Joe Barrera: Stories that Heal

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There was a picture in The Gazette a couple of months ago that really got to me. The photo was front-page, full-color, and it was pure heartbreak. In the picture a grieving mother is on her hands and knees decorating the grave of her son. I could feel the pain of her broken heart. That awareness prompted me to propose a solution for veterans’ suicides.

The suicide of that mother’s son, the “ideal Marine,” as he was called, a young Colorado Springs veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a senseless tragedy. It was senseless because the alienation from society that often precedes suicide can be prevented. We already know how to do it. We have solutions. We just need to implement them.

I would like to propose one good solution, simple, easily done and effective in healing the soul damage caused by war. Once we understand the soul damage of war veterans, especially combat veterans, we then have the option of implementing what we call The Military Veterans’ Community Dialogues. What are the Military Veterans’ Community Dialogues? They are opportunities for soldiers to tell their stories of war and coming home from war to other soldiers and veterans in non-judgmental, supportive, structured but informal sessions, in the presence of families, friends, and community members.

Please note: In the presence of loved ones, spouses, families, friends, and just as important, members of the public, the community at-large. It is common for veterans not to talk about their war experiences to “civilians,” which includes their families and friends. But in the Dialogues, they will open up and tell their stories to other soldiers and veterans. The families, friends and community members listen, absorb many things they have never heard before, and they react, they begin to tell their stories. All the group – soldiers, veterans, families, friends, community members – start to talk.

Healing begins once psychically damaged veterans start to tell their stories and listeners extend acceptance. All veterans deserve help in their readjustment to civilian life, which for many can take a whole lifetime. What is commonly not understood, however, is that like the young Marine who committed suicide, those who are combat veterans very often need a heightened level of support. Tragically, the “Ideal Marine” never got that. As a combat veteran of the Vietnam War I know the need for this kind of support. Because they are built on community, the Military Veterans Community Dialogues, which we have been doing since 2005, can provide some of that support. No amount of professional therapy at the VA or any where else, however competent and well-intentioned, can substitute for true community.

The principle idea motivating the Dialogues is first an honest understanding of what happens to soldiers in war, especially the soldiers who do the actual fighting. Secondly, it is to propose the creation of a true community, a network of responsible people actively bringing war veterans back into the embrace of the society they have fought to defend. When soldiers tell their stories there is a chance they will heal their trauma. If we heal trauma we reduce suicides. What is combat veteran trauma? There is an emptiness in the lives of many war veterans that is difficult to fill.

When infantry soldiers and others who actually fight are trained for war. they are trained to be the weapon that we use against aggressors, the sharp edge of the sword that bends our enemies to our will. This is the morality of war, if we can speak of war as a moral thing. We must destroy our enemies before they destroy us. This justification – however much it is believed in the beginning – ultimately fails to convince many soldiers, especially in the kinds of war we have been fighting since 9/11. We have been fighting insurgencies which create a moral dilemma because we kill non-combatants.

Like the Vietnamese in my war, Iraqis and Afghans will resist. They will fight against us. This resistance causes untold civilian casualties, including women and children. The consequence is that we have many soldiers who did their duty honorably but are now afflicted with soul damage, who are suffering from what is called “moral injury.” Moral injury can create a corrosive guilt. Out of this guilt a fateful remorse is born and a terrible sadness that defies healing. Soldiers who return from fighting insurgencies struggle to forget the war, to conquer guilt, to re-integrate. But for some this is very difficult if not impossible.

They do not see any hope of becoming normal again. They are at home, but not at home. Many develop a consciousness of futility which leads to depression. This leads to a desire to end the suffering, to seek solace in oblivion, to just slip away into nothingness. To die.

~ O~

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and one of the founders of the Colorado Springs Military Veterans’ Community Dialogues.

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Los Dias de los Muertos – The Days of the Dead

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We are in the autumn of the year. Another year falling down to die in December. We roll past All Saints and All Souls, remembering Heaven and Purgatory, the days of the dead, los Dias de los Muertos, as we say in Spanish.

