Monday, May 28, 2007

A Way To Say Thank You

It's Memorial Day, when we're supposed to remember those who are no longer with us, particularly those who gave their lives in service to our country. But a wise man once told me that funerals aren't for the dead, they're for the living, and so it is with memorials as well. We build them to express our sorrow, our guilt at being alive when they no longer are, or just our wish to remember.

There are many veterans living today, far more than have died in our recent wars, I should think. They, too, need to be remembered. A story in my local paper discussed the experiences of a brigade sergeant major from Ft. Lewis in Iraq and after. It reminded me, as if it were possible to forget, that there are many veterans who returned home without parts of their bodies or with serious psychological problems. The latter, sadly, are all too often not addressed. As we've learned recently, veterans with more conventional injuries are not always treated well, either.

My father, like nearly thirteen million of his generation, enlisted in the U.S. military after World War II began. He became a pilot, learning to fly several heavy bombers, including the B-29. That's a flight of B-29s in the photo, flying past Mt. Fuji on their way to bomb Tokyo. Thankfully, my father's training didn't end before the war did, or he might have been in one of those planes.

What was it like for those who were on those planes? Typically, they'd get up early in the morning, or would wake up at a time most of us would still consider "night", to be briefed about the mission, after which they'd take off in planes loaded with as much fuel and explosives as they could carry. Here's a description of such takeoffs at one airbase on Saipan:

At Isley Field it was common on take off for the pilot of a fully loaded B-29 to hold the wheels to the runway until the final few hundred feet (the last two percent of the runway's length); hauling back at the last possible instant to lurch over the road along the cliff edge; then diving full throttle for the sea far below, gaining airspeed while retracting the wheels; and finally beginning the long takeoff climb as the belly of the plane virtually skimmed the water. More than one of the crews failed at this manoeuvre, especially at night.

B-29 Combat Mission Logs, 1945 of Wm. C. Atkinson, Radar Navigator

If they didn't manage to take off, they'd be hitting the water in an overloaded aircraft, with only a few small hatches from which to escape, if they were lucky enough to be conscious and uninjured after the impact.

Assuming they survived takeoff, they'd have a several hour flight over open ocean before trying to form up with the rest of the planes that would be taking part in the mission.

Sofu-Gan was the assembly point. Sofu-Gan is an item in the very damn middle of the Pacific and at the end of the vast Nanpo Shoto extending south from Tokyo bay. It is an item so small that it didn't appear in the radar until we were almost on top of it and even that never would have occurred if John hadn't had a small bit of luck on his last LoRaN fix. It is a mere finger of rock that sticks out of and breaks the surface of the sea like a stump in a swamp.

B-29 Combat Mission Logs, 1945 of Wm. C. Atkinson, Radar Navigator

Assuming they found whatever little point of land they were supposed to meet near, they would then have to hope that the rest of their group would be there to meet them. Often, that didn't go well:

The nearest B-29 must have been ten miles away. The formation was gone. The whole of Japan socked in like a cup of lousy coffee. After straightening out my muddled bombing problem [we] turned up Suruga Wan and [I] figured it would be just as easy to cross the bay with a long bomb run to Hamamatsu as to go to Motosu-ko and make a near 180 [degree turn]. We turned left and with a few course corrections were zeroed in on the yellow-green blob [on the radar] that was Hamamatsu. We passed Omae-zaka. Course 141 true.

There were, all of a sudden, ships all over hell and back. A lone wolf here, [a] three ship element there, some more single planes and a few larger groups that had managed to reassemble after making it into the clear. Some fellows were even creaming around below in the soup at the risk of an "egg" down the astrodome.

B-29 Combat Mission Logs, 1945 of Wm. C. Atkinson, Radar Navigator

Back then, bombers would fly together for mutual protection. To be alone on a mission was often fatal.

On their first mission, a night bombing raid, William Atkinson and his crew were caught by searchlights over their target, which meant that they drew much of the anti-aircraft fire in the area. Their plane was hit, and they may have only survived thanks to Iwo Jima having been captured by Marines a few weeks earlier.

In short, a typical heavy bombing mission was hours of boredom interrupted by moments of terror, when the animal inside a person's mind would realize that he's trapped in an aluminum tube miles above the earth, with nowhere to hide. If someone was wounded or the aircraft was damaged, the nearest help was hours away. Enough of that kind of stress could damage anyone's personality, I'd think.

