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A Viet Nam Veteran: His Name Was Earl

by : Monica Benderman
Wednesday January 4, 2006 - 03:02

by Monica Benderman

His name was Earl. He spent his days in a wheel chair, hand propelled, sitting along the sidewalks of the seawall in a Victorian city along the coast. He kept all of his possessions in a shopping cart, while his valuables hung from the handles of his chair. I met him one night while walking on the beach. I walked past a hollowed out part of the rocky seawall, and something moved. It was Earl, and a blanket. After going across the street and returning with cups of coffee, I sat and listened while Earl talked. He was a Viet Nam veteran. He’d done three tours in Viet Nam; he was an honorable man, torn by his experiences and yet sure of himself and what he believed.

He had been told that he was fighting for freedom, the freedom of his country. But with every tour it seemed that he, and his country, were a little less free. He gave with honor; he fought because he had been told it was right. He fulfilled his duty to his country, but he sacrificed his duty to himself in the process.

Earl returned from the war to his family and to work in the oil industry. No matter whom he was with, he never felt whole. No matter what he did, he never felt free. He gave and gave, a generous man, but everything was taken and never replaced, and the aching grew more painful. No matter how hard he tried, the world seemed to take advantage of him, and he couldn’t say no because he thought giving would be the way to redeem his actions in the hidden swamps of Viet Nam.

Earl had lived on the beach for ten years. The pain grew too great and he could no longer face those who demanded his life. He’d given all that he had.

I returned for many nights, and between sips of coffee and nibbles on dark chocolate, Earl told me his feelings and showed me his world.

I asked him one night if he thought Peace would ever come. Earl responded, “It’s here, people just can’t see it because of all the traffic lights.”

Earl, like the soldiers who fight in Iraq today, served his country believing that it was the highest duty he could perform, that of keeping us free. But he learned, like so many of the soldiers of today are coming to understand, freedom doesn’t come at the end of a gun. War - soldiers sent to kill those we fear. But all that does is give us more to fear. Once we’ve killed many, there will be those who seek retribution, and we will have more to kill. Shall we just blast away until they’re all gone? Then what will be left - people who will then turn on themselves out of fear? What is the point?

America is not free. We are owned by our possessions, by our drive for success, by our need to be superior, by our belief that our way is right. As long as we have material wealth, we will live in fear of someone coming to take it away. How does that make us free?

America will never know peace or freedom as long as Americans believe that monetary wealth is what defines a person’s success. We lock our doors, our cars have alarms, and our businesses have security guards. We have air marshals, and now train and bus marshals. Our travel bags are checked and every purchase we make is done after we present valid identification. How can anyone think we are free? Americans will blame the terrorists, but it is not the terrorists that confine us. We confine ourselves by placing crazy values on ridiculous possessions that have no meaning to life, except as a way to give our neighbors the impression that we have actually made something of ourselves.

We live in fear of thieves stealing away our possessions in the night, “identity theft.” Without the fancy accoutrements we are empty, exposed for the frauds we are.

Americans are all actors in a carefully scripted play. We wear expensive makeup so no one can see our faces. We dress in fine costumes pretending to be something other than what we are. We watch our words and plan our conversations, re-write letters to “friends” until they sound just right. We treat new relations to fancy dinners and extravagant dates, only to have the relationship sour when we can no longer keep up the pretense and the truth is revealed.

Our soldiers can’t win our freedom. Our soldiers will die; more soldiers will fill their ranks. This war will end and a new one will begin, just as soon as another country’s leaders start to see through the threadbare cloak of illusory success that our next administration hides behind under the guise of leading the greatest country on earth.

Until Americans see the truth and face themselves our soldiers will sacrifice for what they believe is a worthy cause. They will return home and try to find their peace with families who tell these veterans that they are honorable as they lovingly try to help ease the inner turmoil that comes from combat. They will try to feel fulfilled in unfulfilling work that pays the bills but confines them even more. They will look at themselves in the mirror and wonder how much more they have to give before they will have won their freedom, and their country finally pays them back by actually making a commitment as strong as theirs in defending peace.

One night during the winter, I visited Earl one last time.

We sat in the rocks and looked out over the waves crashing on the jetties extending into the night. Earl said, “Look out there past the stars, and beyond the white caps. See where the darkest part of the sky touches the darkest part of the sea?” I looked and the two came together touching and seemed to extend beyond the night and it was easy to imagine someone sitting on the opposite shore, thousands of miles away, thoughts in a different language but with the exact same meaning.

Earl put his coffee down and raised both hands. He said, “When I look out at the place where the darkness comes together, that’s when I know that I am finally whole.” He took a breath, and closed his eyes. Quietly he finished, “And it is living here where nothing controls me, and the sound of the surf rocks me to sleep that I know that I am finally free.”

Sgt. Kevin Benderman is a Combat Veteran and a Prisoner of Conscience, serving a 15 month sentence at Ft. Lewis, WA, wrongfully imprisoned for his opposition to war. Please visit www.BendermanDefense.org and www.BendermanTimeline.com for more information.

Monica, his wife, may be reached at mdawnb@coastalnow.net



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