DOG GONE

As I drove to a meeting this morning, I listened to sports talk on ESPN and was taken aback by the passion of Colin Cowherd, discussing the future of Michael Vick. Colin made no bones about his contempt for the man as he engaged a discussion about Vicks future.

He made various points, including pro sports not being a ‘privilege’. Hell, I dunno how that enters into the discussion. If you have a skill set that merits pro consideration, I guess you’ll get to play professional sports. Vick has just completed about 23 months in jail, is reportedly penniless and whether there’s a team out there willing to give him a chance, remains to be seen. But if there is a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, is there not a presumption of remorse, after a convict has done his time and paid his penalties? Vick surely regrets the consequences of his hobby.

Vick surrendered a humongous amount of salary and endorsement millions with his conviction. He spent almost two years behind bars. His crime: supporting and participating in dog fighting. What seems to particularly offend Cowherd is the aspect of ‘torture’; that element sends him over the edge, bristling with outrage and disgust, characterizing Vick as a sociopath, “either with very low IQ or with something missing, something wrong upstairs”. When Colin compared Vick to Jeffrey Daumer, then asserted that there are worse crimes than killing people,I began to question his objectivity.

Now I don’t know Michael Vick, personally. I doubt Cowherd does either. I am not a fan of dogfighting or pit bulls…but I do know that there are quite a few aspects of sports to which I don’t personally subscribe – like cock-fighting. Or cagefighting, ultimate sports. Not every shot taken by a hunter is a killing shot; I’m sure many animals crawl off in agony to die or recover. When fish are caught, they suffocate as they are brought on board. And football is as much a game of skill as it is of violence.

I’m not condoning dogfighting or whatever brutality Michael Vick committed as a participant. I’m just saying that two years of prison and probation and bankruptcy would seem meaningful punishment . And if sufficient talent remains and a team is willing to take a gamble on him, bad PR and all, should he be denied that opportunity?

In the realm of crime and punishment, far worse has been done with far lighter criminal consequences, so why the special vehemence for Vick? I’ve always enjoyed Cowherd’s commentary, tho I may not always agree with his points but in this case, it seems something else is operative. I’m not playing the race card here (I dunno how many Latino or white athletes approve of animal deathsports) but such outrage, following Vick’s incarceration strikes me as a bit of overkill.

21 May ‘09

SHELTER

My theater group in LA, Rogue Machine is having a nite of performance called RANT AND RAVE, scheduled June 8th. We’ve got 6-7 minutes to tear somebody a new asshole. I volunteered to participate and will offer this piece below. Our theme for the evening is “Shelter”.

SHELTER

“With malice toward none, with charity for all,
with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the…”
(blah, blah, blah…wait, this is interesting -)
…to care for him who shall have borne the battle
and for his widow, and his orphan…

Those words were spoken by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 at Gettysburg. And the governmental agency that adopted those words as its credo? Anhhhhhhhnnh! “What is the Veterans Administration?”

I am a disabled Vietnam veteran. I spent many months at Walter Reed Hospital; it was then a wondrous place of healing but in recent years, even this flagship of veteran care has fallen on hard times. Military medical facilities weren’t adequately funded over the years. The past administration was largely comprised of chicken hawks and Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers. They grossly underestimated the number and severity of casualties from our present wars. Here’s a shout-out to all those self-absorbed neo-cons,”You people fucked up, big time and the rest of us must now carry the water for your hubris.”

I’ve been reconstructed, shrunk and medicated to a fair-thee-well, yet I have contended with PTSD for more than 30 years. I’m doing well enough these days, thank you but I’m aware that many thousands of veterans have not been as fortunate. After they’d served honorably in combat, too many soldiers are coming home, troubled by what they’ve seen and done and know. A great many struggle with traumatic brain injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Waaay too many have taken their own lives to stop the pain.

There are lies, damn lies and statistics. The Urban Institute survey found that 23 percent of all homeless persons – and 33 percent of all homeless men – are veterans. Whether that total is 100,000 or 500,000; in my estimation, one is too damn many.
The grim realities of combat are understandably obscure to those of you whose life experience did not include service under fire…and your knees ought to hit the floor every nite of your life to give thanks for that blessing.

“To see The Elephant” – means to face combat or death for the first time…

We have seen The Elephant
We have gone and by pure luck, returned
Heroes. Larger. No longer the same.
We are back…and we know The Elephant

We came back mad, in shells of gray flannel
And maybe three or four martinis,
Encrusted with invisible filth that never washed away.
The filth we’d seen, and done, when we saw The Elephant.

Some still can not speak of it, The Elephant.
Larger than anything. Larger than everything,
Its gray horror reflected – always – in our eyes and
Twisted bodies, standing alone at freeway on-ramps.

Some of us identify with it, and woo The Elephant, as if
To win its favor, speaking of its glory (and of our part),
Teaching our children to seek their manhood in
The Elephant, as we did. And then we try to sleep.

Some of us tell our children there are better ways to die
And better things to die for. That luck is not grace,
And surviving isn’t all that great either, after The Elephant.
But children rarely listen. They say,

“Take us! Use us! Make us more than we are!”
Instead it took the ones who had our backs,
It took the ones we would have died for,
And made them dead, and made us veterans.

So, yes. We’ve seen The Elephant.
We’ve gone and served, and somehow made it back.
Heroes? No. Just lucky, I guess.
But not the same. We’ve seen The Elephant.

Americans readily express outrage for atrocities and terrorist attacks and torture…but where is our indignation that so many veterans sleep in our parks and on our streets?

