by James Savik
A homeless man walked into the convenience store shortly after two in the morning. A young man was playing a pin-ball machine and the clerk immediately took notice of the manís unkempt appearance.
He walked to the cooler and took a carton of milk and a ham sandwich and headed to the front of the store.
The clerk didnít acknowledge his presence. He simply rang up the milk and sandwich and bagged it. The man paid his dollar and fifty cents.
The kid finished his video game, apparently badly, and cursed loudly.
He looked up to see the homeless man and said, ďNow what do we have here? Milk and food? I didnít know you old booze hounds ate real food.Ē
The man ignored him. He took the bag and started to walk out of the store.
The kid rushed toward the homeless man and said, ďHey! Iím talking to you.Ē
Before he could lay hands on the man, he side-stepped the young thugs charge, grabbed his arm spinning it just right to break with a loud snap in two places. He left the store, walked across the street and ate his lunch in a park. Thatís where the police found him.
He did six months at the county jail for assault.
* * *
The enemy came silent and deadly out of the darkness. You didnít dare sleep or you would get your throat cut. You didnít dare have a smoke or you would give away your position and a sniper would put a round in your head or they would drop mortar fire on you.
Sometimes a bunch of them would sneak through the perimeter and try to over-run your position. Sudden, extreme violence would erupt out of the dark with no warning. You could not consider or contemplate. You had to react instinctively like a reflex or die thinking about it.
* * *
The disheveled old man parked his shopping cart behind the dumpster and crawled inside. Amazing what people throw away. Once he had even found a severed human head in a bowling-ball bag.
Disposable people, he thought. Just like me.
He rummaged through the trash with purpose. Copper sells good. Aluminum does too but you need lots of it to make anything off of it.
He pulled on a garbage bag that had a lot of weight to it for its size. He figured that it must have some metal in it. He ripped the bag open and pulled out its contents.
The first thing that came out of the bag was an American flag folded thirteen times: the way that they fold them for military funerals. Most likely a veteran had passed away and their asshole landlord had thrown his stuff out. Thatís how people are.
He sighed with the realization that another buddy was gone but that was the way it had always been: better him than me.
* * *
He graduated high school in the summer of í48 in a sleepy little town in Oklahoma that had a lot more men than jobs. On the advice of a few of the elders in his family he joined the Army that summer. They told him that the Army would make a man out of him and he would get to see something of the world. Besides- it was so soon after the Big ĎUn that he would never see any action.
* * *
He went by and cashed in his haul of scrap and made twenty bucks. That bunch of discarded copper wiring that he had found put him over the top. On his way home he bought some food and a couple of bottles of cheap wine. Itís the only thing that could stop the thunder of the guns- those god-awful guns. And the infiltrators that always came in the dark and silently slit throats.
Why did he have these memories in his head? He wasnít a soldier anymore. He was barely even human.
He tried the homeless shelters and the Good Will but they wouldnít let him drink. They made him go to Alcoholics Anonymous but those people didnít know. How could they know? They werenít there. He sure as hell wasnít going to tell those people that their higher power didnít really give a shit.
He had heard plenty of men pray but he had never heard any answer.
* * *
He was standing watch with his buddy Mac one cold night in a trench on No Name Hill. In the distance he could see the flashes of heavy artillery landing. They were really pasting someone. He watched fascinated and turned and whispered, ďHey Mac. Somebody is really catching hell over there.Ē
Mac didnít respond.
He thought that his friend was asleep. He reached out to wake him and he was wet. An infiltrator had cut his best friendís throat from ear to ear five feet away from his position.
* * *
He did best alone where there was no one to leave him, no one to disappoint or no one to complain about his loud, violent nightmares.
He couldnít sleep at night. The dark always brought back the terror and vigilance that gave him the edge and kept him alive.
The nice young men and women at the VA told him he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was a nice fifty cent word for fucked-up. They would put him in a room with a lot of other drunks and junkies and expect them to talk about it.
