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The Mourning After
By Charles Bivona, New Jersey Peace Action
Memorial Day remains my least favorite holiday. It is my least favorite holiday because it commemorates men and women who died while in the military service. That limitation bothers me. We observe a moment of silence before we barbecue for the people who lived through, and died in, a war. This unsettles me, because, according to this very limited existential either/or scenario — one either survives or dies in war — according to that formula, my father survived the Vietnam War.
I don’t remember specifics from my life with him. My memories are fragmented. As the oldest son, I took the brunt of my father’s traumatized paranoia. I protected my younger brother and sister; they were both so small. I saved my mother’s life on several occasions. The memories spurt in my mind—flashes of violence in a white noise darkness.
By college, sophomore year, the signs of my first major depression were showing. I was twenty-two-years old — three years older than my father in Vietnam. I was empty. I was angry. I felt abandoned, and I had nowhere to focus any of this. I started drinking, a lot.
When I finally found my father — after twelve years of silence — I verbally attacked him. This was my demon father, the man who had almost killed my mother, the man who had repeatedly threatened to kidnap me — and what if I don’t ever take you back to your mother? What then, Charlie?
You fucking asshole! I was screaming and sobbing. I grabbed him by the shoulders. How could you do this to me? You’re my father!
He just took it. He sat there, limp in my hands, staring at the floor. He accepted my hatred, because he agreed with it.
I was shocked.
He sighed. You should kill me. Killing me will make you feel better, son. He shook his head, but his eyes remained focused, dead-straight ahead of him. His wide eyes were always watching.
I’d understand if you did. He shrugged. And I’m going to hell, anyway. He was so sure of this. I killed people, so…
I cried harder. I was lost. I decided to try.
We started meeting for lunch. We sat in diners. We drank coffee. We tried to talk. I still hated him. He still thought I had every reason to.
In the end, his self-hatred so vastly outweighed my anger that I started to lose my taste for it. Slowly, I realized my father was not a monster; he was the victim of one.
He was born on December 13, 1945. Five years prior to his arrival on Earth, the Secretary of State of the United States issued this statement:
Events are transpiring so rapidly in the Indochina situation that it is impossible to get a clear picture of the minute-to-minute developments. It seems obvious, however, that the status quo is being upset and that this is being achieved under duress. The position of the United States in disapproval and in deprecation of such procedures has repeatedly been stated.
Five years before my father’s birth, a political monster was cooking up the monstrous war that would destroy his nineteen-year-old mind. Five years after his psyche was slaughtered, I was born on July 22, 1972.
I grew up in my daddy’s flashback jungle. I watched him beat a gas station attendant over a gas price, viscously attack our neighbor over a sarcastic comment, and attempt to strangle my mother to death with the bottom of his foot. Put your foot here, Charlie. Right on the artery. See?
He was laughing the entire time.
A ten-year-old boy should not have to face his mother’s mortality. Act now, or mommy dies. She’s turning blue. Get him off her now! A ten-year-old boy should not be pushed to attack his father.
I lost my father again in 2002. He called me in a paranoid rage. I know you’ve been spying on me for the past eight years, Charlie. You and your mother and the FBI. Did you think I wouldn’t find out?!
He wouldn’t listen to reason. He threatened violence. I tried one more time. Dad, wait, talk to me. He hung up the phone.
It was April. It was raining outside. I remember thinking, it’s humid. He hates the humidity. It reminds him of the jungle. He’s told me this. He’ll get over it.
He hasn’t. I haven’t spoken to him since. I’ve tried. He’s lost. It’s a tragedy.
My family was lost in the Vietnam War, even though my soldier father survived it. I grieve for it, every day. I memorialize it with every day I survive it. I don’t know what else I can do.
A friend of a relative was close with my dad, after my parents divorced. We had stopped seeing him. He lost visitation rights, due to his erratic outbursts of public violence, so he vanished from my life entirely. It was shortly after my eleventh birthday.
The friend’s story was heartbreaking. After he lost his entire family, my father lived in someone’s basement for upwards of four years. It wasn’t a basement apartment; no, he lived in a basement. Someone was letting him squat there. His “front door” was a rummaged sheet of plywood.
He screwed it into the foundation wall with some rusted old hinges he found. Your father could build anything. His “door” only had one of those eye-hook locks on it, ya know? the friend—another Vietnam Vet—was telling me, but he never locked the door...
The man drifted off into a daze, stared intently into space—dead straight ahead of him, wide eyes, watching—and continued.
Your dad always said he wanted someone to break in and kill him — put him out of his misery.
He said he would never forget the day my father told him that. I’ve never forgotten the story. It is tragic. And it is not fair.
But the past is the past, and this isn’t really about me, or the story I have to tell. My personal struggles and reconciliations are my problems. My karma, if you will.
This article is about the people in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and all the other war zones on our planet. It’s dedicated to another generation of young adults forced to survive an ordeal so stressful, it shatters human minds. Some of these women and men are bound by pride and a sense of honor, dedication, and duty. That astounds me. They are motivated by a love for their family and a desire for the freedom to pursue their own happiness, or worse, by economic desperation and hardship.
They are soldiers. And whether I support their fight, or not, I support them as people. I support them as people because they are also the current and future parents of children.
And since many of these battered soldiers are already speaking out against the horrors of war, and doing it far better than I can — obviously — I will speak out for the unborn children. I will speak as an adult survivor — a former child of war trauma.
This unborn, future generation, will be thrust into a heightened risk of domestic violence, into highly plausible environments of deep insecurity, and an all-too-common level of crippling fear and confusion. The family of a psychologically traumatized soldier can possibly—and often does—stunt the psychological and emotional development of a child. Some of these children may even suffer permanent damage to their personalities.
Many of these babies will struggle through adolescence, into adulthoods of anxiety, depression, and nightmares — the classic signs of post-traumatic stress, fall-out of a childhood in a microcosmic war zone.
And it isn’t the fault of the parents/soldiers.
It is not.
The soldiers, the families, the townships, the states, the entire nation, the planet, all of us — we are all the victims of the same old monster. In the service of an outmoded, misguided, and ever-growing thirst for profit, war is still eating our families.
 U.S., Department of State, Publication 1983, Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941 (Washington, D.C.: U.S., Government Printing Office, 1943), pp. 571-72