by Christopher McCabe


This article appeared in a slightly different version under the title "Listening to Iraq Veterans" in i.e., Inside English, the Journal of the English Council of California Two-Year Colleges, Spring 2009. 

I encourage readers to watch . Chang Wong,  pictured above and one of the student veterans that I spoke with for my article, is profiled in this important video produced by the L.A. Veterans Project. 

In addition to all of the veterans who generously spoke with me about their time at war and at home, I would like to thank my colleagues Patricia Rose and Roger Marheine of Pasadena City College, and Tom Patchell of Cuesta College for their help on this article.


by Christopher McCabe

He directs me to the Internet.  Just search Sgt. Chang Wong on Google, he says, to learn more about his Iraq deployment and his wartime injury.

Before I went to the web, Wong gave me the date  he was wounded—May 23, 2005—and told me that his tank had run over an improvised explosive device (I.E.D.) When it detonated, he and his fellow soldiers suffered injuries; he “probably”—his modest word—suffered the most.

Among the four soldiers in Wong's unit, two suffered non-threatening shrapnel wounds while one suffered a torn shoulder ligament. Wong was in a coma for a month, his lungs filled with fluid, and he lost both his legs below the knee. He now wears prosthetics to help him walk.

"I am lucky to be alive,” he says.  Wong is 25 and a Pasadena City College (PCC) student when we talk in June 2008.

But he hadn’t told me about his medals: a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, an Army Achievement Medal, and four others. An article on the web told me that.

Wong’s reluctance to provide all the details of his wartime experience is common among many veterans.  They are polite as they speak with me, never impersonal but they understandably limit what they have to say. They have no interest in sounding like heroes; they do not tell me of their commendations unless asked;  with Wong I had to ask again when I needed clarification.

Instead, they will more readily describe the awful days of Basic Training at Fort Benning, Georgia, the 120 degree temperature in the Iraqi desert, the deep loyalty of their buddies in uniform, and their amazement at being in the land of the Old Testament. The little kids who greet them. That's heartbreaking.

But they are unsure how much more they want to say or see in an article about themselves. A few words will not explain Iraq to non-combatants; only fellow soldiers know what it is like. You had to have been there, and I have not, and neither am I a military veteran. 

As Wong’s friend Jack Kim, also a PCC student and Iraq Veteran, says, telling civilians about what happened in Iraq is nearly pointless. “The more I try,” Kim, 35, says, “the less they understand.” Wong smiles and nods in agreement.  We are sitting in a coffee shop across the street from PCC and their voices can barely be heard while espresso makers and blenders grind ingredients for  drinks, and jazz and pop music play.

At our corner table Kim fills in some details about Wong's service and injury that Wong has yet to tell me.  Kim tells me  something that Wong would never say about himself.  Kim says Wong is a hero.  Wong demurs.   As they sit and sip their drinks both men could pass as the typical community college. student.  Who they are and where they have been would only be known to their classmates and teachers if they told them.  What they had seen is something they would only tell the rarest of individuals. 

As I listen to Wong and Kim and other veterans who are attending PCC in June 2008, they say they prefer not to call attention to themselves as veterans during classroom discussions, especially if the subject touches upon military affairs.  It can only cause trouble for them, they believe. 

Louie Guan, 25, becomes irreverent when he explains that their reluctance to speak up in class has its roots in the army’s rule “to keep your mouth shut.”  He laughs and I do, too. 

Raymond Mok, 23, says more seriously that he remains quiet for fear of antagonizing an instructor who might not share his point of view. Mok is  by nature polite, kind, and incapable of provocation.  His build, rather slight, would not draw a lot of attention in a crowd.  He had been enrolled in my class once, until he received his deployment order to Iraq and had to withdraw mid-semester.  More than a year and a half  later he returned to the U.S. and PCC, and gave my class another try. 

