Blog Archive

on my dad and wars and tattoos. and stuff.

That's my dad there. The one on the right, I mean.

His name was Cornelis VanBruinisse. Known to the free world as Casey, and to some as the 'KC' in my mom's vanity plate. He was great in a million ways -- as a father, husband, brother, friend, coworker... too many to list. He loved the shit out of us, never wanted anything on Christmas (with the exception of new socks), had a rad-ass record collection, and just on the whole was the guy who showed up. My friends used to come over and borrow my parents, when they didn't feel like they could talk with their own. Casey and Erna would sit at the kitchen table with them and drink coffee (and smoke butts, back when they smoked) and help to ease their worlds -- they'd even save spots for them at the table during major holidays to come and be with us, away from whatever the variety of ills their families were causing them. I called it picking up strays.

I can still see the records: Pearl, Sgt. Pepper, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, the ten-album Rolling Stones import box set that was already old then, coming apart at the seams; Ray Charles. Glenn Miller. Dizzy Gillespie. Frank Sinatra. Ella Fitzgerald. My dad had roots.

On top of all those great albums, and all the rest of the great things that are too innumerable to list, my father also served two tours in the Vietnam War. Two, the second because he couldn't leave his (men, then) behind. He got wounded in the line of duty, as a medical corpsman out in the field -- he was tending to some young man one night when gunfire broke out. He was struck in the backside with shrapnel from a grenade and given a medical discharge and a purple heart.

The night after he was wounded, his unit went out and the person who replaced him in his company was killed.

Kind of a tough day at the office.

My dad came back home, and suddenly had to return to dealing with a wife and a child and a dayjob  -- and things didn't go so well. Nothing erratic went on: none of us were abused, he didn't have an issue with drinking, or anything like that. But as time passed, it became clear that his years at war had taken a toll on him. He argued with my mom -- they slept separately a good amount of the time... we didn't know what was happening back then, and she'd always blame it on his snoring. One night when we were making too much of a ruckus he barged into my room and just about punched a hole in my wall. Another time, he dumped a steamer full of vegetables as I sat past any conceivable reach on the other side of the kitchen, and yelled at me for it. "Look what you made me do!" I can still hear his voice, and see the light and the wallpaper and the cabinets. I was a kid. It didn't add up. Some beard-scratching pipe-smoking old guy with a lot of letters after his name might tell you that all of this is why I started getting loaded when I was fourteen -- but I digress.

Eventually he and my mom split up, for just about a calendar year. They got back together, patched the gaps, everyone went to therapy, and we all learned about a thing they call post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a part of our working language in society now, but was referred to back then as 'shell shock' -- or dismissed altogether as a mental weakness or personal problem. ('Back then' meaning when he was first back from overseas. I'm only thirty-four, now. Take it easy on me.) Thankfully, the woman my parents went to see was well-versed. The holes in the walls started to make sense. We all got a lot less angry.

As the years started to pass, I'd wake up sometimes and find my dad out in the living room at 4am, watching some old movie because he couldn't sleep. I became more familiar with his ghosts. He still paced in the middle of the night now and then, but he got better. Our family got better. And then, at a young, vibrant, energy-of-a-45-year-old just-retired 63, he died of a massive heart attack. Christmas day night, back in 2002. Sometimes it feels like another lifetime when I type, write, or say that sentence out loud. I could take the time and space here to relate to factory farming and what was in the food he and my mom ate, which undoubtedly played a role in their health and lack thereof, but that's a whole other post.

I've written a lot about it, the actual death, I mean. (Not the factory farming thing.) How he was so cute the night we left my aunt's house that Christmas, coming out to sweep the barely-a-dusting of snow off my windshield before I backed out of the driveway. And how he'd always reprimand me for not polishing my boots, to the point where I'd be late for dates because he'd insist on shining them before I left. How proud he was of me, how he read me to sleep (yes, as an adult) and how those old Pooh books still pull at my heartstrings.

But what I haven't written about is how the war basically killed him, even though he arrived home upright and free of a starred-and-striped shroud. He used to write a lot of letters, to governors and congressmen and mayors, and even the president. He had a lot to say about the way things were run. He'd seen the worst and wanted a change. He needed to be heard, and got letters back from time to time that validated his cause. And once he was gone, my mother picked up where he left off and went to work on the government.

It turns out that They were getting hip to the noise that the PTSD camp was causing. (They being The Government, I mean.) My mom fought and rallied and told her story over and over, first in letters, and on in emails. She filled out form after form, talked to anyone who would listen, and did everything she could to get Them to realized that it was ultimately the PTSD, and the war machine that my dad had participated in, that had put the strain on my him in the first place. She wasn't looking for money, she was just looking for someone to hear her, to set it all right.

Eventually, someone listened. Technically, They denied the accusation that PTSD was the root cause of my father's death, but conceded on a lower level and cut my mom a check for $25,000.00. If you squinted at the whole thing and looked at it in the right time of day, in just the right light, they'd agreed with her -- and then gave her five figures to hush up about it. She shut up, but not because of Them. It was more that she needed to maintain her strength and choose what she gave energy to, since she was going through a fuckton of chemo and dying of ovarian cancer and all.

I know. It's been a little bit of a rough go these last few years.

So, somewhere in the bearings of all that, yes -- my mom fell ill not too long after my dad's death, and I put my moving plans on hold (originally slated for Portland, all those years ago now). I took up my first ever college courses -- English Comp I and II, although life got divided between Hospice and Not Hospice during part II and I wound up not finishing the course. Anyway, I investigated the subject of PTSD in-depth for the only actual term paper I've ever written. (Term papers in high school about a comprehensive study on the history of LSD as a senior and the root pros and cons of the use of medical marijuana as a junior notwithstanding. I know. Shut up.) And I learned a staggering amount of information and statistics about PTSD, specifically relating to the war in Vietnam, and some about the carryover to present tense as it relates to service persons returning from Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the like.

