songs. Even wrote one himself.
“Having the guitar here makes me feel like a part of my father is here,” she says.
He sketched out chords for her on pieces of white paper, but Christal has been so busy finishing her book, she hasn’t had time to learn. Soon, she says, she will.
The guitar is not the only talisman in her home tying Christal to her father. Inside a small silver urn is a piece of a sandbag. The color is still a vivid sky blue. Next to it is a piece of asphalt.
She found them in Vietnam.
After the series of talks with her father, Christal felt compelled to go to Vietnam, to Chu Lai, down Route 1, to the place the Americans called LZ (landing zone) Bayonet, to the fire base known as Fat City.
Soldier’s Heart, an organization that supports veterans and their families suffering from psychological wounds, made the trip possible.
She climbed the slope of the landing pad where her father had slept. She gazed at a trench overgrown with grass and yellow wildflowers. The mountains behind her must have been where a young Delmer schlepped through thick jungle with a gun in his hand and a radio strapped to his back.
She could still see tank tracks embedded in the asphalt. And boot prints. Christal stepped inside, Vietnam surging through her body.
She felt ashamed she had treated her father the way she had. If only she could go back in time.
Delmer felt the same way.
He told her he locked himself away because he didn’t want to hurt her.
“I let her down,” he says. “It’s my fault. I didn’t realize I was hurting anyone.”
One time, he was frantic on the phone with Christal. He hadn’t burned any villages or killed any people, he told her as though someone were accusing him.
She no longer thought him crazy.
She told him he’s the bravest person she knows. She is sorry she couldn’t see that earlier.
“I forgive you. I forgive myself,” Christal told him.
Delmer says he’s happy, at least, that before he hangs up the phone with Christal these days, he can say: “I love you.”
There is a temple in Vietnam, lush with ponds and trees with branches hanging low.
Outside, merchants sell birds, turtles and fish. Christal learns that people buy them and set them free in the temple, in accordance with the Eastern belief of the eternal nature of the soul.
She thinks back on a childhood fishing trip with her father. The fish she caught swallowed the hook and worm whole. It bled through the gills and gasped for life. “She’s dying,” Christal howled, begging Delmer to save it.
Delmer was calm, confident. He cut the line, freed the fish and assured her it would live. It struggled for a few seconds and then dived deep into the water.
Christal thinks now her father is like that fish — a survivor.
It is the day before she is to leave Vietnam and journey home. She steps forward, peers at the bags of goldfish for sale. One is black, like the fish she had in her aquarium as a little girl. That’s the one she chooses.
She walks over to the pond, opens the bag and watches the fish swim away.