Autumn is like that, bringing remembrances of the dead. But memory is strange. Instead of dying, memories come to life, more real than the people and events from which they spring. My memories are of the Vietnam War, rapidly receding into the distant past, and of the soldiers who populate those memories. Soldiers appear, stand and speak. They come to petition, to ask for my favor.

Sometimes I cannot answer them. They are too insistent, wanting to hold me accountable lest I forget them. The dead of the Vietnam War, like the dead of all wars, wish only to be remembered. But the Vietnam dead have a special poignancy about them. They do not want to be consigned to the gray world of shameful memories, even if their war is often perceived that way.

So I am patient with them. And I am patient with myself. Before I had Vietnam memories, I had other memories, the World War II stories that I heard growing up. I came home from the Vietnam War in 1968, in the autumn of the year. I came home to south Texas. I was a combat veteran, home from the war, but yet not home, unable to return to the civilian world, as combat veterans often cannot.

But it was a good homecoming. My uncle was there to greet me. He was an old soldier. He had landed with the Second Infantry Division on D+1, June 7, 1944. Reynaldo V. Zuniga, that was my uncle’s name. When I think of my war I always think of him. I remember the stories he would tell.

My uncle would sit with his cronies, among them another combat veteran named Ray Hernandez, who had been with the 36th Division, the Texas National Guard outfit savagely mauled by the Germans at the Gari river in Italy and finally at Monte Cassino. There was another man, a small, quiet, dark-skinned man. This man’s name was Jose Lopez. He would come to visit relatives in Brownsville, then stop to visit my uncle before returning to San Antonio. They had been in the same regiment during the war, Jose Lopez in M Company.

In December 1944 he killed 132 Germans in and around the Belgian village of Krinkeldt. He shot them down with his .30 caliber machine gun. He was alone. His comrades had fled in the face of the German onslaught. For that action during the Battle of the Bulge Jose Lopez won the Medal of Honor.

The stories would usually start on D-Day. That was my uncle’s glory. He jumped off the ramp of the LCI, into water that nearly covered his head. “I held up the man next to me,” he would say. “I’m six feet-two, so I saved him from drowning. And the Germans were still shooting at us.”

He was seventeen when he ran away from home in 1940 together with his best friend, Ernesto Vela. The boys hitchhiked to San Antonio and joined the Army’s Second Infantry Division, the famous Indian Head division. The profile of the stoical Indian warrior is the proud insignia of the Second Division, a fitting symbol for the many south Texas Mexican Americans who fought, bled and died in that combat division in World War II.

Ernesto was killed in Normandy. He lies in the American cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer, overlooking Bloody Omaha, the beach where so many men died. My uncle still talked about him many years later, and I would listen, listen so much that I felt that I knew Ernesto, that he was my comrade, too.

He was rapidly promoted and was very soon an NCO, the platoon sergeant, even if he was a hard drinker and a hard brawler, ready with his fists and even more ready with his sarcasm. But he had leadership qualities. I remember that he was a natural leader and I certainly wanted to follow him.

My uncle lasted three months in combat. He was wounded three times. The last wound was almost fatal. It was in September, 1944. The U.S. Second Infantry Division was now part of Patton’s newly activated Third Army, tasked with clearing the Germans out of the Brittany peninsula and liberating the port city of Brest.

Reynaldo Zuniga was a platoon sergeant in I Company, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. He led from the front, always from the front. He was that kind of man. He ran out in front of his men, and I can hear him shout, “follow me!” It was at the siege of Brest.

Then he was shot. A German soldier hiding behind a wall shot him with a K98 Mauser rifle, the 7.92 mm  slug shattering his pelvis. He lay on the ground, “and the blood was pouring out of me like water from a faucet,” he would say. The platoon medic ran out, oblivious to danger, slapped a pressure bandage on him and pulled him to safety. “The Germans were so close that I could hear them talking, but they didn’t shoot the medic and they didn’t shoot me again.” I can still hear him say that, paying a grudging compliment to the enemy who had nearly killed him but then chose to spare him.

