Monday, December 29, 2008

A Poem From My Friend Rick

I have been visiting my friend Rick for the past few days. We both served in the same company while in Vietnam during 1967. This evening Rick brought out his "Vietnam Box," a box with a few memento's of his year in war. This poem was in the box, which he had not opened for more than ten years. He wrote it sometime before June 19, 1967, the day of our battalion's most disastrous battle. He knows that he wrote this poem before that day because after the battle he could not write and remembers little of the rest of his year at war.

For Love of God and Nation?

Why me? What did I do?
I gave no one cause to
even feel blue.

Yet now I must go,
thru the muck and the mire
and lord help my soul,
if I ever should tire
for this is a war
such as never before
where no man can rest
lest the enemy come out best
for tho they're farmers by day
come night they're away
to bring havoc on men
that could be my kin

Why me? What did I say?
Why did my neighbors give me away?
To sweat and to toil
on the enemy soil
To fight for my life
For the love of my wife.

They say for the love of God and my nation
I must go through hell and damnation
And try tho I may
I can't get away

Why Me?

Friday, December 26, 2008

From A Walk in the Garden of Heaven

I have been re-reading Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. Something in this passage resonates with me.

"Whatever it is holds us in a spell of wonder when we are children, abandoned me when the war began. I don't mean just me or just youth, I mean something about this country. But I don't mean just this country, I mean the world. I've spent my time searching for what it is, like a suicide who refuses to die, an optimist who is empty, a buoy on th sea."

George Evans. "A Walk in the Garden of Heaven," Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. Maxine Hong Kingston, ed. Kiheri, Hawai'i: Koa Books, 2005. pg. 88

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Church Service

I remember attending church services in Vietnam only a few times. For the most part, we were in the field on small combat operations and away from such religious opportunities. However, one service has set an indelible mark on my memory. It was during the mid part of my tour. Our unit had been in the field for some time and it had been a mouth and a half or two months since I had attended mass. After this period, our company arrived at Doug Tam near the city of My Tho; the 9th Infantry Division southern most major base camp in the Mekong Delta. It was Sunday when we arrived at this camp and after we had unloaded our gear and set up in barracks, I felt a compelling need to find a chapel and the celebration of Catholic mass. I asked around and someone pointed me in the direction across the camp. He said that the chapel was quite a distance away. I set off in late mid afternoon for what I would find was a trek through the dusty base roads. It was a walk in the Delta humidity and hot sun. I was tired when I started and as I walked, I became more tired. On my trek I lost my way a couple of times and had to ask for directions.

When I arrived at the chapel, I walked in to this round wooden building. It had a low rising dome and windows set in around the exterior wall of the structure. Glass windows were unusual in this war zone as explosions from incoming mortar rounds could blow them inward. Although it was not large, it was an impressive structure in the midst of long barracks and other rectangular military buildings most of which were covered with canvas roofs. I was hot, dusty, and tired and felt frustrated after the long walk. Inside the chapel, the altar was set in front of the wall near the door through which I entered. The floor was laid in long planks and the ceiling was open with its beams exposed. A semi-circle of wooden pews, maybe ten rows deep, surrounded the altar on three sides. I quietly took a seat near the door at the right of the altar. In my distraction, I hadn’t taken the misselette from the table next to the door. The misselette is a book with the mass prayers and bible reading for the mass of the day. One man kindly walked to me and gave me a misselette. I must have looked uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the proceedings so this man, a young guy like me, opened the book to the proper page. I reacted in a frustrated way. Some of my religions pride poked out and I said to myself “what’s this guy doing, I’m know what’s going on.” In a few minutes, I began to relax and I settled in for the service. It was early in the mass, the time just after the opening prayers. A soldier got up, walked to the altar, and read the first two readings for the day, one from the Old Testament and the other from the New. I don’t remember the message of those scripture readings nor that of the Gospel passage that the priest read; however, I do remember a few words from the priest’s sermon. They are engraved in my mind.

The priest, a taller man with short graying hair who looked to be in his late forties or early fifties, stood squarely at the ambo at the left of the alter. He spoke about love to the soldiers present. However, his words in no way reflect the Christian message in I Corinthians 13: “Love is patient; love is kind; . . . it does not rejoice in wrongdoing . . . Love never fails . . .” This priest’s words sent another message as he boldly proclaimed a moral stance, “It’s alright to kill as many Vietnamese as you can and you can have sex with as many women as you want. But just make sure that love your buddies!” At first his words sounded appealing. They gave me permission to do things that my teachers and ministers taught were wrong. Then the full impact of what he said set in and I thought, “this man is nuts!” “How could he say such thing and from the alter.” His words shocked me. I was in a daze for the rest of the mass, almost reeling from his words that had little to do with the Christian love instilled in me as I grew up. After the mass, I left the chapel and as I walked back to my barracks anger permeated me as this priest’s words that condoned violence, even unnecessary and indiscriminate violence, and the sexual use of women swirled in my head. I knew that acting on what he said would profoundly inhibit the experience of love for which I longed.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Thanksgiving Poem

Anne Porter's poem, "A List of Praises," is a finely worked Thanksgiving poem especially if we consider that thanksgiving and praise are two sides of the same coin.

A List of Praises

Anne Porter

Give praise with psalms that tell the trees to sing,
Give praise with Gospel choirs in storefront churches,
Mad with the joy of the Sabbath,
Give praise with the babble of infants, who wake with the sun,
Give praise with children chanting their skip-rope rhymes,
A poetry not in books, a vagrant mischievous poetry
living wild on the Streets through generations of children.

Give praise with the sound of the milk-train far away
With its mutter of wheels and long-drawn-out sweet whistle
As it speeds through the fields of sleep at three in the morning,
Give praise with the immense and peaceful sigh
Of the wind in the pinewoods,
At night give praise with starry silences.

Give praise with the skirling of seagulls
And the rattle and flap of sails
And gongs of buoys rocked by the sea-swell
Out in the shipping-lanes beyond the harbor.
Give praise with the humpback whales,
Huge in the ocean they sing to one another.
Give praise with the rasp and sizzle of crickets, katydids and cicadas,
Give praise with hum of bees,
Give praise with the little peepers who live near water.
When they fill the marsh with a shimmer of bell-like cries
We know that the winter is over.

Give praise with mockingbirds, day's nightingales.
Hour by hour they sing in the crepe myrtle
And glossy tulip trees
On quiet side streets in southern towns.
Give praise with the rippling speech
Of the eider-duck and her ducklings
As they paddle their way downstream
In the red-gold morning
On Restiguche, their cold river,
Salmon river,
Wilderness river.

Give praise with the whitethroat sparrow.
Far, far from the cities,
Far even from the towns,
With piercing innocence
He sings in the spruce-tree tops,
Always four notes
And four notes only.

Give praise with water,
With storms of rain and thunder
And the small rains that sparkle as they dry,
And the faint floating ocean roar
That fills the seaside villages,
And the clear brooks that travel down the mountains

And with this poem, a leaf on the vast flood,
And with the angels in that other country.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Viet Cong Tax Collector

I’m carrying the radio for my squad leader, the PRC-25 known as a “prick 25.”
It’s a gray day as we stand in a dry rice paddy. The large row of high bushes with long thin leaves next to us is brown and dry. Clumps of brown dead rice stalks dot the baked and cracked paddies that were in recent months green, lush and filled with water. One of our platoons has sent out a patrol to reconnoiter the surrounding area.

The static squelch of my radio handset indicating a transmission breaks the relative quiet. I begin listening to the transmitted interaction. The leader of the recon patrol, a young sergeant, radios in; “We’ve got a VC tax collector here! He was walking down the road with an old M-1*. He’s an old skinny little guy and he keeps talking in Vietnamese, smiling, and bowing to us. Where shall we take him for questioning.” The voice, an officer on the other end of the transmission, says, “he’s dead.” The squad leader radios back, “you don’t understand; I have a prisoner here. I need to bring him in.” The voice on the other end that’s flat, showing little emotion, and yet malicious says, “I do understand. “He’s dead.” Finally, the squad leader calls back, pleading, “He’s a prisoner, according to the Geneva Convention he deserves protection, where shall I take him!” The officer sends the same reply, “he’s dead!”

I’m feelin’ sorry for the old man, picturing him in my mind, and I’m wishin,’ “I hope they don’t shoot the little guy.” I feel sorry for the patrol leader whose received tacit orders to commit a summary execution and think; “I sure wouldn’t want to live with that guilt if he kills the man.” In a few minutes, shots ring out and I’m continuing to hope, “they shot in the air, broke up the M-1, and let the guy go.” Then reality sets in and I realize that someone, likely the patrol leader, is standing with his weapon over the body of an old skinny Vietnamese man who wanted to live. Now, the man’s dead. There’s a hole in his head and I’m hatin’ the voice and the man who gave the order.