What did they want to hear him say? That he saw his friends slaughtered? That he always heard the mortars and the artillery at night and he still felt the hot sting of shrapnel in his face? That they called him a hero and pinned a medal on him because he survived hell?
* * *
They had all been kids when Korea started. They were part of the occupation forces of Japan. They were an Army Division on paper but in reality they were mostly Military Policemen: Traffic Cops.
Then the war started. They were issued old WWII surplus guns and equipment, took a short cruise on a ship and were in combat in a matter of days.
It was a grueling, horrible Darwinian process. Most of his fellow soldiers died because they didnít have the training, support or equipment to do the job. Uncle Sam had sent them anyway. They were all that he had.
They were speed bumps to slow down the big Communist tanks that the Russians had given the North Koreans. His unit had nothing that could stop them and those tanks werenít stopping for traffic cops.
His unit fought and retreated, fought and retreated over and over and every time there was a few less of them.
* * *
He made his way into his make shift home. It had once been a factory but now it was vacant. He climbed stairs and got up as high as he could. The junkies and the other drunks were too lazy to go up that far.
His home was composed of the trash that other people threw out. He had a radio and he listened to ball games when he had batteries. He couldnít stand listening to the news. After all the hell that he had gone through with the Chinese, listening to the way the politicians suck up to China made him physically ill. Sure they have lots of money but no soul.
He lit a candle so that he could see. It was overcast outside and dark as those nights so long ago. He cracked the seal on the bottle. The wine was sweet but he could feel the warmth. He couldnít drink the hard stuff anymore. His stomach wouldnít take it anymore.
He opened up the gun case and took out his 45. The bluing sparkled dimly in the candle light. He pulled back the slide but the chamber was empty. There were two full clips inside the case.
Why didnít he put in a clip and pull back the slide? One round under the chin andÖ NO. Dead men canít fix anything.
Who was he trying to fool? Him? Fix anything? He chuckled at the thought but it kept him alive another day.
He put the gun back in the case and stashed it away carefully and drank himself to sleep.
* * *
That summer was as close to hell as a man could get and still be breathing. Enemy artillery and mortar fire was everywhere. Our own inexperienced artillery men were just as likely to drop it on you as the enemy and when the planes dropped napalm, it didnít really matter who was under it.
It seemed like all they did was retreat all summer long until they came to a place called Pusan. There wasnít anywhere to retreat from there. They had to make a stand or be pushed into the sea.
For six weeks they fought day and night. Bitter, close fighting, sometimes with bayonets or even hand to hand. The artillery, mortars, airstrikes and naval gunfire were constant filling the air with flames, razor sharp shrapnel and reducing the landscape to unearthly gray craters filled with haunted and terrified men.
His unit fought until they were finally relieved. A green outfit fresh from the States came up from behind the lines and they were finally able to move out. His unit got on a ship and was evacuated to Japan.
They were fought out. Most of them had lengthy hospital stays and went home.
Not him though. They pinned medals on him and promoted him to 2nd Lieutenant. He felt like such a fraud. He wasnít a hero. He was just a survivor.
* * *
The first rays of daylight were coming into the upper floor of the old factory as he was finishing his last bottle. Daylight had finally come: he had survived another day. He could finally sleep. He passed out again like he always did.
* * *
They gave a platoon full of kids that didnít need to shave yet. They were impossibly young and so green it was frightening. Most of them were poor kids from the South and none of them had any idea about what they were getting into.
He was the Old Man. They heard stories about his unit. About how twenty-five hundred had started out and less than six hundred came back. They hung on his every word.
He tried to teach them what they needed to know to stay alive. Half of it was getting them to forget the boot camp crap. He told them that if anyone saluted him in the field that he would shoot them himself because the snipers were looking for officers.
He taught them how to dig in. He taught them how to set a perimeter. He taught them about the horrors of night.
Sometimes he didnít think that they believed him. Then they were put in the line and they learned that it was everything he taught them and more.
