A small quiet voice…

This is guest blog spot from Tom Puetz. Tom joined the The MENding Monologues and shared with us this piece about the chain of violence and how we become trained to become villains and victimizers. And how we can train ourselves not to be. Tom is writing a book about his Vietnam experiences and recommend you Google him.

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A Quiet Voice

Written and lived by Tom Puetz

I remember when I was a little boy back on the farm in Indiana I just wanted to know what made the corn grow. You might say I had a loving reverence for life. Somewhere along the way I lost sight of that. I must have because I dropped out of my second year of collage and volunteered for Vietnam.

Yet, as a war veteran I’m not special. So many have suffered a different kind of war.  So many have suffered the private degradation of domestic violence or lost a loved one to violent crime. So many have subtracted themselves from society because of violence?  So many are afraid to show their eyes, or feel unable to touch life without tainting it? There will be no welcome home parade for them, no medals for the bravery they show by simply living through another day. I wish I had a healing prayer, or ceremony that would bring them back into the fold, to be alive again.

Perhaps there will never be understanding from those who have not felt emotional or physical violence. The task of making sense of it all, of giving some meaning to the road we have traveled is left entirely up to us, the survivors of trauma.  The responsibility of breaking the chain of violence by showing compassion in return for hatred is ours, the walking wounded.

When I was a soldier in the Vietnam War I was on both ends of the chain of violence. I know what it’s like to live in fear, to be trapped, to fell hopeless and abandoned. I also know what it’s like to give in to fear and hatred and kill a man.

I had a turning point while I was in Nam. It was late afternoon. I was getting my squad together to go out on a typical listening point when the word came down the V. C. were moving into a village near our firebase. So our company was assigned to cordon off that village. By the time we got to the village it was getting dark. My lieutenant was new, he had been in Nam for about a week. I didn’t know where the rest of the company was just my platoon. Sgt. Horn had a third squad on point. I was following his squad. He was in the Nipa palm mangrove along a canal at the far end of the village and then we were ambushed.

We started taking AK-47 and machinegun fire coming from the village. We all hit the dirt. We were in the middle of a rice paddy. The only cover we had was a foot high dike. The new guy beside me was scared shitless. His eyes were as big as saucers. I guess I was scared to but I had learned to cover the fear with anger. I crawled up next to my RTO (radio man) and heard the CO, probably on the other side of the village, calling for gun ships.

The lead squad was in the nipa palm, my Lt. was with the first squad still up by the road. My squad was in the middle of the action so the CO gave me fire direction of the two Cobra gun ships.  It was dark now but I heard the gun ships so I marked my position with a strobe. When the lead cobra called for fire direction I gave him the direction and distance from my position. When he swung around to make his run he saw I had directed the fire right down a row of huts on my side of the village. He called me on the radio and said “Tiger three, Tiger three ARE YOU SURE”? I had only seconds to respond. As I was about to key the mike I heard a quiet voice saying “No, stop, don’t do this”. I keyed the mike and said “Yes. I’m sure. Make the run”.

You can’t imagine what two Cobra gunship can do to a village of grass huts. It did end the firefight but we had to stay in position. I laid out in that rice paddy all night thinking about what I had just done. At dawn we moved in to search the village. I decided to walk point. The first person I saw was a mamasan. She was on her knees sobbing and weeping. She saw me, stood up, looked me in the eyes and said “Why! Why! Why!  I heard the quiet voice again. It said ” Tom, you lost your compassion. You de-humanized them. That’s why you could do this “.

More than eighty villagers were killed that night, men women and children.  That was the turning point for me. After facing what I had done, and what I had become in order to do it, I could no longer kill without hesitation or remorse. Before I left Vietnam I started to feel compassion again.  That is a dangerous thing in a combat zone. Still I looked for an alternative to my usual violent response.

When I got back from Nam, I hung around Oakland and San Francisco for a week. I was afraid to go home to Mom and Dad. I didn’t want them to see how I stared out at the world. I didn’t think they could possibly understand what I had done and endured just to survive.

There are probably women in the audience tonight who are afraid to tell mom and dad “My husband hits me sometimes”. There are probably women here who don’t want anyone to know they were raped. I’m guessing there are men in the audience who have hurt the ones they claim to love. Maybe there are men here who have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused.

As survivors of public and private wars we know how fragile life is.

We know how easily humans can inch towards hatred and death until all is madness, meaningless and pointless. We know wars start at home and on street corners.  We know there is a daily struggle moving towards life or towards death. We, as survivors, are more keenly aware than anyone of that moment-to-moment choice.

We do not have the luxury of waking up in the morning and simply living that day. We must choose to live every day. Some days the choice is not clear, but it is always clear there is a choice.  Since we have eaten from the tree of such terrible knowledge, the paradise of a simple life is denied us.

As survivors, we know every act moves us closer to love and life, or closer to hatred and death. We know that every day we look down the barrel of our weapons and chose to pull the trigger or not. We know the path to the killing ground is all too easy. We know about the small heartless acts which lead us to the point where we abandoned ourselves to the madness and strike out. We must not turn away.  We are stripped of our illusions. We know that everyone, every day, has the choice to act out of love, or turn towards the darkness.

If we open our hearts, we will hear a quiet voice. It will tell us that the pain we have inflicted or endured does not define us. What we have overcome is only the beginning.

Then we will know that we have a duty to break the chain of violence that binds us by making each day an expression of our loving reverence for life.

Copyright Tom Puetz 2008

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