On Veterans’ Day I drank a toast to him. I went to my war because I wanted to be like him. But of course I never could ascend to that lofty height. We old soldiers continue to fight our wars. It’s a type of relief to tell stories, especially among the bands of brothers found in every VFW and American Legion post across the land.  I have done that, and gone on pilgrimages looking for solace.

When I visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington – The Wall – I tried to put mine to rest. I touched the names of comrades engraved there. It’s a powerful experience and it’s no accident that the Memorial to the Vietnam War dead is a wall – we, the survivors – are still trying to go through our own wall. We want to finish our war and reunite with our comrades. It’s tragic that so many Vietnam veterans cannot do that.

When I went to the Wall I think that I succeeded, at least to a small degree, in putting my war to rest. Touching their names gave me a fleeting connection to those long-dead comrades.

But there was another bond that I found there. It made me feel another strong emotion. The Wall has one unique feature that I immediately noticed. No where else, on no other American monument, civilian or military, are there so many Spanish surnames. On every panel there are Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American names. Thousands of them.

The Vietnam War Memorial is an ironic testament to affirmative action. That Roll of Honor is the only place where our country gives Latinos the recognition we so richly deserve – because it was paid for in blood.

~Joe Barrera,
Publisher/Editor
The Almagre Review

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A Profound Thank You to Our Veterans

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Joe and I would like extend our thanks and gratitude to the men and women who have defended our country.

I have been privileged to share in this venture, our humble publication, with Joe, who served in Vietnam. I think of him as a dear, and unlikely friend, for the fact that we came together over this project from different backgrounds and different generations. It has been an honor to hear some of his stories, and to be exposed to new insights and thoughts that only a veteran can share. I think of Joe as part of the family… and he has joined my family at the dinner table many times.

When we set out to build The Almagre Review, one of the things we wrote into the ethos of our journal is that, “we consider ourselves a friendly home to veterans.”

There are publications out there which are dedicated to soldiers and their tales. There are also mainstream literary journals, and one will occasionally encounter soldiers’ tales in them. At our journal, we’d like to somewhat dissolve those borders, and be a publication for the mainstream public where one commonly finds words penned by America’s military women and men.

And… about those dinners with Joe. Certainly, we talk about literature, about politics, about art. We talk about our journal, our writing. But mostly, he sees to it to talk about my family, the kids, my wife, and to remind me how special they are. This is where we always end up. And it’s the least I can do for him… share a place at the table, with my family, for whom he feels great affection.

It’s an honor, that we at The Almagre Review, can offer our pages to veterans as if it is the family dinner table. We welcome writers of all backgrounds, but we pay particular attention to the words of those who have served.

Again, a profound thank you to our veterans
~The Almagre Staff

Veterans Community Dialogue: Last Saturday

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This…was an experience well worth witnessing.  As Joe speaks about the healing process, these dialogues make it apparent to anyone who comes.

To be a civilian means I don’t get to look through this door very often.  It’s always a privilege when I do.  These are a wonderful opportunity for family and friends to listen, and to participate.  The treasure in these events is the very fact that Joe works to include the voice of spouses, even the children.  Last Saturday was informal, intimate… a comfortable setting.

There were difficult things to hear.  There were moments of great laughter.  The honesty shared by the attendees felt heavy, arresting, illuminating, and courageous.  When asked the question, “which is harder, adjusting to war, or adjusting to coming home?” the veterans unanimously chuckled and said, “adjusting to home.”

What more can be said to emphasize the value of all those at home to engage in and be a part of the healing process for their loved ones?

The Almagre Review thanks all our veterans for their service, and for the honor of attending the Military Veteran’s Community Dialogue.

~John Lewis,
Artist/Editor