BECAUSE I love my wife and daughter, and because I want them to believe I am a good man, I have never talked to them about my year as a grunt with the 25th Infantry in Vietnam. I cannot tell my thirteen-year-old that once, drunk on Ba Muoi Ba beer, I took a girl her age into a thatched-roof hooch in Tay Ninh City and did her on a bamboo mat. I cannot tell my wife, who paints watercolors of songbirds, that on a search-and-destroy mission I emptied my M-60 machine gun into two beautiful white egrets that were wading in the muddy water of a paddy. I cannot tell them how I sang "Happy Trails" as I shoved two wounded Viet Cong out the door of a medevac chopper hovering twenty feet above the tarmac of a battalion aid station. I cannot tell them how I lay in a ditch and used my M-60 to gun down a skinny, black-haired farmer I thought was a VC, nearly blowing his head off. I cannot tell them how I completed the decapitation with a machete, and then stuck his head on a pole on top of a mountain called Nui Ba Den. All these things fester in me like the tiny fragment of shrapnel embedded in my skull, haunt me like the corpse of the slim dark man I killed. I cannot talk about these things that I wish I could forget but know that I never will.
TWENTY years have passed since the summer of 1968, when I flew home from the war and my "freedom bird" landed in the night at Travis Air Force Base, near San Francisco. I knew that in the city, soldiers in uniform were taunted in the streets by flower children. So I slipped quietly into a rest-room and changed from my dress khakis into jeans and a flannel shirt. Nobody was there to say "Welcome home, soldier." It was as if I were an exile in my own country. I felt deceived and confused, and most of all angry, but I wasn't sure at whom to direct my anger or where to go or what to do, so I held everything inside and went about forming a life day by day.
After I was discharged from the Army, I went home to Chicago and hung around there for a couple of years, haunted by memories and nameless faces. Devoid of hope or expectations, smoking dope and dreaming dreams of torment, I drifted from one meaningless endeavor to the next. I studied drawing at the art academy, cut grass with the grounds crew at Soldier Field, parked cars at The Four Seasons. Nothing seemed to matter; nothing changed what I was. I was still fire and smoke, a loaded gun, a dead survivor, a little girl on a bamboo mat, a headless corpse. I was still in the killing zone.
Gradually I grew weary of my hollowness, ran out of pity for my own self-pity. I wanted to take my life and shake it by the hair. I decided to use the GI Bill and give college a try.
I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the headquarters of the Weathermen and the SDS. I lived in a rundown rooming house on Mifflen Street, among all the long-haired war protesters and scruffy peaceniks. During the day I went to classes and worked as an orderly at a Catholic hospital, but at night, after work, I went back to my room to study alone. Through the window of my room I could see mobs of students marching through the streets, chanting "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh" and "Bring home the war." What did they know about war? I watched them, and I wanted to kick their hippie asses.
It was in caring for the patients at the hospital that I seemed to find what I had been searching for. While bathing or feeding a patient I felt simply good. It was better than my best trips with Mary Jane. I decided to apply to medical school, and I was accepted.
One night when I was a senior med student, a couple of radical war protesters blew up the Army Mathematics Research Center on campus. The explosion shook my bed in the hospital call room like the rocket that blasted me out of sleep the night of the Tet Offensive. I have never been a brave man, and I lay there in the dark with my heart pounding, thinking I was back in Firebase Zulu the night we were overrun. A nurse called me to the emergency room to help resuscitate a theoretical physicist who had been pulled from under the rubble. His chest was crushed and both his lungs were collapsed. He didn't need resuscitation. He needed a body bag. The war I was trying to escape had followed me home. Now I practice plastic surgery in Lake Forest, a North Shore Chicago suburb of stone walls, German cars, and private clubs. On my arm is a scar from the laser surgery that removed a tattoo I woke up with one morning in a Bangkok whorehouse. The tattoo was a cartoon in blue and red ink of a baby in diapers, wearing an Army helmet and a parachute with the inscription "Airborne." I feel that I am two people at once, two people fighting within myself. One is a family man and a physician who lives a comfortable external life. The other is a war criminal with an atrophied soul. Nothing I do can revive it.