In writing this anecdote, I realize how much anger and hate are still present in me. Moreover, I realize how much I need to forgive.

*The M-1 is a World War II vintage American military rifle.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Common Good

Vincent Miller, in an article in the National Catholic Reporter, speaks of our country's loss of the humane and essential ideal of the "common good." Below is a short excerpt from his article.

"Our instincts for the common good have been dulled by an economic system that reduces us all to individuals. Gone are mutual aid societies, local credit unions, and even company pensions. We’re all on our own now, masters of shrinking 401k accounts. We turn to credit cards in rough times rather than sharing with family and neighbors. Standing alone with our [desire for] tax cuts, we are all going down the tubes together."*

*Vincent Miller. "Catholic 'common good' notions embedded in Obama politics." Nov. 1, 2008.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Night In Blue

Brian Turner sums up a year in war.

Night in Blue*

At seven thousand feet and looking back, running lights
blacked out under the wings and America waiting,
a year of my life disappears at midnight,
the sky a deep viridian, the houselights below
small as match heads burned down to embers.

Has this year made me a better lover?
Will I understand something of hardship,
of loss, will a lover sense this
in my kiss or touch? What do I know
of redemption or sacrifice, what will I have
to say of the dead—that it was worth it,
that any of it made sense?
I have no words to speak of war.
I never dug the graves in Talafar.
I never held the mother crying in Ramadi.
I never lifted my friend’s body
when they carried him home.

I have only the shadows under the leaves
to take with me, the quiet of the desert,
the low fog of Balad, orange groves
with ice forming on the rinds of fruit.
I have a woman crying in my ear
late at night when the stars go dim
moonlight and sand as a resonance
of the dust of bones, and nothing more.

*Turner, Brian. "Night in Blue," in Here Bullet. Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2005. Pg. 64

Sunday, August 31, 2008


The military trains soldiers to look upon the enemy as less than human. Something that is less than human is easy to kill. In war I participation in and observed other soldiers speak in and act in dehumanizing ways. As my wartime experience went on, the destructive nature of my attitude brought me shame. When I observed other speaking and acting in ways that dehumanized people I was repulsed.

Dehumanization is not something that is limited to war. Elements in our society promote dehumanization in a number of arenas. This allows us to kill "easily" in arenas from war to the death penalty to abortion. On a significant level, the American way is expressed in the words, "If you can't deal with it, kill it." Jennifer Fulwiler recognized a pattern of dehumanization in herself and in society. Her article, "A Sexual Revolution," in the magazine"America" speaks passionately and reasonably about why she chose to convert from a stance that supported abortion to a stance that embraces the unborn child.

A Sexual Revolution

Back in my pro-choice days, I read that in certain ancient societies it was common for parents to abandon unwanted newborns, leaving them to die of exposure. I found these stories to be as perplexing as they were horrifying. How could this happen? I could never understand how entire cultures could buy into something so obviously terrible, how something that modern society understands to be an unthinkable evil could be widely accepted among large groups of people.

Because of my deep...

To view the rest of the article, click here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Brian Turner, an American Iraq war veteran, in his book of poems, Here, Bullet, writes concerning Iraq and the war there. His poetry is sensitive to Americans fighting the war, their enemies, the Iraqi people, and the Iraqi society and culture. In “Sadiq” (Friend) he speaks of what is the central reality of war.

Sadiq *
It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient
because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more.

It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequences
seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline
feeds the muscle its courage, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists, my friend,
it should break your heart to kill.

* Turner, Brian. “Sadiq.” Here, Bullet. Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2005.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Other Shots

There are numerous ways to become a casualty in war.

Other Shots

He was from the 1st Cavalry Division. On his first patrol with that division, one of his squad members hit a trip wire connected to the firing mechanism of a booby-trapped white phosphorous grenade or artillery round. The explosion spread white phospherous over every member of the squad. The blast and the burning chemical decimated the squad. White phosphorous; also know as WP and Willie Peter, burned at a low temperature. When particles of WP hit a person, they burn through the skin into the body. The burning is impossible to put out unless the part of the body affects is submerged in water. In effect, white phosphorous burned a person who it hits exteriorly and interiorly until the burning is stopped. In many cases, those whom white phosphorous hit die. This young soldier was the only person to survive that booby-trap attack. Badly wounded, the 1st Cavalry sent him to Okinawa for recovery. After his recovery, the Army sent him back to Vietnam and to our company.

It was a normal day in the Delta in an area that contained banana trees and other taller trees that shaded us from the sky. The terrain was flat and grassy. In our company size operation, we had walked in formation spread out from the men around us about ten meters apart. Spreading out minimizes the number of wounded and killed in case someone tripped a booby-trapped. Grenades have a “kill radius,” measured from the point of explosion, of five meters. Their wounding radius is fifteen meters. Artillery rounds have a vastly wider kill and casualty radius. We traveled through this area all morning until near eleven o’clock when, from our front, two shot rang out. They were incoming and we hit the ground. The VC put those rounds over our heads or in our midst to slow us down. We must have come up on and surprised an enemy unit that did not want to engage us.

After the shots, our commander sent orders for us to break while a squad size patrol went out to recon the area from where the shots came. Sitting on damp ground we got out our C Rations and started eating lunch. I had a B-3 C Ration unit and began eating my canned ham and eggs chopped meal. It was a meal that I liked, but one that almost everyone else hated. While sitting and eating, another shot rang out. The sound was not too far behind me. I couldn’t see what was happening; however, after the shot I heard men speaking urgently and loudly and saw someone run to the area where the sound came from. In a short while, word filtered up to my platoon that the new guy from the 1st Cav had “accidentally” shot himself in the leg while cleaning his weapon. Eyewitnesses said it was a strange almost surreal scene: the guy raised his M-16, pressed it into his thigh, and pulled the trigger. In a few minutes, a dust off, that is a medevac helicopter came in and took the man away. We didn't see him again. I hope that that wound kept him out of the war. I know of another man who during my tour “accidentally” wounded himself. I have no condemnation for those whom, in the devastating war-time environment, take such an action.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Disillusionment--A Scene From My Memoir

After Basic Training

Traditionally, after basic training, the Army gives soldiers a thirty-day leave. For us, this happen in the midst of an airline strike. By this time, I knew that when I returned to Fort Riley I would be in an infantry unit. Several of us, enough to nearly fill a bus, took a Greyhound from Kansas, home to California. It was a long trip going through the hot weather of the western states. During the trip, we passed around liquor and I imbibed. I considered drinking a masculine activity and I wanted others to think of me as a very masculine soldier. Moreover, I wanted to bolster my own sense of masculinity. One morning I took a drink of vodka, for the rest of the trip I had a stomachache. So much for my young image of masculinity.

There was, on the bus, a young soldier, a buck sergeant wearing a three stripe chevron on the shoulder of his dress khaki uniform shirt. He wore a 1st Cavalry Division insignia on the other shoulder. The 1st Cav was already in Vietnam. In ’65 and ’66 they had seen heavy combat and had taken many casualties, particularly in the Ia Drang Valley. The Ia Drang was the first major battle between Viet Cong and American forces. This young sergeant wore a Combat Infantrymen’s Badge (CIB) on his chest along with a few ribbons. The CIB, in particular, denoted that he had seen infantry combat. The Combat Infantryman’s Badge is a silver badge containing, in the foreground, a three inch long by half inch wide blue rectangular box that itself contains a silver rifle. The background is a two inch long silver wreath that protrudes about three-eighth inch above and below the blue box. The wreath is placed eqidistant from each end of the blue box. This quiet young man with his CIB rode along with us new “green” soldiers. I, along with others, was somewhat in awe of this young serious looking and unsmiling sergeant. Three of us new untested infantry soldiers approached this man and attempted to ask him about his experience in Vietnam. He said something about the year in Vietnam being a year without sleep. Then he cut us short looking at us with a sad yet angry countenance. In an almost off hand, but severe voice he said, “you can have that fuckin’ war!” He said nothing more then turned and walked back to his seat.

That encounter left me feeling somewhat afraid and confused. I grew up with John Wayne WWII movies, other war movies, and the television series Victory at Sea that glorified the American infantry soldier in both life and death. The media definitely did not portray our WWII soldiers with the dour countenance and attitude of this soldier. TV, movies, and the culture itself portrayed them as heroes. I was shocked at his obviously angry demeanor and attitude toward the war. This incident readied me for the disillusionment with the war in Vietnam that I developed early on during my one-year tour.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

First Memoir Entry

The memoir/autobiography class that I was a part of ended in the middle of May. During the class, I began a memoir about my year in Vietnam. It is about half done. Below is the opening scene that depicts a pivotal incident in my year of war.


