Ex-POW, turned Priest, dealing with the remnants of war: Return to Sender
There are countless millions of soldiers who return, or returned home after war unable to forget, tortured by their memories. My father was one such returning veteran. Based on my experiences with him, then later with friends returning from Vietnam, I created a character, Theodore Riley, in my novel, Return To Sender who embodies these issues–or at least as I imagine them. Theo, who upon returning home to his small coastal village of Manzanita Oregon in the 1950’s kept a family promise and took his vows as a Catholic Priest. He now counsels other returning veterans with unconventional (for the 1950’s) wisdom and often uses his hard earned soldier sensibilities to create small town justice.
Theo suffers from PTSD, which of course back then had no name. Men were simply told to “buck up and deal with it” or to “Put it out of your mind”. Liquor was my dad’s escape. Later, for my Vietnam vet friends, it was much harder stuff; heroine, pot, psychedelics, and whatever else they developed an appetite for while in Nam. Not much has changed. These days Vets still return with PTSD, and bring their nightmares, fears, horrors of war home to their wives, husbands and children who can’t relate, and so they just ‘deal with it’. I know we as a culture have come a long way, sadly not far enough to not go to war in the first place, but far enough to recognize the effect on the human spirit. Suicides are skyrocketing among returning vets of our endless Middle East melees’ and though our society is trying to reach out, offer help when and where we can, it will never be enough to end their pain. Anyway, back to my story….
Theo has nightmares, flashes of memory and struggles to return to life as he knew it before he left, before war, before he fell in love with a group of Korean Orphans, and long before he was held prisoner in a POW camp, shot and left for dead. How could anyone not be changed inside and out, heart, body and soul?
Excerpt from Return to Sender; (one year after Theo’s return home)
The children’s dark eyes emerged from the grainy newspaper picture – for a moment I swear they all moved. We were in Pusan. I, in uniform, my M1 strapped to my back, tying shoe laces for the five year old twins who had never seen shoes that tied – one of the girls held her foot, a foot smaller than the palm of my hand, up for me to lace. ‘Riley,’ she called me, all the orphans called me Riley, ‘you tie shoe.’ She smiled and placed her tiny hand on my shoulder.
The following day we were ambushed. She and her sister, shot.
I grabbed a church pew to balance myself. My stomach rose to my throat.
Excerpt from a scene where Theo counsels another veteran who cannot live with what he did in Korea and now contemplates suicide;
He whispered, “Thing is, dying would’a been easy; livin’s what’s hard.”
The weighty lament in his voice concerned me; knew it well, knew where it may lead.
“It is hard.” I said with a sudden clarity about what he, what any soldier needed to hear. I leaned in and said, “Give thanks, you had the power to shepherd evil from this world back to God for His swift judgment. Give thanks you were able to do something about the tribulations brought forth by evil men. Be thankful, knowing God chose you, and that now you will be healed through His mercy. You shot an animal who killed a blameless family. Take comfort that animal never took the life of innocence again. Because you took action. Be proud. Son, for that’s not cowardice.” I sat back from the screen and straightened my collar. A quiet calm washed over me.
He took a deep breath. “Thank you, Father… thank you… My penance?”
“Your penance . . . read in Romans 13, about how the governing authorities are God’s servants, agents of wrath, bringing punishment to the doers of evil. Understand that the Lord uses man-made authority to rain retribution onto the wicked. So, read and find peace in understanding. That’s your penance. Then sleep like sleep is your reward.”
Return to Sender will be released by Booktrope Books in October 2014