Yeah, I fault the VA. And I fault the Congress. But most of all I fault the society that sends its children off to war without a commitment to their care and recovery. This ain’t about politics. I could give a rats ass whether you’re pro-war or for peace. Our kids will still come home in a bag or missing limbs, brains concussed all to shit…plus the ones without all the visible zippers, the ones whose wounds are…inside. Hate to tell you but Uncle Mike may not ever be the same. Not without a shitload of help.

Throughout the ‘80’s, I was a VA volunteer in NY, assisting combat vets in locked psych wards and detox. That was my lost decade, hiding out from my own problems. Clearly I was troubled…but there were so many others, in greater need…

You know what? Today’s VA bureaucracy is so chickenshit, a volunteer’s orientation spends four hours, being briefed on sexual harassment. I know of two recently retired, distinguished psychologists, that offered PRO BONO, therapy for troubled vets. . They were turned down by the VA, coldly, dismissively. Our kids depend upon a system more focused on its public image and liability concerns than with counseling for our wounded.

Goddamn right, they are wounded. They won’t get a Purple Heart for their unique pain and suffering but they are damn sure combat injured. There was a young Lieutenant before my time that water-skied on the Mekong Delta. A snipers bullet hit his ski one day and he went down, cutting himself on the jagged tip. That LT got his Purple Heart. How ‘bout that shit? I was the only man waterskiing on the Mekong in ’69 and got shot at, more often than not. The Stars and Stripes wrote an article about my team’s derring-do; I mentioned it to Francis and he put it in “Apocalypse, Now.” Doing that was fun – silly, nihilistic and somehow an appropriate human response to a surreal existence. Try to imagine the mindset of men who desperately wish to escape, if only for moments, from a reality that subverts humanity.

“Oh, a storm is threatening my very life today.
If I don’t get some shelter, oh yeah, I’m gone fade away.
War…children, it’s just a shot away …”

Listen Up!

We now contend with a foreclosure crisis without parallel, thousands of unoccupied properties. Let’s think outside the box for a minute. Our homeless veterans need shelter, as well as medication, tutoring, career, guidance counseling and a host of other social services. Why not create enclaves to house and nurture our veterans? Offer the property pro bono; at the very least you’ll have done a solid for those who gave at the office. Many will fail, some have fallen too far. But some may regain quality of life

You know why they’re homeless? They are haunted. They struggle to sleep, can’t hold a steady job, deal with depression and anger and guilt and confusion and fear on a daily basis. Because we sent them to war. Young Americans will always answer our calls to arms; it is how we are wired.

“What can we do?” you might ask. For openers, get informed. Create and support art to raise awareness. Volunteer. Donate. Advocate.

Properties sit empty and veterans sleep in parks. Let’s take a bold step and address both issues. And don’t waste time doing studies and polls. Just step up and live up the spirit of Lincoln’s words. “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

Give THEM Shelter.

May 11th, 2009

THE DERIVATION OF A POEM

For several years, I’ve shared the following poem at Spoken Work gatherings. They primarily feature works of poetry but have been graciously receptive to my essays about the nature of combat. I’ve attributed this poem to “Eric Sagai of Portland, Oregon” but my continued searches to locate him have persuaded me that I do not have any certainty about the poem’s author. One military site referred to an Army Lt who authorized its publication with the promise he would not be identified. I will continue to share it, now without attribution and continue to search for its creator.

Perhaps someone, someday will happen along to read this post…and pull my coattails.

“To See The Elephant” is a saying that dates from the early 19th century in America. It has described various experiences, all of which are memorable. For much of our early history, an elephant was pretty much the most remarkable thing we might see, in a lifetime. It was used during the Gold Rush, to describe a great adventure. During the Civil War, it expressed one’s first encounter with death and fear – both combat and an elephant being somewhat difficult to describe. It became the expression for suffering a severe ordeal, facing one’s worst expectations, overcoming the meanest realities; in a word, knowing the Truth.

In 16th century England, people said, “I’ve seen the lion”, probably for similar reasons. This poem remains for me the most resonant and succinct artistic depiction of war’s enduring consequences.

TO SEE THE ELEPHANT

We have seen The Elephant.
We have gone and by pure luck, returned,
Heroes. Larger. No longer the same.
We are back…and we know The Elephant.

We came back mad, in shells of gray flannel
And maybe three or four martinis,
Encrusted with invisible filth that never washed away.
The filth we’d seen and done, when we saw The Elephant.

Some still can not speak of it, The Elephant.
Larger than anything. Larger than everything,
Its gray horror reflected – always – in our eyes and
Twisted bodies, standing alone at freeway on-ramps.

Some of us identify with it, and woo The Elephant, as if
To win its favor, speaking of its glory (and of our part),
Teaching our children to seek their manhood in
The Elephant, as we did. And then we try to sleep.

Some of us tell our children there are better ways to die
And better things to die for. That luck is not grace,
And surviving isn’t all that great either, after The Elephant.
But children rarely listen. They say,

“Take us! Use us! Make us more than we are!”
Instead it took the ones who had our backs,
It took the ones we would have died for,
And made them dead, and made us veterans.

So, yes. We’ve seen The Elephant.
We’ve gone and served, and somehow made it back.
Heroes? No. Just lucky, I guess.
But not the same. We’ve seen The Elephant.

21 May ’09

P.S. I love updates! Today is July 13th and I was preparing material for a reading to kids at Occidental College. As I looked thru files, I came upon my original copy of The Elephant…and noticed that the author was Eric Bagai, not Sagai. It was simply a typo that had endured for several years. I went to Google, immediately found his contact info and wrote to him. He wrote back within an hour to let me know he was pleased that I shared his work. And I am pleased, finally to give proper credit to its writer. Curious, how sometimes simply having expressed an intention – to determine the author – was made manifest, in mere weeks.