When he shows me several pictures of his room in an Iraq barracks he apologizes for its disarray.  All was a mess, he says, because he had just returned from work.  His job working on computers didn't take him to the front lines much, but he saw and heard enough that he preferred to keep his distance from it whenever he could. 

His photos, one appears below, show bunk beds covered with so many clothes that the mattresses are nearly hidden. In one there is a TV, a microwave and a boom box.  Others show a can of Pepsi on a table, a calendar featuring a young lady, an American flag covering most of a wall, and a poster of New York City at night, the Twin Towers still standing behind a lit Brooklyn Bridge.  There is a stuffed animal on the top bunk. 

It is not much different than a college dorm room except for the shelf with the box of Cheez-Its at rest on a folded camouflage combat uniform, the dented cake box that claims it was "Freshly baked and decorated just for you!" on top of a storage container marked SPC (Army Specialist), and on the bottom bunk sticking out from under all that disheveled clothing is a rifle butt, that of an M16, its shoulder strap falling off the mattress.

Looking at the photos I remember seeing Mok in my classroom, but never thinking that this was the world he would soon be in, or when he returned to my class the world where he had once been. I knew him as  the good student in the second desk from the front, who looked intently at his book and his notes and would periodically nod when someone offered  his or her interpretation of a short story or poem.  Sometimes he would join the discussion with his considerate, individual voice.

On a day when the class was at the library doing online research, I found  Mok, who was now back from Iraq and had reenrolled in my class, completing his task quickly while some of his classmates  remained disinterested, more attuned to their Facebook page or clicking from one celebrity fan site to another.

Mok did not appear to be distressed by the students lack of devotion to the morning's assignment.  He helped them when they asked questions, offering assistance even when their eyes drifted back to their screens with an urge to play another game of Internet poker. He was more patient than me.  He was a good teacher, doing what he could do, and doing it quietly.

Veterans might also remain quiet because they want to observe what others do and what others have to say.  They have been stationed in Korea and the Philippines, seen military camps in Europe and Kuwait, and spent too  much of their lives at war in Iraq.  Having been apart from school and civilian life for so long, they now wonder who their classmates or teachers might be. 

Jin Chong, 26, who served as a medic in Iraq, clearing the airways of the wounded and cleaning and suturing the bloodied, sounds a note of acceptance for those offering their opinions in class.

“It doesn’t bother me if the war or anything like it is discussed in class or what position the teacher or anyone takes,” he says deliberately. “That’s freedom of speech. I know what I know. Others know what they know.”

As they take in the verbal etiquette of class discussions for the first time in years, combat veterans tell me of  horrific memories  that feed  their fear of a worst case scenario: violence might break out again, this time in a peaceful campus setting.

So these veterans remain quiet as they scan the classroom for a safe exit, noting doors and the placement of their hinges. When they read of the latest school shooting, they might come to campus and spot the student who is wearing bright colors, and know that he or she in the sunrise t-shirt and  the lemon-colored shorts are, unknowingly, an easy target for a sniper.

They’ll sometimes smile when they recount these  things,  acknowledging how extreme this would seem to a civilian.  They’ll even laugh when they recall walking out of the college library, feeling under-dressed now that they are in street clothes, no longer in uniform, and carrying a backpack, not a gun. 

Cruz Bethurem, 26, understands these reactions, and they are unavoidable; he called it “the muscle memory” at work.   Competing with these images from the past are the responsibilities of the present, like a veteran’s ongoing military service.

Such obligations were not a significant concern for Mok when he enlisted at 17½. Because of a recruiter’s advice, he did not think that he would be deployed to Iraq; however, his unexpected deployment forced him to leave PCC and suddenly this unassuming young man was gone from my classroom. Now, back in school, ongoing training threatens Mok's ability to succeed academically. He knows, too, that he could be deployed again, at anytime.

“I am trying," he says, "to please both the army and myself. At school I have to keep a good GPA in order to transfer. I am competing with other students. But at the same time I must attend AT (Annual Training) because my unit wants everyone to experience the field and do practical exercises together.” 

