It wasn't until several years after Karl Marlantes returned home from Vietnam that he realized he wasn't acting like everybody else. "People told me I was doing really weird things," Karl recalls, "but I kept telling myself 'there's no problem, no problem.' It's amazing how unconscious I was of it." It wasn't until a keen psychologist asked Karl if he had ever been in combat that the award-winning author realized his time in the war might have had an effect on his mental health. "It hit me like a ton of bricks." After coming to terms with the reality of his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Karl was able to open up about his experiences serving as a Marine in Vietnam and returning to civilian life, which he narrates frankly and honestly in his new book, What It Is Like To Go To War.
In the opening pages of the book, Karl quotes a Spartan king:
"The nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools."
A graduate of Yale University and a Rhodes scholar, Karl served as a Marine officer in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy commendation medals for valor, two purple hearts and ten air medals. He spent 30 years crafting his first book, Matterhorn, a best-selling novel based on his experiences in Vietnam.
On May 17, U.S.VETS honored Karl at a reception at the City Club in downtown Los Angeles. We invited community and business leaders to the event where Karl and I discussed our experiences returning home from the Vietnam War, and what needs to be done to help the troops returning from the current wars.
War had changed us, just as it is changing the veterans fighting our wars today. There's a state of mind you have to put yourself into when you're in combat and it meant we were in a totally different place from civilians when we get back. We were equipped to fight, but we were not equipped to pick up our lives where we left off before we went to war. In addition, the Vietnam War was unpopular at home and in that war, civilians didn't distinguish the war from the warriors. People back home had little sympathy for the ugliness we had experienced.
In What It Is Like To Go To War, Karl recalls a story of a woman approaching him on a train when he was in uniform, only to spit on him. One of the fundamental truths about war that civilians don't seem to understand, Karl says, is that troops engaged in combat do not carry the burden of war solely on their shoulders. He compares them to tools the rest of society uses to make their lives easier, to perform the necessary tasks no one else wants to do. "Everybody is interconnected to the actions of the warriors." Karl says. "War is not something they did. We did it. This is a republic."
This cultural norm of distancing those who have been in combat from the rest of society made it difficult for many Vietnam veterans to fit in with normal civilian life. Many didn't have any opportunities to talk about what they had been through with others who could understand and help them process it. "People did not talk about things that happened in combat. They still don't. I could not have spoken about any of this six years ago. I would be trembling," Karl admits. But after that first psychologist asked him about his combat experience, Karl got help from the VA and organizations like U.S.VETS.
In recent years, civilian America's attitude about warriors has evolved. Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan usually aren't accosted with the same level of resentment that Vietnam veterans had to face. But the experience of war is the same for all veterans, and Karl and I agreed that Vietnam veterans and other veterans from past wars can be invaluable sources of support for young warriors coming home.
Although the experience of war might be the same, those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have their own set of needs. So at U.S.VETS we've adjusted our programs to fit these needs. U.S.VETS programs such as Outside the Wire and Hiring Heroes have been specifically created to help these veterans make their transition to civilian life as smooth as possible.
With hundreds of thousands of troops coming home, civilians also need to be prepared to welcome them. Karl says that the sacrifices veterans made should be acknowledged, and the difficult but necessary work they do commended, but with solemn respect rather than fanfare. "The parade I imagine has all the rifles facing down, because when a war is over all that's left is sadness. We fail to recognize how sad it is."