|Download PDF of this full issue: v53n2.pdf (27.4 MB)
By Lawrence Markworth
My warrior self has been with me most of my life; my awareness was absent for years, but there were hints of consciousness in my childhood. As a kid, we'd play full-scale war games in a neighborhood full of kids. Every soldier had a gun, ¾ plastic toy, a stick, or a baseball bat. We'd choose sides, the good and bad guys, then run ramped up through the block, over front lawns, jumping back fences, killing each other. "Bang, you're dead." "No, I'm not. You missed." "Did not." "Did." These short skirmishes would end, and we'd start all over again.
When I was seven, my parents added two additional bedrooms to our meager two-bedroom track home in West Los Angeles. I was fortunate to get my own room. My parents asked me what colors I wanted in my bedroom. I requested a red linoleum tile floor, a bright white ceiling, and dark blue walls. My room was like a womb of the American flag. I mounted photos of old Navy and Air Force prop and jet fighters on the walls. I was proud to be an American.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of '62, six months out of high school, in a patriotic act to save the world from Communism, I joined the Navy. Years later, I realized I joined the Navy because I had nothing else to do and wasn't safe at home. A close friend pointed out to me recently the irony in that act: how insecure I must have felt at home to take such a drastic step by choosing the military in a time of war. The warrior arises.
The awareness that I was a warrior opened up to me in early 2016 at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California. I attended an alumni event entitled "Warrior Returns." Ed Tick, Director of Soldier's Heart (Soldier's Heart was the Civil War term for PTSD). Ed spoke on holistic healing methods for returning warriors. It opened my mind to the warrior archetype, something I had denied as soon as I was discharged from the Navy.
In the late '60s, very few people were proud of what we were doing in Vietnam. I started college on the newly minted GI bill in 1966. Only my close friends knew I had served in Vietnam. I told no one in college, especially the young women who caught my eye and interest—denial at its finest or worst. Within six months, I was deeply entrenched in the anti-war movement. I marched with Vietnam Veterans Against the War and dabbled in more radical organizations. While attending UCLA, I went to a few meetings of an ultra-radical group called Venceremos. At one particular meeting, some idiot began preaching the violent overthrow of the United States government. In hindsight, he could have easily been working undercover for a government organization.
Agents of all kinds infiltrated the campus. This isn't just another conspiracy theory. This was the real deal. I know firsthand, but that's another story. Venceramos was way too far left for me, and although I hated the war and my participation in it, I was too much of a patriot to use violence to cast aside our Constitution.
After the war ended, I graduated with a Master's Degree in Library Science from UCLA, again funded by the GI Bill. I began my professional career and had a family. The war was behind me, or so I thought. However, the war dreams and nightmares continued, but I pushed them down and never considered that I fit into the warrior archetype.
The Thomas Fire destroyed 500 homes in my hometown of Ventura, California, in December 2017. The run-to-the-danger mentality of military, veterans, and first responders, my Navy training in fire-fighting, a courageous friend, and a brush fire unit of the Lompoc, California fire department saved our home. The month before, my wife and I traveled to Vietnam with vets, therapists, and fellow travelers. The group Soldier's Heart, led by Ed Tick, sponsored the trip. It was my first time back since 1965. There were five vets, and I never met any of these fine warriors until we all gathered for the first time in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
I was apprehensive about returning. In retrospect, my fears were unfounded, but my imagination had Vietnamese jumping out in front of me on the sidewalks of Hanoi, yelling, "Baby killer!" or "Yankee go home." Our reception was just the opposite. Wherever we were and whoever we met—ex-Viet Cong, ex-North Vietnamese Army, current army officers of the Republic of Vietnam, or civilians they all said the same thing. "We're all the same, warriors, fighting for what we thought was the right cause." "Don't feel bad or ashamed of what you did. Your leaders led you into a bad situation." "Don't have PTSD, it's not worth it." (My personal experience: easier said than done). Many warriors told us, "I had the American in my rifle sights, but I couldn't pull the trigger." That one, I felt, was a stretch, but it was just another way of expressing their humanness and forgiveness.
The highlight of the trip was when our group joined me on a beach in Da Nang. We put together a ceremony honoring those sailors, friends, and shipmates I served with who have passed on. These I honor: Craig Buchanan, David Nagai, Mark Graham, and Blade Underwood. All four have died in the last fifteen years from complications of exposure to Agent Orange, the carcinogenic herbicide the US military sprayed in Vietnam. My ship, the USS Castor, was exposed to Agent Orange while anchored in Da Nang Bay in 1965. I asked Ed Tick the big question, "Why am I here, alive and well and they are not." His answer has been the best response to my question that began haunting me since the time my friends and shipmates first started dying. "You're here to represent and honor your fallen brothers." And that's what I did on that trip to Vietnam.
It's difficult to explain the bond we recent travelers to Vietnam had developed with one another. It's like we served together in the war fifty years ago. Lots of laughs and tears, amazing bonding emotions. One of the vets from the trip offered to sponsor a one-year reunion of the group during Veterans Day weekend 2018 in Washington, DC. We all traveled together in DC in a ten-passenger van driven by our host, George, a US Army combat veteran. We stopped at the Lincoln Memorial, then walked just a few hundred feet to the Vietnam Memorial. I knew the Wall would be overwhelming, so I asked my wife, Sue, to hold on to me. As I walked the Wall and read the names, the "why am I still here, alive?" invaded my psyche like a dark cloud. Honor and representation is the answer. Then I had the epiphany: all these vets here today at the Wall are thinking and feeling the same thing as me. We are not alone.
Then, a strange thing happened. Young men appeared at ground level at the top of the Wall. They were dressed in all white with masks covering their faces. They carried a strange-looking red, white, and blue flag. Their leader had a megaphone and began preaching, "White nationalism is the answer to our nation's problems." I was stunned, frozen in my tracks. Many of the vets not in our group began yelling at the young men, "Take those masks off you cowards." "Get out of here." "We're coming up there to kick your ass." The anger and rage were palpable and quite frightening. I heard a middle-aged woman say to her vet, "I wish I had a permit to carry, I'd blow those guys away."
Racism should have no place in our nation, but of course it does. The white nationalists have a constitutional right to protest. I remember thinking: You're in the wrong place preaching to the wrong people. Why here on this sacred ground, in front of those who served? It did not make any sense to me.
So, this is where we are as a nation? This is what we fought for? Meet hate with hate? Meet bigotry with bigotry. Meet violence with violence? Vets, especially Vietnam Vets, should know this did not and will not work for our nation. Where's the rational discussion, the compassion, the forgiveness? Perhaps we have a lesson to learn from the Vietnamese people.
Lawrence Markworth is a US Navy Vietnam vet. He is a writer, dream teacher, and a warrior for peace, helping him heal from his PTSD.