It was late April or early May of 1967 and late at night in the hold of the USS Benewah, a barracks ship and our base of operation anchored near the South Vietnam city of Vung Tau. Our infantry company had just begun patrolling the Rung Sat, a tidal swamp and “free fire zone” a few kilometers outside Vung Tau in the Mekong Delta. Anyone we came upon in this area was enemy. I had been with the men of B Company in the second squad of the second platoon since August of ’66. We had trained together at Fort Riley, Kansas and we sailed to Vietnam together arriving in that country on 28 January 1967. I was close to a number of men in my fifty-man platoon. I felt particularly close to the twelve men in my squad. We knew each other.

Our platoon had not seen major combat nor had it any combat related injuries since arriving in country. However, we knew that the enemy was near because our sister units had taken some casualties, mainly from booby-traps. We had stumbled on one or two VC base camps during first few operations in the Rung Sat. Moreover, we had taken rifle fire during at least one incident while walking through one of these camps. The day before our unit had returned from an uneventful three-day mission. It was somewhere near 0200 as I lay awake in my top bunk. I hadn’t been able to sleep. At 0500, we would move out on Navy landing crafts that would land us for another three-day patrol.

This night, lying awake I prayed in the semi-darkness of the Benewah’s hold. Colored lights, red or yellow, set at the exits of our below board holds cast an eerie and faint yet distinct glow over the whole barracks area. I looked around at the sea of upper bunks and the men in those bunks who each lay over the bunks of two other men. My parents had brought my two brothers and I up as Roman Catholic and from early on I had taken my faith and spiritual life serious. Prayer continued to be important part of my life before and after being drafted into the Army. This night my prayer became especially important. Anxious, I lay on my bunk talking to God. At first, I don’t remember that I asked for anything specific; however, it is easy to conceive that I prayed for my safety and that of the people in my squad and platoon. By then a prayer for a successful mission killing the enemy was definitely not part of my existence. However, as I lay there I drifted into a deeper and more tranquil prayer that, in a short time, became extremely intense and emotion filled. At that point, I had received a gift of prayer; my prayer focused away from myself. It focused on the lives of my companions. In an intensity that took my focus off of my life and drew my focus to my friends I begged God to give me the courage to risk my life even to the point of dying for the other men in my unit. My focus converged on my squad; however, later in my tour God answered my prayer in an expanded manner. God’s focus, I would come to find, is not so parochial. I continued to pray that night and quiet reigned as I rested until our platoon sergeant rousted us and we finished packing our gear. After putting on our gear that included an M-16 assault rifle, three grenades, ammunition, food, water, a protective flack vest, and possibly a can of machine gun ammo or a radio, and various other things that we needed, we walked up the stairs that led to the main deck. Reaching the deck, we walked down a gangplank to a pontoon floated dock and boarded a landing craft that would transport our platoon into the Rung Sat swamp and another three days of patrolling. We were off to another mission that we realized could mean contact with our then enemy. We felt a certain excitement and dread that goes along with the threat of wounding and death.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

I Train Boxers

I have known Fernando for six or seven years and, along with his manager, Joe Burke, have trained him for over two years. At times, I irritated Fernando while I work with him and offer corrections to improve his boxing form and technique. Almost daily, he tells me, with a smile, that he “hates” me. However, he still listens to what I say. Fernando and I are friends. He will have his sixth professional fight in Mississippi late in July.

I Train Boxers,
Professional and Amateur

A few weeks ago, I called
Fernando, our pro.
Can’t remember what prompted
The call.

He answered in his
speedy Spanish tinged English.
The words I heard sounded like
“I love you.”

Immediately, I responded,
“I love you too.” Then,
self-consciously, I asked,
“did you say something
about love?
He said, “no.”

I heard that clearly and
quickly changed the subject.
But my words still remain.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Women's Work

I walk near a group of women
from a graduate class of which I
am of the oldest part.
One class assignment is
a discourse based in
stringing beads.

These women, five or six,
mostly younger,
the oldest perhaps thirty, sit
on marble steps leading to an old
Distinguished building.
Columns stand adjacent to its entry.
As they string their beads,
One of the women, holding
beads and twine in her
spread skirt, looks up and good-
naturedly calls my name.

Thinking her greeting an invitation,
I walk up the stairs and
attempt conversation.
Yet, in their midst I feel
something primal, something timeless:
women stringing beads, making garments,
mending, weaving baskets, grinding maze,
working together.

And together, they
converse, they laugh,
they sit quietly while
I feel alien.
It’s not a man’s environment.

Gently, I ease from their midst as
these women go on with
their sacred communal work—
Their ancient women’s ritual.

Looking back now I surmise:
they did not comprehend
their shared depth of being as they sat
so peaceful, so self-possessed. Yet,
as did mine, their spirits knew.

Monday, June 9, 2008

For Healing

Shortly after the last major incident that I experienced in Vietnam, I wrote my grammar school and high school friend Tom Fernandes. Tom, who was in the Air force, was stationed in Puerto Rico. It was less than a month after above incident that I returned home. I visited Tom’s family about two weeks later.

For Healing

From the war,
I’d letter a sent far away.
To a friend of the night battle I wrote.
Of fear, destruction, death, and
Mutilation I told.
Someone to share with I needed.
To worry my parents I couldn’t.

I left war and visited his family at home.
We had a nice conversation ‘til
Of the letter I told
And of the night I spoke. They went
From sociable and friendly as I talked
To blank and silent.

Is what I felt and, as I walked from their house,
I swore I’d never again speak
Of the war.

I didn’t ‘till, later, some twenty years
And almost crippled from the pain,
Healing required words from the
Memories that I contained.

Robert Jost

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Conversion Story

A friend of mine, Joe Burke, told this story in front of the congregation of his parish. He shared the story with a few of us at King’s Gym in Oakland where Joe and I train boxers together. I found the story so moving that I decided to post it on my blog.

James Whitcomb Reilly and Johnnie Hayes

As Part of our Centennial Celebration, Saint Anselm's has formed an outreach program to contact people in the parish for input on how to better move us forward in our spiritual journey in the years ahead. The committee members, like myself, have been tasked as an advance guard to tell a brief story about when they most felt a part of this parish or maybe felt most welcome. This story is about other things as well but you can draw your own conclusions.

My story is about two people: James Whitcomb Reilly, named after the Hoosier poet from Indiana, and a pastor at Saint Anselm’s of many years ago, Father John Hayes. It is also in part about us as a congregation and how we are all in this together in our faith journey to God.

The story begins when I and my wife Patti moved with our first born to San Anselmo in 1960. The move was prompted by our rent reaching the astronomical amount for a two bedroom flat in San Francisco of $115.00 a month. Imagine! We came to join my brother-in-law and sister-in-law Jim and Betty Reilly who had proceeded us with their own growing family.
With the arrival of our third child, we quickly outgrew our first home in San Anselmo, a two-bedroom, on Morningside Drive. In 1964, we moved to Barber Avenue where we still live and where we welcomed three more children. We and the Reillys both topped out with three boys and three girls each. The move’s timing was perfect because my in-laws were in their mid sixties and had been working all their lives since their early teens. They were more than ready to retire and move into our first home on Morningside Drive. My in-laws had good years in San Anselmo with their grandchildren and their son and daughter-in-law and daughter and son-in-law near them.

Then Reilly got terminal cancer. He would be the first of our clan to die. Reilly was first generation, one of nine children born south of the “slot” in San Francisco. He finished grade school with the good nuns. He was blue collar, hard working, and hard drinking. He was not religious and in fact was often quick to put down the church. But some of that early formation with the good sisters and his very Catholic parents stuck. Reilly was more than a little afraid of his impending death. He hadn’t been in a church except for weddings and funerals in sixty years.
Now enters Father Hayes. I thought Father was not unlike the Irish priests I grew up with. They were strict, conservative, not very approachable, preached much about hellfire and damnation, and gave us large doses of guilt.

How Reilly and Father Hayes got together is a miracle in itself, but get together they did. From their first meeting, Reilly was a changed man. The two had much in common. They were from the same era, both very Irish and, both liked a sip of Murphy’s or Jamison if the right occasion called for it. And they both could frequently find that right occasion. Father met Reilly frequently, heard is confession, and gave the last rites. I know the sacrament has a new name that I’ve forgotten.

Well, Reilly with the grace of God and the help of Father Hayes ended his faith journey at peace and with a clean slate. Reilly could give Father Hayes no greater compliment than to say after on one of their visits, “that Johnnie Hayes is a real priest.” Bottom line, he was a real priest.