Mok is describing what many veterans feel.  They are home, but they feel lost between two worlds—military and civilian.  Neither is providing the acknowledgment of service or welcome home that they expected.

Veterans admitted to me that they were depressed and showed impatience, or even a temper, upon their return. They were having trouble sleeping and focusing.  They might drink too much and isolate themselves from others, having trouble making friends.  Their aggravation would spike when they saw that their fellow citizens were not well-informed about the soldiers, nor do they seem to know much about the war. 

Too many times a veteran's alienation is compounded when  someone tells them that "'they are puppets of the government' or ask, 'Did you kill anyone?'" "Americans don’t really understand [our service in Iraq],” Bethurem says during our first conversation, which we do by phone.  I can see, however,  that he is always a step ahead of his listener, whether he delivers a sharp joke or employs irony.  Eventually he is very direct.

“They ask stupid questions," he says. "People want to hear about it, but not what is really happening there. I’m not glorifying it. There’s no theme music. No credits. Some people say they care, and they put the little gold ribbons on, but what good does that do?”

For the record, Bethurem says he “loved the service, but not the war.” It is where he made “some of the best friends in my life.”  He and other veterans usually call these friends their buddies, indicating a unique relationship, a solid brotherhood, that exists between them.

This friendship was on Kim’s mind when he took Wong to Forest Lawn cemetery on Memorial Day to visit the grave of a buddy, a Navy Seal. On his way there Kim, who was in uniform, was stopped by a California Highway Patrol officer for a license plate violation; it had fallen off the front bumper.

The highway patrolman had, Kim says, an unprofessional attitude.  He was looking for an infraction and found two, giving Kim a ticket for the missing license plate and another for altering his vehicle’s trunk, a modification that he did not know was illegal.

“It’s Memorial Day weekend, and I’m wearing my uniform,” Kim says, recalling the day.  “I told the CHP Officer that I’m visiting my buddy’s grave.  He then asks me why did I have a disability placard hanging in my car. I told him that it’s my buddy’s, Chang’s. He asks, ‘Why does he have one?’ I told him that he had lost his legs in Iraq. And then he said he had to give me a ticket for two violations. I was pretty upset.”

A moment like this is not forgotten, of course.  Patricia Rose, a colleague of mine at PCC and a mother of an Iraq veteran, said that this is the kind of thing that makes veterans feel like they are invisible.  She has heard veterans tell stories of not feeling recognized and acknowledged as she has collected their writings about their military experience for an archive at PCC. 

"Their writing," she says, "gives them an opportunity to reflect on their experiences as they struggle to return to civilian life.  Their voices will give readers, as well, some insight into what these veterans have seen, what's been required of them.

"Writing about their time at war is often the first step veterans take in describing what they have witnessed.  Talking comes later, if at all.  Chong says he did not want to talk about his war experiences, but that eventually changed, and he found, he says, writing about the war to be "great therapy."

Chong was enrolled in two of my classes at PCC, and I saw him become more comfortable, easier to smile as each semester went on.   From the start, however, I realized that he was one of the most graceful student writers--whatever the topic he was asked to address--that  I had ever had.  In recent weeks Chong has spoken to high school classes about his veteran experience, something he says he would not have considered doing when he first returned to civilian life.

Guan, pictured above, is telling his story too. Having been deployed twice, he has served more than two years in some of Iraq’s most hostile combat zones. He is a big man, well over six feet, with broad shoulders, a sturdiness that would appear to take him safely onto a football field or into the world's more terrifying battles.

However, Guan is driven to look inward to reconsider his memories of war and the nearly irresistible option of returning to Iraq.  No matter how bad it might seem to others, he sometimes believes that a return to Iraq would solve some of his biggest problems.