The biggest impact it made in layman's terms was the statistic that went something like this -- and I am paraphrasing, because I can't find the paper for the exact terms:

During the Vietnam war, one in three people in the United States were directly affected. One in three. Thirty-three point three percent of the population. That means either you knew someone in your immediate life that was in the war, and as a result were suffering some type of emotional  unrest; or you were that person and you were, by your day-to-day actions, impacting an area of someone else's life (roommate, employer, student, teacher, coworker); or you were one of the people being impacted by someone of the latter descriptive, which meant your business was suffering, or maybe your child wasn't learning a basic curriculum; or you were an immediate person to a person going through secondary impact (a woman managing a store has a brother in Vietnam, her job performance suffers, your girlfriend works for her, and as a result of her boss's emotional distress is now working in an environment where said manager begins to lose focus, the business does poorly, and your girlfriend's job is scaled back because the business isn't bringing in the same revenue).

This is to say nothing of the public en masse, the protests, the bra burnings, the music generated, and secondary and terciary impacts of such; the snapshots of war run over televisions that registered to young children otherwise unaffected as an event that was recurring (when in fact, it may have just been one newsreel they'd see several times during an ongoing report of a situation); or  how any and all of that has carried over decades later and run as an undercurrent in the fabric of our daily existence.

Thirty percent of the country was directly affected. One in three. I beg to differ and say that Vietnam touched every single one of us. I learned from those therapists what my parents had to go through back then, the things they had to decide every day before they even left the house: were you for the war, or against it? Why? Us or them? What music are you buying now? How are you dressing? Are you burning your bra or not? Why? It's staggering to think about how that impacted society, even if just a fragment of it. Friends, and the friends of your friends, a third of a church service... a third of the people in a grocery store at any given moment, trying to figure out how to care about making dinner when their loved ones were away, because they couldn't stomach food from the sheer stress of it all; a third of the drivers in cars sitting in traffic during a commute to a job that they can't make sense of anymore. A third.

For a long time They thought PTSD was bullshit. It's different now, and while They still make sure people aren't checking off boxes on forms to make a quick buck from pension money due to an overexaggerated case of the blues, it's more widely accepted and taken more seriously than it ever has been in the past. Can you imagine being in active combat, shooting people point blank? Being nineteen like my dad, coming from a home life where there was typical fifties bullshit abuse flying on the daily, and suddenly having a gun stuck in your hands? I have a picture of him someplace that's so on-the-money that it looks fake. Like a movie set, except it's from the actual war. His hands and limbs that are still so young, with a wrist that's wearing his father's old watch, still so big that it slid up his forearm when he raised it to take aim with said gun.

For people like my dad, these formative years passed at war -- and then suddenly they were thrust back into society where some pencil-pusher with a bow tie chewed them out in front of some peers for being late, or having low sales numbers. Or their significant others chided them for being late to dinner, having slaved over a meal that's gone cold -- and (ubiquitous) 'Dad' is supposed to intake, process, and behave normally at the weight of all of this? The significant others, the children, every facet of their families -- they're supposed to just take it on the chin, pretty much. The government says that this isn't a real condition, still, in a lot of cases. And if it is proven to be a real case, they mostly just refuse to accept it and claim that it's not their fault. Seriously.

I know I'm being repetitive here, but I need to drill the point home: ubiquitous we, our country at large, outside of the bubble of Seattle -- the 'we' accepts this as normal. Except it's not normal. It's not a sane process, not by a long shot. It's not a thing to build pride around, to implore younger generations to grow up to admire. And this isn't us sitting around contemplating our navels in a coffeeshop either, all bitching about Bush and Republicans and bad decisions like the way we bitch about the price of parking downtown. It's about what happens to real people. For me, it's about what happened to my dad. My father. Our family. This isn't a fucking statistic we're talking about. This happened to my family, in my house. This is a person I now live without.

My dad. Casey. A success by any stretch of the word, having patched those holes and made peace with things. Having continued to show up for all of us through all of this -- and as I age, I realize that we just become larger, older versions of our young, childlike selves with more experience and less fear but still with a batch of whatever we've got on the front burner to work through and work out. My dad did two tours, home safe. So I've got two stars on my arms to make note of it, to remember. To see every single day, to talk about when I'm asked -- to remind me and us that we, collective We, have got a lot of work to do, still. To remember that I too, finally, am home safe, having fought my tiny emotional wars. To mark that I'm finally in the arms of a community of people with the same kinds of misfit toy-isms as me.

Typing this draft out a few weeks ago, I'd found myself watching the Tillman Story earlier in the evening at the Varsity Theater, a few hours after honoring my dad with some new tattoos, submarine names to go with those stars. Sometime during those few hours in the dark I was driven to work harder, to fight the good fight, to write the letters, to speak up, to incite the change. I was suddenly less concerned with the doldrums of my self-absorbed life and more concerned with the greater good and what I can do about it. And then I came home and banged out a bunch of words about it. And now, here we sit.

So what's next?

On some level, we've got our own little wars we're all fighting and figuring out. I'd like to formally raise a toast, be it cider or champagne: here's to taking risks, to the bra-burning and the truth, to standing firm on the right side of the fence and keeping the voices heard. To the tattoos that help us remember and the songs that give us a break when we need to forget. It's about taking a few moments to reflect on this babble I saw fit to post on the internets, and taking it with you, and remembering to thank your veterans. Not just today, but every day. Stand up straight, and help them to stand up straight, too. Make sure someone is listening to them and heeding what they say, and helping them to get what they need. Because someone listened to my dad. And because someone listens to you, too.

Victoria Uhl