Was a soul saved? For sure! Did our loving God put Reilly and Johnnie Hayes on the right place at the right time? Most certainly! Did Johnnie Hayes give Reilly a helping hand when he most needed it in his life? For sure he did. And a strong hand it was.

You can well imagine that Johnnie Hayes will always have a soft spot in the hearts of the Burke and Reilly families. It gives me pleasure to share this story with you, to thank our loving God for the putting in motion the events I just related. And though the priest too has been gone for some thirty years it is only fitting to end by saying—God Bless You, Johnnie Hayes.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

We Need

The poem, “We Need,” portrays the circumstances surrounding a mid-day flashback and the particulars of this flashback. My first blog posting, "Nature and the Unnatural," depicts the flashback incident more fully. The incident in "We Need" occurred during a normal workday. Bill, William Burns, who helped me during this traumatic recall, did two or three tours in Vietnam and later went to Africa as a mercenary. He suffered from numerous physical ailments.

We Need

We sat at the table
during break, Bill and
I and a woman co-worker.
Twenty-five years later
he and I talked
of survival, not battle.
We talked of the monotony,
the lack of sleep, the
heat, the humidity,
the weight we carried,
being continually in water,
and the need for constant
Then, while they
talked, I felt my
head slow drop
and my mind go back.
I was in that tidal swamp
Standing in water between
my ankles and knees.
The heat of the mid-day
sun reflected off the
water’s glistening surface.
I didn’t know how I’d
go on standing on the
edge of hell in the
Rung Sat. Then Bill hit
the table saying,
“Come back Bob!”
At his funeral I spoke
saying: “It’s good to be
with someone who

Robert Jost

Credit: First Published in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, edited by Maxine Hong Kingston, KOA Books, Kihei, Hawai'i

Friday, May 30, 2008

That Night

Malcolm was a young fighter who I trained in the "South Side" barrio of Tracy, California. He was a tough kid. His mother moved her family to Tracy in order to put her children in a more healthy environment than the one they experienced in Oakland in the early 1980. The first time I saw Malcolm fight, this was before I coached for the Tracy Boxing Club, I knew he had the making of a fine fighter. Without much skill he stood toe to toe throwing punches with an older and more experienced fighter. Malcolm had "heart." When we finally got together, Malcolm developed into an outstanding boxer. He had over a hundred amateur fights and for a time he was ranked eighth as a welterweight in the US. His pro career spanned sixteen fights. He was sixteen when I first began working with him. We are still friends.

That Night

It wasn’t the Gloves.*
It was two days before
You fought, just you and
I in that cold, rundown
Gym on Sixth Street.
I was tired of catching
Punches on the pads**, so
I sat down and put you on
The bag. At that point
I knew you ready.
Your dark, glistening,
Fully muscled back
Was a work of art.
Your body moved with
The grace of a ballet
Dancer. I called for the
Punches and you responded—
You were in full control.
I just sat back and admired.

The Gloves, the noise, the
Lights, the excitement, the
Money in the rings, your two
Amazing wins and your
One loss in the finals
That broke my heart,
Those were for the
Crowd and the cameras
And the papers and the others.
That Night,
Two days before you fought
While we worked in that
Cold, run down gym
On Sixth Street was just
For me and you.

*The Golden Gloves Boxing Tournament
**Hand held punching pads

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Posting Again

A friend told me yesterday that it has been twelve or thirteen days since my last post. I did not realize that it has been that long. I finished my spiritual memoir class earlier in the month and looked around the house realizing all that I have let go. So I've been cleaning up the house, repairing my vehicle, continuing to train boxers, and backpacking. On Monday I returned from a five day backpacking trip. It was a good trip. I walked thirteen miles into Henry Coe State Park last Friday reaching Kingbird Pond around 9:30 pm . I stayed there for a day doing some fishing. The fish I caught were mostly small except for one--an eighteen or nineteen inch large mouth bass, the largest large mouth I have ever caught. I left Kingbird walking four more miles to Jackrabbit lake. I caught quite a few fish there.

I'm drawn to the backcountry by the fishing and the physical challenge; however, while there I appreciate the quiet and peaceful setting. The park consists of rolling hills with oak forests, chaparral, manzenita, and other dry country vegetation. Some of the steep protected canyons are lush with green flowering trees. This time of the year the grasses that cover the hills are dry, although there are a few wild flowers. The golden poppies are obvious and beautiful in this dry terrain. About two-thirds of trails and roads that I covered are steep, some reaching fifteen to twenty percent or more. Some of roads and trails, especially along dry Orestimba Creek, are comfortable and flat. The steep trails present some challenging hiking that equate in difficulty t0 those in Sierra Nevadas. Most of the park is semi-desolate. I love the place. Although I am active while hiking and fishing the desolate terrain and the quiet and peaceful setting draws me into relaxation, meditation, and prayer. I try to make walking a meditative process by staying in the present. Sometimes I spend hours in quiet recognizing God's presence in and around me and praying for people that I know. Although I was tired when I returned home, the last day I hiked eighteen or nineteen mile back to my car, I feel refreshed by the whole experience.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

No Great Warrior

This is the most concise statement that I have made concerning my experience in war and the repercussions of war.

No Great Warrior

I have felt but little rage.
I experienced little of the
manic combat
that breed such feelings.
I was merely a confused kid,
an inept, yet sometimes
competent, infantry soldier
who did not shrink from the
close proximity to death.

I felt afraid, exhausted, numb,
occasionally exhilarated.
I attempted to kill. I witnessed death.
I felt the scourge of war.
I knew love in the midst of chaos.

When I arrived home
and for many years after
I hurt.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

For My Son

My son, David, is going to be thirty next week. I wrote this poem for him about ten years ago. I don’t know if he will appreciate that I post “David.” However, I am posting it because I like what I wrote. And I am posting it because I love my son.


I remember that little boy
Who asked me: “Daddy when
Am I gonna get hair under my
arms?” “When are my muscles
Gonna get big?” “I’m too skinny.
Daddy, do I have cancer?”
I would try to reassure you, but
The questions soon returned.

Now I look, proudly, at you
A little thinner than Michelangelo’s
David, yet your Sculptor’s
Art is true—with your almost
Perfectly economical athlete’s
Body: Tall with wide finely
Muscled shoulders, defined
And well proportioned chest,
Biceps like large solid stones,
Stomach, flat and slightly cut,
And legs like strong young
Tree trunks.
And you still complain!
Be satisfied!

Not only does your body
Reflect your namesake,
So too does your
Strong and
Sensitive and
Caring Spirit.

Robert Jost

Sunday, May 11, 2008

For Kay

Kay is the facilitator of our meditation group at the Oakland, California VA psychiatric clinic.
She is a gifted and healing person.

For Kay

I saw in your profile not
merely a clinician,
but a person,
a woman in
our group where
the Spirit is present.

My first glance mesmerized me.
Reticent to stare,
I gazed quickly at you
and away.
Then I returned that gaze
to the radiance of
your person.

Your head
in the subdued
light of our spiritual room and
in the saddness of that day
you listened—
intensely listened—
as Theo spoke of Kevin
and Kevin’s death.

Your gaze did not waver
as your hand,
or just your fingers, rested
lightly on your cheek.
Your hair gently
allowing view of only the profile—
the front of
your face—
A profile in transparency emitting

My glances grew longer, my
mesmerization increased,
your spirit
in the midst of us, your presence is

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Distant Land

Nancy Griffith’s song, “Heart of Indochine” (2005) was one inspiration for this poem. She sings of her experiences in Vietnam, of the Saigon River, and of souls. My other inspirations are fellow combat veterans with whom I regularly interact.

Distant Land

She sings of war dead bodies,
In years past,
“Washed ashore” from
A distant river.
She sings of “those souls
That floated free,”
Released now,
In a “river of peace”—
The Saigon River.

Living soldiers,
Souls, washed back
Onto these shores between
The early 1960s and 1975
at Travis*, and
when there was fog there,
in Oakland or San Francisco**
Not peaceful shores.

To these troubled
Souls peace remains
A distant dream.
A distant war,
A distant time

Where do we find
Peace in this distant land?

Pray for peace on
These remote shores.

Hoa Binh***

*Travis Air Force Base in California where solidiers returned to the United States.
**Oakland or San Francisco Airports
*** “Peace” in Vietnamese

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Saved in the Midst of Saving

This is the longest piece that I have posted here. It is longer than the recommended length for a blog post. However, two friends of mine, Rick and Allan, have asked for copies of this story. I'm posting it for them and others who might be interested. I have shared "Saved in the Midst of Saving" with people I know; however, I have edited parts that took away from the it sequential integrity. Like most of what I post, this story is intense and war related. War hardens people and it, at times, presents circumstances in which people can exercise their grossest fantasies. I remain angry with a country that puts young people in positions where they must make moral decisions that could have long term and life and death consequences.