To be in Iraq again, he would be in a world where people understood him.  His bills would get paid.  His current security job at Sears does not pay enough to meet his rent and school tuition and fees.  With his military experience a private operation like Blackwater would pay him nearly $150,000 to provide armed security on the ground in Iraq.  Financial worries are coupled with his concerns for friends that he left behind in Iraq or who are falling behind and forgotten at home.  He does not want the same to happen to him.

Though he is torn between two worlds, there are days when he is adjusting to being at home.  Guan has been writing and getting encouragement from his family, teachers, and Manny Martinez, his counselor at the East Los Angeles Veterans Center.  He wants to tell civilians about the lives of soldiers in Iraq and as veterans at home, but more often he wants someone like his congresswoman to read his words:

"As I came home from my first deployment," Guan writes, "I felt that I left part of me in Iraq that I could never find again. I repressed my feelings and thoughts by soaking myself in alcohol. I wanted to forget about Iraq, but I knew that my days in Iraq were not over. I felt hopeless and depressed. I didn’t know who to turn to . . . .

"All that I thought about were the horrible things that happened in Iraq. I thought about Sergeant Jenkins who made the ultimate sacrifice. . . . He jumped and threw his body without any regard for his own life on a doll with an explosive device that a five year old Iraqi girl handed to one of his own soldiers. I thought about how heroic he was and what he did to save his fellow soldiers."

After Guan served part of his second 12 month deployment, he then got orders extending his assignment another six weeks, an all too common practice. This second deployment turned out to be as terrifying as his first; this time one of his buddies was killed by a sniper.

Later, when he returned home, he began to have nightmares and became addicted to alcohol. He writes, “I was angry, depressed, and isolated. I had no friends that I felt would understand me because they weren’t there in Iraq with me.” 

Talking with other veterans Guan learned that they were as equally troubled as he. One close friend told him “that he was doing horribly” and considering reenlistment. Guan’s squad leader was getting a divorce, and Guan’s roommate, who had completed a second tour like him, committed suicide. Another friend who could not readjust to life at home joined Blackwater and returned to Iraq where half of his face was so badly injured that he now speaks with a microphone attached to his throat.

Guan sees his writing as a way of providing another service to his country. He titles it a “testimony” to what he has seen.  He also calls for a stronger G.I. Bill, with sufficient funding for veterans’ education, housing, food, and health benefits.

More veterans, he says, should attend college to ease their transition back to civilian life, to keep “them from being socially isolated. . . and [help] them find employment outside the military or military contractors who offer them high salaries to return to Iraq or Afghanistan.” 

In addition, news media should have greater access to military operations and the right to report all events, from the mundane to the heroic. The press must be able to write of the dead and their flag-draped coffins. Every story needs to be told for those who can’t tell their own, he argues.

Yet as many veterans struggle, others progress. Chong will continue his studies, most likely at Charles Drew Medical School; Wong and Kim will prepare for careers in business at the University of California, Berkeley; Bethurem will also attend Berkeley on his way to teaching ESL overseas; Mok likes to work with computers and will continue to do so; and Guan will forever be a veteran’s advocate, one of their storytellers.

Some say that these new veterans are unlike those who served in Vietnam.  They are enrolling in college sooner after leaving the combat zone, and they are younger than their earlier service counterparts. By spring 2008, five years into the war, 1.6 million soldiers had been deployed, over 4,000 killed, and 30,000 wounded; nearly 20% of the veterans suffer from stress, depression or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

Many of these veterans will enroll in community colleges to advance their education and prepare for a new career. Even with their difficult experiences, or because of them, these veterans tend to be among the better students, and they will continue to need good teachers.

"It’s all about being a good listener,” Tom Patchell, a veteran and English instructor at Cuesta College in central Californa, says about teaching veterans.  He, himself, has written about his own and his father's military experiences.  “We need to see them for who they are," he adds.  "Be ready to listen to them and accept them and not judge them.” And then Patchell asks: “Isn’t that what we all want? Someone to listen?”

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