One of the best columnists in the LA Times, Al Martinez, a former Marine, reminds us of one of the toughest jobs Marines have to do:
July 29, 2005
As the death-teller, he too became a casualty
I can see the man in full-dress Marine Corps uniform walking down a pathway from his car toward the house in a suburban Idaho neighborhood. The house is built of brick and has a look of permanence about it, structured to withstand the erosions of time and harsh weather. The garden is neatly cultured. The pathway is concrete.
He remembers these details years later, in his nightmares and in sudden flashes of retention and, most important, he remembers the face of the thin, middle-aged woman, a banker's wife, who sees him coming and is waiting on the porch to greet him. She turns toward the front door and calls, "Oh, Bill, a friend of Jimmy's has come to see us."
A moment after those words are spoken, she looks back at the man walking toward her. She sees his grim expression, and she knows. She gasps and says, "Oh, no …." And after a pause that will last a lifetime, he tells her that her son is dead.
It was the first of a dozen or so times that he has had to inform families that someone they loved, someone they raised, someone they married, someone whose life they valued beyond their own had died in Vietnam. They remain a part of the makeup of the man who had to tell them. It was his job. He never saw combat, never fired a weapon in anger, never faced an enemy head-on but is as much a victim of war as anyone could possibly be.
His name is Martin Young. After 22 years in the Marines, he lives in a small mining town that shall remain anonymous. A hesitancy even to have his name revealed is rooted in the fact that the memories of his final duty in the Corps were so terrible that he was diagnosed as suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder, a pathology usually limited to those who have been involved in the killing that war necessitates.
The long walk to the brick house seems longer as he thinks about it now, the impact of emotion altering memory to suit the effect. "Marines aren't supposed to be wimps," he says, his voice fading as we speak. "But I remember her face and I hear taps and I dissolve." Her face, a pretty face, still twists in grief and horror in his mind as she realizes why he's there. "The irony is that her son died from malaria," he says, "not combat. There was an incident where four or five Marines died from the disease in 24 hours. Parents worry about their sons being blown up or coming home maimed. But it was a mosquito that put him down. A ... mosquito."
I heard from Young when I wrote about the sound of taps. It is a call, he said, that he hoped never to hear again. Part of his job as a casualty notification officer — which he calls a "death-teller" — was to arrange a funeral for the fallen warriors. Taps was the final goodbye. The melancholy dirge of a single bugle entwined his memory with the longevity of steel and ultimately became a significant part of the disorder that drove him to the edge of a breakdown.
The assignment left him with an abiding sense of shame: "I felt guilty about being a weakling. Here I was a fancy Marine Corps officer in dress blues standing before the dead lad's parents while taps was sounded, all the while ready to burst into tears." His voice trembles. He says no more.
Today, Young seeks contentment in a small town, 6,000 feet high, about a hundred miles from the nearest city, reading and losing himself as much as possible in photographing birds and flowers. After retiring from the Marine Corps, he worked as a writer for a hospital in Fresno, preparing newsletters, scripts for audio-visual presentations, speeches, ads and letters. But even in an ordinary world, the past wouldn't leave him alone. He would awaken from nightmares screaming the commands he gave at the funerals, haunted by the ghosts of sounds and images, of faces and rituals.
"The experience drove me to the verge of craziness," he says, "so much, in fact, that I had to quit work. The rage kept bursting out for no justifiable reason. I blew up at people that deserved nothing of the sort."
Young feels it almost a duty to talk about it now. America must realize that many are touched in terrible ways by war. When sons die, dreams die and something in anyone associated with the man or woman dies. And in ways beyond either Young's grief or mine, something in the culture dies.
He wanted everyone to know how deep and lasting are the wounds of war, beyond the rhetoric of cause and effect, beyond political rationale, beyond flags and bugles, even beyond taps. Wars last forever in the collective psyche of those who celebrate it and those who suffer from it.All that Martin Young has to do is close his eyes, and it screams in his head.
Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.