Saved in the Midst of Saving

It is night in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam sometime in September or October of 1967. Lane’s squad, which has been patrolling along rice paddies, is about to set up a defensive position on the raised area where a family dwelling, a hooch, stands above the rice paddy waters. The men hear an explosion nearby and then the unmistakable “thump” of another round leaving the mortar tube traveling in their direction. Lane hits the ground as rounds exploded. His whole being shakes uncontrollably waiting for the next round to hit. There is no safe place as the VC fire and “walked” rounds toward the squad’s position. Behind him, next to the hooch and in the midst of the attack, Lane hears a commotion and people speaking Vietnamese in a disturbed and anxious way. He looks to see what’s happening and notices a Vietnamese girl not much younger than himself running away from the hooch and the protective earthen bunker that all family dwelling contain. She runs in the darkness between the surrounding trees and looks back in fear toward her house and the gathered American soldiers. Her beauty evens in the dark of that night attack surprises and attracts Lane. He thinks, “What’s she doing out exposing herself to death in a mortar attack?” In minutes, the VC attack stops. From his position, which is away from the house and away from the others, Lane sees the rest of his squad gathered, speaking in low voices. As a sharp fear rises in him, he thinks, “they better spread out. One mortar round or one grenade will wound and kill them all.”

Lane sees one man from the grouped squad turn toward him with an ominous and questioning look and others glance in his direction. Their low talking, that look, and those glances pierce into his psyche and bring about terrible feelings. “They’re gonna rape her” he knows as he looks over at the rest of the squad. Lane’s squad leader has the reputation for atrocities. He’s cut off and preserved ears of dead Viet Cong and he’s pulled gold teeth from Vietnamese bodies. Two other members of the squad, team leaders and the squad leader’s henchmen, have taken on their leader’s macho evil way of soldiering. Lane thinks, “it looks like someone’s done persuading and action’s about to start!”

Lane’s mind begins to race. Instantaneously a number of thoughts flash into his consciousness. They revolve around the decision: “should I join them or should I stop them.” He feels no excitement in the prospect of raping anyone; however, the squad has all of their weapons against Lane and his lone M-16. “If I challenged them, will they kill me on the spot?” “They’re the ones who have my back” in the midst of the constant threat of attack. “Should I go along with them so that they will to protect me?” “What if I do stop the rape, will my squad leader later put me on point and then have someone put a round in my back or blow me away with a grenade?” All of these thoughts conform to this young soldier’s primal instinct for survival and his desire to conform to his peers. All of these thoughts speed through Lane’s mind until two remain: “I have to live with myself” and “she doesn’t deserve to be raped.” At this point, his attraction to this young woman turns to love and his love impels a readiness to act. Lane stands with his rifle at waist level in the assault position pointed in his squad’s direction thinking, “Why am I standing here like this?” Then he hears something deep within say; “keep your weapon there!” And he does.

Another thought enters Lane and another fear rises. He fears that in threatening to stop the rape he’ll certainly need to threaten firing his weapon or fire at the squad possibly killing his own men. Right then, Lane makes the decision to kill if need be to stop that rape. With his weapon pointed in the squad’s direction, he stands feeling devastation and resolve as he imagines his fire rifle’s muzzle ablaze as men fall.

In a few minutes, the quiet talking stops and the rest of the squad disperses to set up for the night. There was no rape and the squad returns to base camp the next morning. In a day or so one of the men from Lane’s squad approaches him and indicates that it was Lane’s presence that stopped the rape. The man says, “we were going to do something, but we were afraid that you would do something.” Lane responds saying with a macho affect, “your damn right I would have!” Then he turns and walks away.

Forty years later, names have left Lane’s memory; however, the image of men ready to rape are imprinted in this veteran’s mind. In contrast, this older veteran remembers the interaction with his squad member while in basecamp. This man’s demeanor bordered on relief, even gratitude. Lane realizes that this young soldier may have come to thank him for stopping him and the others from actions that they would have regretted, actions that would have scarred them for life.

Recently, in a group of combat veterans with whom he meets, Lane shared parts of this story. The facilitator responded saying, “thank you for saving that woman.” Another member, a vet who admits to having acted “crazy” in Vietnam, looked at her and said, “no, he saved himself.” During that awe-full night in the Mekong, something inside had inspired Andrew Lane to do both.

First published in "Veterans' Voices." Mission, Kansas: Hospitalized Veterans Writing Project, INC. Fall, 2007.

Robert Jost

Sunday, April 27, 2008

On Point

The protagonist in the following poem walked point on many night patrols during the last months of his tour in Vietnam. The point position is the lead and most dangerous position in a patrol. In the midst of the danger that war presented and in the midst of the devastating psychological and emotional consequences of war this young man found meaning.

On Point

He walks
Out of a village gate at night
Past the bunkers, looks
Out on the narrow road
And sees the possibility
Of death. And he doesn't care.
For the past months he hasn't
Slept much and he scarcely feels.
He's getting short, but there’s little
At home. He's got few illusions.
“The world”: It’s hard,
There’s little compassion,
And they won’t understand. No,
Life is here. On point he can feel.
Fear and the threat of death
Exhilarate him. He’s been
Scarred and scared and numb
For months. But on point
He can really feel.
There’s people behind him
Who depend on him
And he’s good and he cares,
Though, he doesn’t know
Them well. He guesses it’s
Love and walks
Out on that narrow road and
He’s alive
For one more night.

Robert Jost

Credit: First Published in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, edited by Maxine Hong Kingston, Koa Books, Kihei, Hawai'i

Thursday, April 24, 2008


This poem depicts an incident that happened in November of 1967. In this incident, I was afraid to confront one of my peers and I was afraid of the reaction from my platoon. However, my conscience led me to a right decision.


Our patrol had moved out
into the rice paddies
about a quarter mile from the village gate.
Z was a short distance ahead of me
when he reached
the first hooch in
this area that we called
the “Bowling Alley.”
He walked to the hooch,
took out his lighter, and raised it.
His intention was to
torch the grass dwelling
while the little old man,
whose dwelling it was,
in desperation and anguish
begged him to stop.
Z’s mind was made up
until I raised my weapon,
leveled it at his head and
yelled, “I’ll shoot you if you burn it.”
With little hesitation he
extinguished the lighter,
dropped his arm,
and walked away.

Robert Jost

Monday, April 21, 2008

Springtime in the Rockies

Rick is a friend of mine. We were in the same infantry company in Vietnam and connected after forty years late last year at our company reunion. Rick is a sophisticated country guy. He wrote the following:

Things are good here...It's Springtime in the Rockies! Saw a 2" sprig of asparagus tonight, lilacs are budded, rhubarb has little red nodules poking through the mulch, flower bulbs are sending up leaves...yup...Springtime in the Rockies! 78 degrees yesterday, out in the garden getting plants in and water going...45 today, wind howling like a big dog, back to the greenhouse...yup...Springtime in the Rockies! Went out on the lake Friday (ice is off, took a boat) and caught our trout limit 3 times over...yup...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

More Truth

My son David and I still get together and go fishing. He's almost thirty now. From the time when he was a baby we have enjoyed each others' company. We had good times camping when he was a small child.


laying in a chaise lounge
drinking a bottle of cheap
beer looking up
at the afternoon light
through the umbrella
of oak leaves
my son playing with his
toy grader in the
dirt of our shaded
day spangled campsite

Robert Jost

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Talk Radio and Truth

One Sunday evening a few years back I listened for a while to a conservative talk radio host. Thomas Aquinas teachings gave rise to the Renaissance idea that “truth is where you find it.”* I heard truth that evening.

Talk Radio and Truth

As I listened on the radio
to the harsh voiced and
War mongering G. Gordon
Liddy a caller, during
A conversation concerning
“real men,” spoke of
His ideal real man.

This man, someone the
Caller knew, was a
Master sergeant with
Years in the military.

The image portrayed was
Of a man who was tough.
He’d fought in
Korea and Vietnam and
Now drank a quart of Jack
Daniels while smoking three
Pack of Camels a day.
He didn’t sleep much.

Even Liddy fell
To silence
At the image of this
Profoundly war-scared
Veteran who was dying
Trying to smoke and
Drink into oblivion
The blood,
The bodies,
The death
That his memory contained.


Sunday, April 13, 2008


The facilitator of our veterans art group gave all of us a copy of this. She mentioned the author’s name. I can’t remember it, although I remember that the author is a woman. If I could give her credit, I would. Although considering what she wrote, I doubt that she would mind me posting her words. They speak for themselves.


Takes place in our natural rhythm.