It was a smart kid from Kansas that bought it first. He would have bet money that kid would have made it. He was the best soldier in the bunch. A mortar shell landed in his fox hole. It was just bad luck that could have happened to anyone.
The next one was from Alabama. He made the mistake of forgetting where he was. He stood up and got shot in the head.
Another one stepped on a mine and bled to death during a fire-fight/ambush before anyone could get to him.
One by one they died: fast, brutal and violent. Or worse: slow and agonizing.
He died inside a little at a time every time he lost one. Damned if he could remember their names but he remembered every face.
The screaming, the crying of boys horribly injured that knew that they were going to die or be mangled for life. The way that they cried for help, some calling for their mothers- thatís something that never goes away.
* * *
He started awake like he always did and looked around. The afternoon sun had the place warm. He stood up with his bones creaking and his joints popping.
It was time for him to get ready to start his rounds again.
* * *
Once again his unit was pulled out of the line for rest and replacements. He was supposed to have a few weeks to train them up but something happened. They said the Chinese were coming and they got stuck back in the line with more green kids.
Again they were beaten back and the old nightmare of retreats came back. His men were mauled and most of the replacements were killed before he even knew their names.
They were told to hold a hill at all costs and the Chinese just kept coming. His men were low on ammunition and surrounded. They were fighting hand to hand now with bayonets. In a desperate gamble he called in artillery fire on top of his position. He expected to die that day but they broke up the attack and allowed reinforcements to arrive.
Half of his remaining men died. He expected to be court-marshaled for calling in artillery that killed so many of his own men.
He was astonished when the Army promoted and decorated him for his actions. It was as if the world had gone mad.
He asked his Company Commander why he was promoting and decorating an officer that got his men killed. The Captain told him that it wasnít about getting the men killed. It was about winning the battle.
He got a Silver Star that he never even took out of the box. It cost too much for him to wear it.
* * *
He never talked about it. He never told anyone about his medals. He tried to not even think about it but the horror and death was so much a part of him that he could no more walk away from it than shed his skin.
He came home and took a job on the night shift at a factory. His natural leadership ability and easy-going manner soon landed him a promotion to supervisor. Management was stunned when he asked to stay on the night shift.
He married a young woman that he met at church and had a son. Things went well at first. She pushed him to go to the day shift but he refused. She saw his nightmares and knew that he had been in Korea. She knew that something was wrong.
One day his seven year old son tried to wake him during a nightmare and he broke the boys arm. His wife and son left him that day.
That was the start of a downward spiral that he never recovered from.
* * *
He left the Army as soon as he could. His departure was a great disappointment to his Commanding Officer. He was being groomed to be a company commander.
He told his CO that he loved the Army but he hated the war. He just couldnít do it anymore- not as an officer. The responsibility for the lives of his men wore him out. He had no way of knowing that the war would be over in a matter of weeks.
He left the Army at the rank of Captain at the insistence of his Commanding Officer.
* * *
They found him dead in a dumpster one bitterly cold February morning. He had a heart attack and died alone in the trash.
He was taken to the Coroners Office where he was eventually identified by his fingerprints. People were shocked to discover that the homeless man that they had ignored for almost thirty years was one of the Republicís greatest living war heroes.
The Army buried Captain William Thompson at Arlington with full military honors appropriate to the man who had won a Silver Star, three Bronze Stars and other medals too numerous to list. Men who had served under him spoke at his funeral crediting him with saving their lives with his courage, experience and vigilance.
Angry editorials were written. How could one of the Nationís heroes die in a dumpster? Experts discussed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on talk shows. Politicians took the opportunity to grandstand but did nothing.
The truth about Captain Thompson was that he succumbed to wounds that no one can see but are just as deadly as gun shots. His life was poisoned by the violence and carnage of that dreadful war. He was as mortally wounded as any other casualty on the battlefield; another casualty of an unpopular and forgotten war.
For this warrior, the road to Valhalla went through hell.
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