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Page 35
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<< 34. Letter to the Editor36. Captain Powell cartoon >>

Frequently Asked Questions

By Paul Wisovaty

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A few years ago, I was interviewed by the Decatur Herald & Review in regard to a local PBS documentary in which Barry Romo and I had participated entitled "Vietnam Veterans' Stories." At one point the reporter asked me if I'd ever had any PTSD problems. "No, not at all," said I, quite comfortable that my mental state had survived a round with the 3/5 Armored Cavalry. But I had an afterthought, which I shared with her, and which she apparently found interesting enough to use as the lead for her story. You may decide that for yourselves.

A couple of years before that, I had taken my 16-year-old daughter to see "Forrest Gump." I was enjoying the show, and even got through the Vietnam parts without too much trouble. (Coincidentally, Gump was in my old unit, the 9th Infantry Division.) Then we got to the part in which Gump is reunited with Lieutenant Dann, his old platoon leader who lost both legs in combat. They hit a couple of bars (Dann drinking heavily, Gump just caretaking), had an unproductive bout with a couple of prostitutes, and wound up back in a bar just as the chimes rang out midnight on New Year's Eve. Everybody in the bar was singing and wearing party hats, and generally feeling about as thrilled to be alive as ten or twelve beers can make you. Finally the camera focused on Lt. Dann, who was staring out into space and very clearly thinking, "My life is just total, total, total shit."

That did it. I started to cry, and my daughter, who was obviously a lot more mature than I had been at her age (or maybe am today), said, "Daddy, do you want to leave?" I nodded, and decided to walk outside for a few minutes to get my act together before going back in.

That never happened. We walked out of the theater, on a warm, sunny July afternoon, and encountered dozens of adults and kids walking toward us. They parted like the goddamn Red Sea. They saw this fifty-year-old guy crying and howling and looking (sorry, Barry) real postal, and I never saw so many mothers grab kids into their arms at one time since "Titanic." Through it all, Brittany just held onto my arm. When we got to the car, she decided that this was a perfect time to try out her new driver's license. Good decision.

I think there are a couple of points to this story.

First, I was lucky enough to have my incredibly empathetic daughter with me. I was also lucky to have a very understanding wife at home when we got there. But what about all the 'Nam vets who saw "Forrest Gump" or "Platoon" or "Apocalypse Now" and didn't have those resources? Where was their solace?

Second, my post-'Nam life has not been entirely a bust. I don't make a whole lot of money, and nobody has asked me to run for public office (as a Democrat in Douglas County, that wouldn't be a very successful plan anyway), but I do have a job, and enough things I'm involved in to keep that Ghost of Vietnam outside my back door. This is going to sound either moderately impressive or just downright stupid, but I've been president of Kiwanis, chairman of the Salvation Army, and commander of the VFW. I've even been (if I'm lyin' I'm dyin') Moose of the Year twice. In other words, like I said, I've kept busy. That helps. I do spend some time around the bar, but unlike poor old Lt. Dann, I don't have enough time on my hands to make a lifestyle out of it. My point is: what if I didn't have those things to help convince me I've finally got my shit straight? What if I were, well, Lt. Dann?

Let's wrap this up.

If I had an ounce of a brain, I'd be over at Danville VA asking a shrink about that Gump experience. I'd tell him about Lt. DiNapoli, my old commo lieutenant who got blown up when his jeep hit a mine, about a day after he'd chewed my ass out for something I swore I'd never forgive him for. (I deserved it.) I'd tell him about Frank Scharlau, my old 'Nam buddy I wrote to a couple of years ago who never wrote back, and I keep wondering why. I'd tell him how much I'd love to see Rusty Hammond and Art Macias and Andy Anderson and Al Bokor again, not to tell old war stories, but to ask them the same questions all of us have nagging at us thirty-five years later: "Was I a good soldier? Did you trust me to cover your ass? Am I forgiven if I didn't?"

But I probably won't. I'll just go to the next Chamber of Commerce Thanksgiving luncheon, and maybe they'll give me another award for running the Christmas Kettle Drive. That'll make it all OK. I won't need to ask myself those questions again for a while.

Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW. He lives in Tuscola, Illinois, where he works as a probation officer. He was in Vietnam with the US Army 9th Division in 1968.

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