We are creatures of nature. Nature moves: MEDIUM TO SLOW.

Stay in the natural rhythm. Danger: the fast lane!!! Stay out of it. It can be dangerous.
Only go in the fast lane for brief moments.

Longings: what is calling me? There are many longings at various junctures in our life.

Longing=belonging. What new experience do I long for?

Ask these questions of yourself every day.

1.What made me happy today?

2.Where did I experience comfort, peace, deep satisfaction, and contentment?

3.Who or what inspired me today?

If I track my happiness I will find “fire.” I will identify what I need—what I long for.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A Scene at Point Reyes

I have been posting poems and thoughts concerning war and veterans issues since I began this blog. And I am now writing a memoir concerning my year in Vietnam. This stuff is intense and I need a break from that kind of intensity. Those who read this blog might also want a break. I wrote this poem after taking a walk with a friend who worked at Point Reyes National Seashore last year. Point Reyes is located a few miles north of San Francisco. I was a beautiful sunny and foggy day.

Rocks, a Ridge, and Waters
(Dedicated to Lana Schide, the young woman friend with whom I shared the scene.)

Below its saddle, a narrow
brief ridge that
connects two coastline rock masses
separates the ocean and the cove.

The wild, powerful,
even tumultuous beauty of
vast waters
buffeting jagged rocks
and the sands of the shore
juxtaposed with
the tranquil beauty of
the calm, and sheltered,
and deep
other waters.

Standing above on the south rock
in the fog, in the midst of
the mist, I peer into
the wild, the powerful,
the tumultuous, the vast,
the calm, the sheltered, and
the deep.

The scene, the awful, disturbs
and challenges my spirit;
It resonates with
my soul.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


The incident that this poem describes I believe happened a few weeks after the first and largest battle our battalion experienced. We had lost many men. For me, war was a complex experience.


Each end of our quarter
Circle perimeter touched
The banks of two streams
Slightly above where their
Waters’ converged.
Orders were to kill
Whoever moved inside.

The sun set.
Hours later, when the
Celestial lights
Shown through the
Tenebrous clouds,
There came the sound
Of movement. From the
Brush at water’s edge,
At the point of the streams’
Meeting, he emerged.
After a few seconds,
it became clear that
he carried no weapon.

Holding a farming tool or
The navigating pole of his boat
He walked toward
My position—toward me.
“Should I fire?”
“Is he VC or a farmer with a
Family—or both—caught
Out after curfew?”

He kept striding while
I sat with my
M-16. As he walked
By we shared an un-
Comfortable look. Then
I peered as his figure
Faded into the night
And into my memory.

Robert Jost

Saturday, April 5, 2008


“Tenderness” was the second poem I wrote. It was twenty-seven years after the fact. I hadn’t thought of this incident until the fall of 1995. The memories that forms “Tenderness” came to me in parts. I wrote a first draft, however, I knew something was missing. A few days later, while I lay on my bed relaxing the most intense memories that make up this poem slowly appeared in my mind.


I remember a few days or
A week or two before the night we
Had a couple of good conversations—
The ones that touch to the depth.
We talked of combat, of your being
Wounded twice and, I’m sure,
Of the simple things that moved us.

That night in Anu Tan, on
December the 10th, in the midst
Of the battle, while I was on
The chopper pad ready to
Send more wounded out on
Dust-offs*, I saw you coming
Toward me, helping—bringing
A wounded brother in. When
I looked I saw that you were
Wounded, but you said,
“Only slightly,” “There are more
Wounded on the perimeter,” you said.
Then you turned to go back and help.
I almost let you, but something
I sensed said, “Don’t let him go.”
Then that something from
Deep within me welled up
And I said, tentatively,
“Get on that chopper,” but you
Couldn’t hear from the noise.
Then it welled up to fill me
And it broke through. I ran
To you as you walked away
And grabbed you by the back
Of your fatigue jacket, and stopped
You. When you turned in
Surprise I looked at you and in
The fear that I couldn’t persuade
You and almost in desperation,
With all the strength my twenty-
Year-old spirit could muster,
The words exploded out
From me: “Get on that chopper,
Get the fuck out of this
Motherfuckin’ place!
Don’t go back and get killed!”
I said, “I’d get on if I could,
But I ain’t wounded. This is
Your third time**. It’ll get you
Off the line, so go yourself since
You have the chance!” I begged—
Almost forced you to leave.

I don’t remember your name, but
I will never forget the look we
Shared through that open
As that chopper lifted off, when
I stared into your dark face,
Into your eyes, as we were
Surrounded by the noise and
The turbulence created by the
Motor and those blades that
Drowned out the sound of sporadic
Small arms fire and exploding
Rounds; we shared that quick,
Yet intense look
Lighted by that flare-lit night.

I will never forget the Love.

*med-evac helicopter
**It was customery in Vietnam that a soldier who was wounded three times would be given a rear position away from combat.

Robert Jost

Friday, April 4, 2008

Hearts and Souls and Lives

This blog has a major theme that could interest combat veterans and those who interact with them. Considering this it might be beneficial to consider combat veteran Davidson Loehr’s words that call for empathy and compassion from those who would associate with such veterans. His words suggest the basis from which care for veterans need to proceed. Loehr drew on Herbert Butterfield’s critique of documented history. Butterfield comments that the condensation of history into a manageable form eliminates the “chaos” that makes up historical reality:

"There is not an essence of history that can be got by evaporating the human and personal factors, the incidental or momentary or local things, and the circumstantial elements, as though at the bottom of the well there were something absolute, some thing independent of time and circumstance . . . The chaos [of history] acquires form by virtue of what we choose to omit."

Loehr applies Butterfield’s commentary to the healing relationships between Vietnam War combat veterans and caring individuals.

"‘The chaos acquires form by virtue of what we choose to omit.’ In the cases of Vietnam era veterans, the chaos acquires form only by omitting the hearts and souls and lives of the veterans themselves. So that’s really my message and my hope: that you will not try to understand, not try to assign moral values to the stories of individuals in Vietnam, not try to come to an attitude of certainty about the right and wrong of it all. Rather, if you would try to be with us at all, be with us in the chaos and let yourself become confused and disoriented, all awash with feelings, hurts, and memories of both joys and regrets that will never be fully sorted out, never be fully assimilated, and never be gone.
Then, perhaps, we can begin to come home again."

The ambiguity in the word “we” in the last line of Loehr’s statement suggests the benefit for veterans and others. “Coming home” is based on the truths that both Vietnam war veterans and combat veterans of other wars and their friends and associates must come to know. These are truths about humanity that if accepted will help make veterans, minister, associates, and friend whole or at home with themselves.

Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Understanding of History (New York: Norton, 1965): 31,66,68, 97. Quoted in Davidson Loehr, “To Care Without Judging” The University of Chicago Magazine. (Spring 1985): 49, in Walter Capps, Ed. The Vietnam Reader. (New York: Routledge, 1991): 25.

Davidson Loehr, “To Care without Judging” The University of Chicago Magazine. (Spring 1985): 49, in Walter Capps, ed. In The Vietnam Reader: 25.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Prophetic Message

The poet Ted Hughes wrote this poem with young men in mind. Young women participated in combat now. His words now concern both genders. This poem hangs on the door of an Oakland, California Veterans Administration counselor.

Do not madden our young men
With the hiss of the whetstone
And the dream . . . of purging themselves
Of all their bodily violence
In the rapture of battle.
Do not addict them
To the drug of danger --
The dream of the enemy
That has to be crushed, like a herb,
Before they can smell freedom.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Desperation and Devotion

In a class that I attended while in graduate school, Generation X Spirituality, one of the projects that our professor proposed was to make prayer beads. I decided to make a rosary because I have a devotion to that form of prayer. In one class, class members shared their individual experiences with prayer beads. I did not speak until the end of class when, from deep within me, powerful emotions rose along with the memory of a rosary that I carried for a while in Vietnam. A couple of years passed. However, the memory of my experience with that rosary and the memory of my emotional experience in class prompted the following poem.

A Rosary

They always broke
or disintegrated in my pocket.
The ones made of string rotted
when they got wet. The ones made with wire chain
kept breaking apart.

Then the reluctant solution, possibly a sacrilege.
I’d break off ten rounds of linked machine gun ammo.
That’d hold together.
I’d pray on them when we broke
in rice paddies, in villages, along
dikes, next to V.C. bunkers, while on guard, in basecamp,
in the field, on night or day patrol, under fire
So that I’d be able to love.
Something in me had begun to give up on everything else.

Robert Jost

Credits: First published in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace edited by Maxine Hong Kingston, Koa Books, Kihei, Hawai'i

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Very Human Interaction

The following poem presents an interaction between an older experienced war veteran and a young soldier. The incident in this poem occurred while both soldiers were serving in Vietnam. However, the interaction depicted here has a universal aspect: it could have happened, with minor variations, during any war throughout history.