Thanks to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or "combat fatigue" as it was then called, fliers who survived the war sometimes didn't do well in its aftermath. Taylor Marsh's uncle was one such man:

My uncle suffered from "battle fatigue." I'll never forget seeing him in the hospital with my mom when I was just a little girl. The once dandy of a man had shrunk to a shell of a human being. He flew bombing missions in WWII, my mom told me, with the never ending flights finally doing him in.

Even The Bravest Get PTSD

Or maybe it was just one horrible mission, who knows? One of the troubling aspects of PTSD is that its causes are still unclear. Some people get it, some don't. The only thing that is clear is that the more someone is exposed to such stress, the more likely it is that they will get PTSD. Contrary to what some believe, it's not just the sissies who get it. Here's a quote from the Seattle Times story about the brigade sergeant major:

At a dusty desert base in Kuwait, [Sergeant Major Thomas] Adams went from unit to unit, telling his fellow soldiers that he was not OK and would seek counseling when he returned. He urged others to do the same.

In the Army, where soldiers often mask the traumas of war, this was an unsettling confession from a leader who had unflinchingly tackled the grimmest of tasks -- even washing out the insides of armored Stryker vehicles bloodied by human remains.

Haunted by memories, a warrior seeks change

By sheer luck, my father didn't have to go through this. He was able to leave the army, go to college, and have a successful career in engineering. He was able to start a family. Would he have been able to do that if he'd been inducted a year earlier, and had to fly combat missions in the Pacific or Europe? Who can say? One thing's for sure, Taylor's uncle wasn't able to, because at the time we didn't understand even as much about PTSD as we do now.

There are many soldiers and marines coming back from Iraq with PTSD. Most are young, with most of their careers ahead of them. Think of the difference PTSD could have made in my father's life, multiplied by all the people who are suffering from PTSD coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. These people will be the engineers, lawyers, doctors, and leaders of tomorrow, if they can overcome what the war has done to them. The opportunity cost alone is almost incalculable, let alone the cost in human suffering.

To be a young soldier in a war is to learn the meaning of "choiceless". They are usually told what to do, where to go, and what not to do or where not to go. The consequences for not following those directions can be drastic. They are often even told when they can sleep and eat, in contradiction to what seems like the most basic human instincts. When they are sent to a war their only choices are to serve or face jail, or worse. That's their duty.

Our duty is to make sure that they aren't sent into a war for frivolous reasons, which as I've mentioned before, we have not done. The other part of our responsibility is to help the soldiers who are hurt in those wars as well as we are able. In that way we've also failed to do our duty.

I think the best way we can thank all these people for what they have done for us is to live up to our end of the bargain.

A good place to learn about how PTSD is being handled by the U.S. military is Ilona Meagher's PTSD Combat.

UPDATE: Added links to the Seattle Times story on Sgt. Maj. Adams, the lamentable opinions of Dr. Sally Satel, President Bush's "advisor" on PTSD, and a quote from the Seattle Times article.


Taylor Marsh said...

Sending people to war for "not frivilous reasons" is right. What a price we all pay for that.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for reminding us about the differences between a war fought because a nation chose to fight and knew the reasons for fighting and a nation led into war on false pretences and insufficient access to the facts.

Cujo359 said...

Thanks, Lynn, although the thought I really people hope take away from this essay is that as a free people, it's our responsibility to make sure we only go to war when it's really necessary. We have no more important responsibility as citizens. That's the idea behind "They Just Run It For Us", it's really our decision, or at least it should be. Give up that decision by either not making it or letting others do it for you, and you're no longer free.

Anonymous said...

Yes, agreed. For so many reasons.

Among others, I shudder to think about the stories and moveie and videos and books and cartoons that the Muslim world will have about the evil Americans for generations to come.

Cujo359 said...

While I was working in Korea, I saw quite a bit of Korean TV. Didn't understand it, mind you, but I saw it. In many of the programs I saw the Japanese, who had occupied the country from the late 19th Century through the end of WWII, were portrayed as abusing Koreans and generally being an evil presence in their country.

Now, to a few hundred million people, we get to be the Japanese.

I feel so much safer now, don't you?