Someone gave his nine-year-old nephew an M1 helmet to play with. The M1 was the combat helmet used by the United States military from World War II to 1985. The M1 was also the helmet his father wore in Vietnam.
He sent a text message—an outraged protest—to his sister.
“You should throw that helmet in the garbage. Better yet, you and your son should destroy it together. You should burn it.”
His sister responded:
“Is this about our father? I don’t have a father. He’s an asshole.”
Sammy’s father was an asshole—that’s true. But it wasn’t his fault. He suffered—and still does—from shell shock and survivor’s guilt. Nearly his entire platoon was wiped out in a firefight. Only he and two others made it. He was shot in the leg. He was awarded a purple heart and a bronze star for bravery, valor.
So, when Sammy was a little boy, his father thought he was still in the Vietnamese jungle. He often heard helicopters. He used to sit in the yard and watch the trees—probably scanning for snipers. His eyes were always startled. His wide pupils were fixed in paranoid attention.
And when it rained in the summer—say a late New Jersey August—and the environment became more jungle-like, his father would claw at his chest in panic. Summers were violent in Sammy’s house.
“No!” He was typing furiously into his iPhone. “This is not just about our father. This is about the war I’ve been studying and speaking out against my entire life. This is about the war that destroyed our family. And I just think that…”
She cut him off with a brief text: “Are you OK? Do you need to talk?”
Sammy suffers from clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder. As a result, his family thinks he’s made of porcelain. They check on him. They worry he’s “getting sick again.”
When he calls his mother to say hello, she always answers with, “What’s wrong?” He knows they all do this with love, but it isn’t very loving. It’s insulting and hurtful.
It hurts him because they have no idea who Sammy really is. It’s apparent. They’re mostly ignorant of his values. They don’t know that he’s written for Peace Action, or that he marched on Washington before the Iraq War.
They especially don’t know that he’s been a practicing Buddhist for over ten years. He took formal Tibetan Bodhisattva vows. He considered becoming a monk.
His family doesn’t know what Buddhism is, or what Bodhisattva vows are, or how significant these decisions were to Sammy. They don’t know that he has vowed to work for peace always.
They don’t know that he has made a deep philosophical commitment to education, that he feels it’s his human responsibility to help dispel the suffering of ignorance.
In short, they don’t take him seriously. To them, he’s just crazy Sammy. They smile and shake their heads whenever he talks. Until now, he’s tolerated it.
But that helmet was a line for him. That helmet offended him as a second survivor of the Vietnam War, and as a war scholar.
See, Sammy has studied the state lies behind wars. He’s studied the psychological aftermath, the creative catharsis, the poems of the wars he lived with—hot and cold. He’s written against war.
As a child, he was physically beaten by war. He tried to grieve this with his disabled father when he was in his twenties. They went to the VA hospital for lunch once. Sammy listened to the few horror stories his dad was willing to tell—necklaces made from Vietcong ears.
They cried together—a little.
Sammy wanted to mourn with him, wanted to grieve the theft of both their childhoods. His father didn’t understand.
Sammy moved to explain, but then—out of the corner of his eye—he saw a man whose face was bleached pure white and burned by chemical weapons. Sammy just looked up from his coffee and saw him. He had no lips. He had no eyelids. He had no hair. His face—his entire head—was a giant white scar. He looked like a dying vampire.
Sammy was startled. He couldn’t help but stare. The bleached man noticed his stare and ran from the cafeteria in shame.
Sammy sobbed on his father’s shoulder. He was shocked and ashamed of himself. His father awkwardly soothed me. He told Sammy to never support a war. He hasn’t.
Sammy wondered how that disfigured man would feel if he saw his nephew, a child, wearing that helmet—the same helmet he was wearing when he lost his face.
It made Sammy feel alone. Living with a psychologically shattered veteran taught his sister nothing about war, it seems. She will focus on denying the tragic American legacy of their family—the damage that a war did to all of them—while her son carries on the old lie: war glory.
That was her choice, but Sammy could no longer play along. He learned from the war poets—Wilfred Owen, Randall Jarrell, Bruce Weigl—that there is nothing fun or playful, sexy or glamorous, othere is nothing glorifying about war.
He knows that war is always the sacrifice of the poor, in the name of the self-aggrandized arguments of the rich. And he knows viscerally that war sends shockwaves of trauma through a family—through several generations of a family. War trauma is cross-generational. He is living proof of this, as are his sister, his brother, his mother.
Yet, they put an M1 helmet on that child’s head.
So many have forgotten the government deceit and the shredded minds. The capture of Saigon by the Vietnamese ended America’s war in April 1975. By that time, the Pentagon Papers had been leaked, and everyone was reading the volumes of officially documented lies behind the Vietnam War. Thirty-five years later, the peace movement struggles on, and so many have forgotten.
War is patriotic again. Military video games are cool. Sammy’s nine-year-old nephew is forced into a public school uniform. And his country is bogged down in two new wars. The drum beats on. The horror.
His parents divorced when he was ten. His father disappeared soon after. Twenty-seven years later, and war was still a cancer in his family.
Sammy felt like an exile, an orphan.