Platoon Sgt. Francisco Royas

In Korea at
Seventeen he’d been
A squad leader—a killer:
Royas was tough.
In this next war he’d
Been tough on us too.
Abundant respect’s what
Us youngsters gave ‘im.

I remember this incident
During a combat operation:
We’d set up, and
Across the perimeter, lookin’
Like an Asian pit bull,
He comes toward me.
With some dread, I’m thinkin’,
“What’s he want?
Wa’d I do wrong?”
Reachin’ me, he’s got
This excited glow and says,
“Tree! I got this new Ham
And Lima Beans* recipe:
You pour out some of the
Juice, put in some crumble
Crackers and a hot pepper,
Add a can a cheese, and heat it up.”
Radiant, almost like a child,
He says, “It’s great!”
And I’m thinkin’,
“He likes me?”

*A C-Ration unit

Robert Jost
Credit: First published in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, edited by Maxine Hong Kingston, Koa Books, Kihei, Hawai'i

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


The writings concerning war that I have posted thus far give a picture of the violence of war. It is important to portray other scenes that depict a different types of events. The scene depicted in “Perhaps” allow one to realize that even in the midst of war some things transcend that terrible environment.


It seems that I would never get
first guard. Usually I was in the
position with my squad leader.
Sergeants always got first guard—
privilege of rank. The advantage
was, first guard gave you time
to get sleepy before your first
two hour of sleep. Most
importantly, it gave you the best
sleep of the night—those two hours
just before dawn. The other two
of us in the position gambled
in some way to get second guard
and avoid the Dreaded third
guard and that numb raw feeling
in the morning. It seem that
I always lost. But then,
sometimes I just gave second guard away.
My legs ached so badly after walking
through mud and in water all
day that I couldn’t sleep well
anyway. I spent those hours
before my guard gazing/meditating
on the vast starlit sky that the
night many times afforded.

Can there be tranquility and peace
in the midst of conflict, in the
midst of war?
Perhaps, God willing.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A Good Friday Poem

This poem is the first that ever that I wrote. It opens my masters thesis. I wrote it in 1996. It comes from an intense place and relates an intense experience.

In Ponchos

They had been kill/died
The day/the night before.
Now they lie in the distance,
Fifteen/twenty, lined
Side by side on a narrow
Rice paddy road
Wrapped in ponchos
To be flown away.

“But we sleep wrapped in ponchos.
They’re just asleep!
It’s ten o’clock in the morning.
The sun’s hot.
It’s too hot &
Too late to sleep!
I’ll run to them &
Shake them & yell
Roll Out! Get Up!”

But they’re

Monday, March 17, 2008

For the Parents--Revised Introduction

"For the Parents" is as relevant today as it was when I went to war. A discussion I had a few years ago with friends concerning how parents might feel if their child went to war prompted this poem. As a parent, this conversation prompted me to think about how I might feel if my son went to war. It is not meant to agitate parents whose child or children are in war or parents whose child will be in war. It merely reflects my understanding of war and how parents might deal with the emotional, psychological, and spiritual difficulties related to having one's child in combat. The "variations" speak of the support that family and community could give to war strained parents and their son or daughter soldiers.

For the parents whose child is a
combat soldier in war:

Don’t think
of the odds: sixty percent
wounded, ten percent killed,
and many deeply scared.

My child is dead.

Then Pray,
'cause in war
survival's a

For the son or daughter whose father and/or mother is . . .
For the sister or brother whose sister and/or brother is: . .
For the wife or husband whose spouse is . . .
For the partner whose partner is . . .
For the grand parent whose grandchild is . . .
For the uncle or aunt whose niece and/or nephew is . . .
For the cousin whose cousin is . . .
For the woman or man whose sweetheart is
For the neighbor whose neighbor is . . .
For the in-law whose in-law is . . .
For the mail deliverer, grocery clerk, dry cleaner, baker, etc. whose customer is . . .
For the councilperson, mayor, senator, etc. whose constituent is . . .
For the president, prime minister, etc whose fellow citizen is . . .
For the country whose citizens are . . .
For the citizen of the world whose fellow citizen is . . .
For the human whose fellow human is . . .
For the God whose loving creation is . . .

Robert Jost

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan

This weekend I have been listening to Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan on KPFA. Winter Soldier is not widely covered in the mainline media. This conference of soldiers who experienced the trauma of war in the Middle East is patterned after the first Winter Soldiers report that took place in 1971. In the first Winter Soldier conference, American veterans of the war in Vietnam told their stories of incidents in war that had deeply scarred them. These were stories of combat, dehumanization, and atrocities that they had been involved in or witnessed while in country. That Winters Soldier report fueled the protest in this country that helped bring the war in Vietnam to a close.

In the present Winter Soldier report, held on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, soldiers again speak of the atrocious situation of war. They again speak of combat, dehumanization and the pressures of war that brought them to the point where the harassment, wounding, maiming, and killing of civilians has become common place. These soldiers’ stories are heart wrenching. I encourage others to listen Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan and consider the situations in these countries where our soldiers, under the stresses of combat, multiply the devastation of war. KPFA will continue to make these soldiers’ stories available on its website:

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Praying For Death

In the Passionate Mystic of the Double Abyss, an important spiritual document, Blessed Angela of Foligno speaks of the deaths of “my mother who had been a great obstacle to me” and her sons and husband’s deaths as a kind of gift. Angela had recently entered the mystical “way.” She indicated that it was “bitter for me to put up with all” of her sons’ and husband’s “slander and injustice.” Bitterness, slander, and injustice might indicate that Angela was in an abusive family situation. She may have longed for these family members’ death because there might have been, in her mind, no other feasible type of release. Angela felt consoled at these family members death, deaths that she had prayed for so that she could more fully enter mystical union with Christ.

Angela’s prayer for her abusers death reminds me of a story a friend told me. Joe said that his Irish mother occasionally “prayed” for people like Mary Kelly. “I don’t like that woman,” she’d say, “and I wish her an early and holy death.” She always qualified her statement with “and that’s not sinful.” Joe, her son, a good Catholic boy, tried to argue against this sentiment. However, his mother adamantly asserted that her prayer was completely moral. *

I wonder if the tradition of Blessed Angela’s pray for the death of family members, difficult people in her life, has carried down through the centuries, altered somewhat.

*Story compliments of “Spider” Joe Burke.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


A couple of months ago I decided to learn the geographic locations of each country in the world. In reality, I was endeavoring back into fifth grade geography. My desire to learn each country’s location came out of frustration. I felt irritated with myself because I did not know the exact location of countries in the news such as Serbia, Guatemala, and Myamar. After taking a few minutes each day studying my compact world atlas, I became somewhat proficient at locating each country on the world map. My testing tool continues to be a website devoted to geography:

After learning the location of each country on each continent, I wanted to retain my newfound knowledge. However, going over each continent regularly became boring. Then a thought came to mind. I can retain in my memory of each country’s location and do something positive at the same time. While I was trying to think of a non-tedious method of retain my knowledge, I remembered that the author Flannery O’Connell, when lupus had nearly drained all of her energy, read only the newspaper and the Bible. The implication of this routine is that she read about and prayed for the troubled peoples and places in the world. (News is usually troubling.)

Somehow, the memory of O’Connell’s routine translated into the idea of going over a continent or two daily praying specifically for the peoples and governments and particular circumstances in each country. This I try to do, praying for those countries in the news that are especially troubled. Praying for the countries of the world allows me to retain what I studied and to integrate what I learned to a spiritual exercise. Obviously, this is something that a grammar school child might figure out on her or his own. That it took me over sixty years to learn this might say something about my late blooming intellectual and spiritual desires. It also might say something about becoming a child of God. Now, when I locate Kenya, East Timor, Kosovo, and Sierra Lione I trust the spirit to inspires in me simple and effective prayer.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Three Shots

"Three Shots" is a poem that I had wanted to write for quite some time. I wrote it late last year based on an incident in which I was intimately involved. I did not witness parts of the incident and wrote based on others' accounts. However, a friend who witnessed what I did not see confirmed the accuracy of what I wrote. I have placed an image that he gave me in the poem's last line. I wrote "Three Shots" without moral evaluation; it is merely a graphic image of war.

Three Shots—A Narrative

We hear, “Get Down! Choppers say there’s
VC coming our way!” Behind a

rice paddy dike, a hundred meters from a river,
I lay,
peering over the dike’s top,

The V.C.—
two young men in shorts,
stripped to the waist, with
no visible weapons, run out
of the bush into the open.
They’re 85 meters away. As they cross

our field of fire, we open up. In the
barrage, I fire hitting one.
He falls.
In exhilaration I shout,
“I got the motherfucker!”

