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Page 22
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And in the End

By Tony Cokely

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On May 18, 1970 I wrote this in a letter to my friend:

"When you are in the Marines you only know you are not going anywhere good!"

Dear Dad,

I never shared with you what I did for you back in May of 1970. I was to depart shortly for the war in Vietnam. I had met a young woman from Vancouver, British Columbia. In 1970 there was a lot of anti-war sentiment and she offered me free room and board if I wanted to desert and go north with her.

I was more than tempted. I hated the Marines and could not see an upside to traveling around the world to help kill people. In college my friends and I had participated in the anti-war movement. It was always more about meeting girls than it was about conscientious objection.

So, this young woman offered me shelter and I was tempted. I shared my dilemma with you and you told me something I have never forgotten. You told me, "If you don't go, you are no longer my son." What a crappy thing that was for you to tell your son.

I went to a bar and had a couple of drinks. Then I made my decision. I am not sure I would have decided any differently without your threat; but, maybe you took that decision away from me. I decided that I would do this one thing for you. I would go to war; I would never tell you if things were bad; and, if I died you would only have the question of whether you forced my hand. You would not have to live knowing how miserable I had been.

I also decided that when I did this one more thing for you my debt was paid. From that time until the day you died and beyond I have followed my own mind.

When I wrote home I sent cheerful letters about the food, the weather and the characters I was serving with. I didn't write down what was really going on. I didn't want to dump that stuff on you and mom. I didn't want you to be any more afraid for me than you already were. I didn't want you to know about the death and worse I was witnessing.

A friend sent me a letter early in my tour. He told me about all the money he was spending fixing up an old car. He said, "In the end only time will tell if it was all worth it." I thought about that statement for quite a while when I read his letter. Actually, I still think about what he said.

I graduated from college through the GI bill. I got the job that turned into my career because I was a Marine. I bought my first house with a VA loan. From the outside I look to be successful; but, there is a dark side beneath the surface. The darkness is the memory of the war.

I have seen what men are capable of doing to their fellow man. I saw between 50 and 100 people die before I was 24 years old. Most of them died in horribly violent ways. I saw torture, desecration of bodies, and booby traps left by our own troops for whomever might stumble upon them.

I was traumatized by what was happening around me and how men became capable of anything. I once found myself in a rage where at best I only severely beat a fellow Marine. The worst result of the beating I am unable to even consider and write down here.

Tell me, what could change an obedient college student into an animal? How did a boy who had attended church with his mother for eighteen years learn to accept the dark actions of his fellows? Those of us who have been where I have been understand that we all became what could be called "Combat Normal."

I got the job, the house, the college education and a disability pension. I also lost some hearing. I gained an anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. I have other medical issues due to exposure to Agent Orange.

I am no longer as healthy as some others my age. This could be for reasons other than the war; but, I was one of the ones fit enough to serve in the military. One could argue that it is because of how I conducted my life after my discharge.

My life has progressed in a combat normal manner. I have had several marriages and more than several long term relationships without the marriage. I have abused alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. I have pursued activities that appeal to adrenaline junkies. All this is combat normal behavior.

I used to wonder why I avoided certain situations. Why do I need to sit near the exit to a room and with my back to a wall? Why am I uncomfortable in crowds where I cannot keep track of what everyone is doing? Why am I afraid that any confrontation might escalate to violence?

I mentioned in a Veterans group that I had only had maybe 5–10 physically violent altercations in my adult life. Everyone just laughed. In retrospect I don't believe any of my college roommates have ever had even one violent altercation. My behavior is not a life choice. Once again, I am just being combat normal.

Dad, I no longer harbor hard feelings for what you said to me. In the first place you would have gotten over my making a different decision. Secondly, I made the decision. After that day, and during Vietnam, I became way too stubborn to suffer fools. I learned to follow my own compass regardless of what others think or say.

I wasn't going to die because I followed a stupid order given by an incompetent. There was a lot of that in Vietnam. There was a lot of that in my work after Vietnam. However, Vietnam made me unconcerned about pissing off fools while attempting to do what is right.

I guess being combat normal has served me well. However, I have trouble maintaining relationships. I am a perfectionist. I expect everyone to think about what they are doing and what they will do next. If one fails to do that in combat someone dies.

I am impatient and critical with others. That is hard on wives, friends and subordinates. It feels to them like I am always blaming them. I know I am like this. Those days and weeks and months I spent in combat formed the way I am. I can no more change this than I can change what you said to me in 1970.

My life has not been bad. There was the subsidized education, the first house and the career that were helped by my service. There is a little money each month now from the Veterans Administration.

These days I can even admit to being a Vietnam Veteran. Vietnam Veterans have outlasted the pendulum swing. We are no longer perceived as baby killers. We are revered by the public these days. I can't believe how many men my age wear their Vietnam colors with pride.

My life is good. My children know they will be loved by me whatever they do. I have been a better father because I understand what is important and what is trivial. I have taught my children to think for themselves.

I never gave my children "or else" decisions. Their homework was theirs and their decisions were theirs. They earned their successes by themselves. I am very proud of them and of their accomplishments. I am proud because they made their own way. Sometimes they sought my advice or consent; but, more often they found their own way. I hope they have never thought they owed me "one last thing."

I forgive you for any mistakes you made. I could have done without you telling me to go to war or I wouldn't be your son. But, that was a long time ago and it probably changed little in my life. As my friend wrote so long ago, "In the end only time will tell if it is all worth it."

Tony Cokely was drafted into the Marine Corps and served from 1969 to 1971. He retired after 29 years as a government employee, proud union member and officer. He lives in the California foothills.

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