On Vet­er­ans Day, I re­mem­ber ‘Bo­bie’

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By James Bo­vard Jim Bo­vard (www.jim­bo­vard.com) is the au­thor of “At­ten­tion Deficit Democ­racy” and nine other books.

Vet­er­ans Day is a time for pa­rades and trib­utes to those who served in Amer­ica’s armed ser­vices. But most cel­e­bra­tions ig­nore the hu­man car­nage that in­evitably fol­lows when politi­cians send their fel­low cit­i­zens off to for­eign wars. Con­sid­er­ing the end­less wars of the post-9/11 era, we need to re­mem­ber those who fought and never re­cov­ered. I learned that les­son first­hand more than 40 years ago in a Bal­ti­more bus sta­tion.

I was hitch­hik­ing from south­west Vir­ginia to New Eng­land in 1975 when my thumb ran out of luck. I ditched my hitch­hik­ing sign and headed to the Trail­ways de­pot to buy a ticket. That sta­tion was over­stocked with down-and-out types who looked like their luck had also ex­pired long ago. On the other hand, with my scruffy red beard and bat­tered rail­road en­gi­neer cap, no­body mis­took me for a Brooks Broth­ers model.

I was a coun­try boy who scoffed when I re­al­ized that al­most ev­ery­one in that de­pot was avoid­ing eye con­tact with ev­ery­one else. Since I was not aloof, I soon had a guy with a brown bag and a bot­tle sit­ting next to me telling me his life story. He of­fered a swig from the bag, but I de­clined since I never drink any­thing I couldn’t see.

His name — as he printed it in my note­book — was “Bo­bie.” I didn’t quib­ble with his spell­ing, or with the four dif­fer­ent names he called me over the next few hours. (He sat next to me on the bus ride to New York City.) He was a 40-some­thing, gaunt white guy with sunken cheeks and tou­sled hair. Though he was hag­gard, he clearly had a solid build in ear­lier decades.

He was an Army vet­eran who talked of be­ing pinned down for weeks in Korea af­ter the North Korean Army launched a sur­prise at­tack in 1950 that threw Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy into chaos. Bo­bie fi­nally got a re­spite af­ter Gen. Dou­glas MacArthur out­flanked the North Kore­ans with a sur­prise land­ing at In­chon. He didn’t say much about the Korean War, which prob­a­bly seemed a thou­sand years ago to him (and to most Amer­i­cans nowa­days).

But it was in Viet­nam where Bo­bie’s soul got shred­ded. He was on pa­trol one day — part of the John­son ad­min­is­tra­tion’s strat­egy to use U.S. troops as bait to flush out the Viet Cong and North Viet­namese reg­u­lars into fire­fights. Bo­bie saw a young Viet­namese girl, maybe 10, stand­ing knee-deep in a river. He feared she had a grenade be­hind her back so he cut her down with his M-16. He wept un­con­trol­lably af­ter his bud­dies searched the scrawny girl’s corpse and dis­cov­ered she was un­armed. That girl achieved eternal life in Bo­bie’s night­mares.

He said that such in­ci­dents were com­mon­place in Viet­nam and that his own ac­tions “make Cal­ley look like a Boy Scout.” (Lt. William Cal­ley had re­cently been con­victed for mas­sacring Viet­namese civil­ians at My Lai.) I had no way to ver­ify Bo­bie’s state­ments, but it wasn’t like peo­ple re­ceived prizes for con­fess­ing war crimes in bus sta­tions. Al­most 30 years later, David Hack­worth, a re­tired colonel and the most dec­o­rated of­fi­cer in the Army, de­clared, “Viet­nam was an atroc­ity from the get-go. ... There were hun­dreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the num­bers of bod­ies you counted.” Amer­i­can sol­diers faced far more le­gal per­ils for re­port­ing than for com­mit­ting atroc­i­ties; whistle­blow­ers could face crim­i­nal charges for ex­pos­ing war crimes.

Bo­bie spoke as if ev­ery wak­ing hour was a supreme tor­ment. He passed out a cou­ple times dur­ing the trip to New York but he didn’t vomit or die, so he was tol­er­a­ble com­pany.

The bus fi­nally ar­rived in Man­hat­tan’s Port Au­thor­ity ter­mi­nal, which then looked like a dump­ing ground for all the riff-raff on the East Coast. Bo­bie was wob­blier in New York than in Bal­ti­more — the pint of whiskey he chugged on the bus ride failed to im­prove his gait. He told me he was head­ing for a Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion treat­ment cen­ter in Al­bany so I tried to help him find his con­nec­tion. Even­tu­ally, I had to bail to catch my bus to Bos­ton. The last I saw Bo­bie, he was rid­ing up an es­ca­la­tor slump-shoul­dered, look­ing ut­terly be­wil­dered and for­lorn.

Bo­bie was the first per­son I met who had been rav­aged by a war that I had sup­ported when I was a young boy. By the time I en­tered high school, my en­thu­si­asm wanted as the trav­es­ties of that war be­came un­de­ni­able. In 1973, the Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion ended mil­i­tary con­scrip­tion — lucky tim­ing, since I turned 18 the fol­low­ing year. When Nixon re­signed, the Viet­nam con­flict looked like as big a con as Water­gate.

De­spite the hor­rors of Viet­nam, politi­cians did not hes­i­tate to in­ject Amer­i­can troops into for­eign con­flicts where it was im­pos­si­ble to dis­tin­guish friend from foe — what au­thor Robert Jay Lifton la­beled “atroc­ity-pro­duc­ing sit­u­a­tions.” The agony that Bo­bie went through fore­shad­owed the hor­rors ex­pe­ri­enced by Amer­i­can sol­diers who later fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I won­der if many of those vets plagued by post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der are doomed to per­pet­u­ally ride es­ca­la­tors to V.A. hospi­tals that never quite ex­punge their demons.

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