As we move forward, the man
raises his hand and
Is he holding a grenade or is he surrendering?
A shot rings out. Pierced
through his eye into his brain,
the young man falls back, still
alive. When he

reaches the man’s position, our captain draws
his pistol and extends it at
arm's length. Standing

over the young man, he kills him with
a shot him through the head as
the young man,
without words,
with arms outstretched,
begs for mercy. In a few minutes, after

exploding grenades in the river attempting
to kill the man who escaped,
we gather into squads and platoons.
Walking on,
we continue our mission while a
young man’s brains leak out
onto the earth.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

I Feel Sadness

I feel sadness over the fact that many people, mostly young, are entering recruiting stations, committing to military duty, and going to war. There are various reasons for people to enter the military including patriotism, the urge for adventure, unemployment and the lack of job availability, and educational benefits. However, many of those who experience war in Iraq and Afghanistan during and after their wartime experience suffer and will suffer the effects, many debilitating, of war related trauma.

There are many similarity between these present wars and the war in Vietnam. Experiencing that war has had profoundly negative on many of those who fought there. Similarities include the constant threat of mortar and rocket attack, IEDs (command and non-command detonated booby-traps), and outright combat. As in Vietnam, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are in constant threat of wounding and death. Thus, many soldiers and veterans of these recent wars can expect and are experiencing the same powerful effects of being in a war zone. Many war veterans from former wars such as Korea and WWII presently experience these same effects. Below I will share an excerpt of my graduate thesis to indicate some reasons for my sadness.

Symptoms and Effects
Symptomatology related to trauma and war-related trauma includes a number of conditions. Symptoms brought on by trauma that Ronnie Ianoff-Bulman calls “the shattering of victim’s basic assumptions about themselves and the world” include depression, loss of appetite, insomnia, “nightmares of the traumatic event,” flashbacks “in waking life,” “altered states of consciousness in which the individual believes he or she is again experiencing the traumatic event.” Other symptoms include such things as “efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma,” “feelings of detachment and estrangement from others,” inability to feel love, “hypervigilance,” “exaggerated startle response,” and “irritability or outbursts of anger.” Interpersonal symptoms are attested to in the words of Vietnam combat veteran Michael Norman: “Unsettled and irritable, I behaved badly. I sought solitude, then slandered friends for keeping away. . . . I barked at a son who revered me and bickered with my best ally, my wife.”

Robert J. Lifton also speaks of some of the “profound effects” of PTSD on former soldiers:
"They frequently experience various psychiatric illnesses; they are five times more likely than those without the disorder to be unemployed; seventy percent have been divorced; almost half have been arrested or in jail at least once; and they are six times as likely to abuse drugs and alcohol . . ."

William Mahedy speaks of the most devastating effect of PTSD, suicide. In the mid 1980s he noted that “more Vietnam vets have died by their own hand than were killed in combat.”

Ronnie Ianoff-Bulman, “The Aftermath of Victimization: Rebuilding Shattered
Assumptions.” in Trauma and Its Wake: the Study and Treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. ed. Figley, R., Ph.D. (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1985): 18

Steven M Sonnenberg, et al eds., The Trauma of the War: Stress and Recovery in
Vietnam Veterans. (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press Inc., 1985): 5

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. “309.81 Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.” .Available from http://www.crip. org/library/psych/ptsd2/ p. 6.

Michael Norman quoted in Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery. 63.

Robert Jay Lifton, Home from the War. ix.

William Mahedy: Out of the Night, Produced by Taylor J. Granley, JGT Media
Production, 1992, videocassette. (Mahedy also wrote Out of the Night: The Spiritual Journel of Vietnam Veterans. New York: Ballentine Books.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Helping Veterans

Last night I had a phone conversation with a friend. Rick and I both served in the same company while in Vietnam. Part of the conversation dealt with the men and women who are coming back from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both Rick and I have had to deal with the traumatic psychological and emotional aftermath of war—PTSD. We both shared our concern for these new vets who will suffer the long-term effects of combat related stress, in many cases a disabling condition. Many people in our country have pledged their support for these new veterans. However, many do not realize that support for veterans is a long-term affair. The Veterans Administration offers help; however, we cannot rely on only the VA to assist combat scared veterans. Long-term support must come from community, family, and friends. Moreover, long-term support is difficult and painful. One who befriends a war scared vet must realize that to help a veteran one must, on a significant level, enter the veteran’s traumatic memories and pain. For those who live the Christian journey, this entering into is akin to entering and experiencing Christ’s suffering. We must pray for wisdom and strength to sustain us. And we must, following the Samaritan’s example, step out offering care for our psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually wounded brothers and sisters who directly experienced war.

Another issue that it is imperative for veterans’ friends and family to be aware of is that in the past few years the Veterans Administration has put a restrictive rule in place. This rule states that a veteran must sign up for help with the VA within five years of their seperation from the military. For many veterans of other war it has takes fifteen, twenty, or more years for the traumatic pain related to combat to break through a veteran’s denial. It took Rich eighteen-year and me twenty-two year before we sought help for our post-traumatic stress. Friends and family of veterans who come back from war, thus need to encourage or even plead with these veterans to at least sign up with the VA before this time limit expires. Many vets are reticent to do this because they want to put their psychologically embedded war experience behind them. If veterans do not sign up with the VA within the five-year limit, they will lose their chance to receive government-related help and benefits.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Augustine , Sex. and Pain

Recently, in a class discussion on the Confessions of St. Augustine, part of the discussion touched on aspects of Augustine’s life before his dramatic conversion. One aspect of his life that we dealt with was Augustine’s sexual life. In the discussion, some of us wondered if Augustine might have over-emphasized his former desire for “the bed” as part of his pastoral mission. For instance, he may have used experiences from his pre-Christian life to draw people who had similar experiences to the church.
Obviously, it is difficult to discern his reasons for emphasizing important aspects of his life. Moreover, it is impossible to have a complete understanding of Augustine’s psychological and emotional state throughout his adolescence and early adulthood. However, Augustine did indicate that he was sexually active from his youth to near the time of his conversion. Although he indicated that he was faithful throughout the years with the mother of his son, he said that when she left, a painful permanent separation, he found another sexual companion, an interim mistress, to be with before his proposed marriage. His statement, “God give me chastity and continence, but not yet,” and the above might indicate that his desire for sex had some control in his life. In addition, Augustine confessed that his sexual activity along with other things, pride for instance, had burdened him and brought him pain.
This last thought brings to mind two incidents. One occurred when I worked in jail. An inmate with whom I worked and I conversed about addictions. He admitted to both sexual and heroin addiction. I asked him to compare the two. His response was that sexual addiction was “worse.” It is common knowledge that heroin addiction can be very painful. Thus, his admission that sexual addition was worse than heroin addiction focuses light on the powerful negative effects that sexual relations can have. The second incident occurred a few years later when I was in conversation with a woman with whom I worked, a friend. I told her what the inmate had said and without explanation or hesitation, she affirmed his response by simply saying, “he’s right,” or words to that effect. Her words were so matter-of-fact, yet intense that I assume that she had been painfully sexually addicted.
In sharing these memories, I am not trying to intimate that Augustine was sexually addicted. What I am trying to convey is that at times sexual activity, albeit a part of a passing phase in a person’s life, could be so powerfully painful and even compulsive that one might, as Augustine did spiritually, beg for release.

Monday, February 11, 2008

For my first posting, a poem.

The inspiration for this poem was a line from Billy Collins' poem "Nightclub." In the poem the narrator speaks of sitting in a nightclub listening to jazz singer Johnny Hartman and the music that allows those listening to "slip by degree into a rythmic dream." That line made me think of a time in which I slipped by degree into a flashback. This poem depicts the original experience that was the flashback's sourse.

Nature and the Unnatural

Harsh natural forces: searing heat and humidity, freezing cold and wind; and
forces unnatural: life draining and death dealing
conflict, lead the unprotected
into havoc.

Natural and gentle
breezes, rustling leaves,
chirping birds, the cosmic dance
can induce one into
a rhythmic dream.

A young soldier once stood in nature.
Harsh natural forces and forces unnatural
placed him
in an environment of


Sleep deprived, he’d walked beyond
exhaustion carrying the weight of
a weapon, ammunition, grenades,
numbing fear.

Dazed, he stands in a swamp.
The sun’s mid-day heat ricochets off the
water’s blazing surface

Energy continues to
from him as he waits
for orders to move on and
for the elements of war:


booby-traps and ambushes,

He is little more than a shell,
insides spent,
waiting zombie-like to
continue on