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The talking wounded 

A night spent with veterans helping veterans

Editor's note: Click here for updated information on Rick Duncan, who was interviewed for the story below.

click to enlarge Left to right: Rick Duncan, Jos Barrera, Jay Maloney, - Mark Wilkerson and Sarah Wilkerson are among those - who gathered at Meadow Muffins last week to talk about - experiences related to war. - L'AURA MONTGOMERY
  • L'Aura Montgomery
  • Left to right: Rick Duncan, Jos Barrera, Jay Maloney, Mark Wilkerson and Sarah Wilkerson are among those who gathered at Meadow Muffins last week to talk about experiences related to war.

"What broke your heart?"

In a room full of people, Jay Maloney alone seems comfortable amid the intense silence that follows. He leans his body forward in his chair, and points his gray-haired head, with its piercing eyes, directly at Rick Duncan.

Maloney has asked the right question. Maybe the only question.

Duncan's solid frame shakes, and for a moment this retired Marine looks naked stripped of his age, his experience, his brawn. Tears film over his eyes.

"Which time?" Duncan says, his throat clenched against a sob. Suddenly the tears break loose, and his body shudders.

Duncan reaches for the tissues. The dance floor at Meadow Muffins flashes with hundreds of red and blue lights, creating a scene anxious, awkward and patriotic. About 20 faces zone in on Duncan old soldiers, young soldiers, soldiers' wives, a few interested outsiders.

The seconds tick slowly by.

Finally, Duncan laughs nervously; then he's back in the deserts of Iraq. There was an explosive, Duncan says, and the big vehicle flipped in the air "like a cartoon."

Now he has a replaced hip, a plate in his head and claustrophobia. But his buddy is dead. And his buddy had a wife, a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old.

"I knew it wasn't a game before that, but it didn't seem like it was real, either," Duncan says weakly. "It's like I have third-degree burns on my soul."

The power of speech

Maloney nods like a priest who has, with the slightest of gestures, granted forgiveness to a confessor. But Maloney wasn't bestowed this emotional authority through ceremony he earned it when he was finally able to rip the spiritual leech of Vietnam off his heart.

Now he is here, along with other Vietnam survivors, to share his experience and offer some friendly, if heavy, advice to today's soldiers. The people in this room are not unremarkable. Some of the older men have Ph.D.s; some of the younger ones lead veterans groups. But here, the social structure, and all of its trappings, seem to disappear.

This Thursday night veterans open mic, which was publicized by veterans groups and advocates, is part of a growing movement in Colorado Springs. Several groups offer meetings for soldiers to speak about their wars, and hopefully find comfort in one another.

In this flashing room, Maloney turns his keen eyes to Iraq veteran Garett Reppenhagen. When Reppenhagen speaks, it is with an edge of anger. He says he didn't mind shooting someone "when they had an AK-47 pointed at me."

But there were others.

Soldiers are just following policy when they return fire, he says. A few bullets fly out of a home, and American troops have to blast back.

But ... "You get an 8-year-old kid running out with half his face blown off that you didn't know was in there," Reppenhagen says.

Like many of the soldiers in the room, Reppenhagen isn't the first in his family to serve. His dad went to Vietnam, but he never talked to his kids about it. The son understands, but he thinks it's important to discuss these things; it facilitates confession, repentance and healing, he tells the crowd.

"And forgiveness," Maloney adds.

Reppenhagen concurs, sharing that many of his war buddies who haven't been able to face the pain and guilt have instead struggled with homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and relationship problems.

Visitors in the night

Another Iraq war veteran, Mark Wilkerson, glances at his wife, Sarah. He tells the crowd about a 19-year-old from his platoon who was killed. Then he says that the war has caused problems in his marriage. His wife's face assumes a look of solemnity.

The older guys listen quietly. Then they begin to share.

Maloney tells the younger men about his experience tending to the wounded and dying in an emergency room in Vietnam.

"The spectrum of normal emotion began to bleed away from me until the only state of mind was ambient anger," he says.

And, of course, there were the dead to deal with.

Maloney says he often heard from the men who were lost to the jungle's brutal combat they would speak to him, he remembers, and "grab [him] by the collar." It took him a while, he says, to determine that the best way to honor the war's dead was to enjoy and appreciate his own life.

"Don't keep Iraq with you for too long," Maloney cautions. "If you can't do it for yourself, do it for the man who could not come home."

Another Vietnam vet, Ed Osborne, nods in agreement.

"Do the things that you want to do," he tells the younger men. "You live with the past, but don't let it drag you down."

At the same time, the older guys acknowledge that healing isn't easy. Jos Barrera says he still hasn't gotten Vietnam out of his system. After decades of ruined relationships and lost jobs, he still thinks of the war daily.

He talks of a friend, a new father who hadn't yet gotten to visit his baby, who died when he couldn't avoid incoming fire.

"He comes to me at night and wakes me up," Barrera says. "What I feel guilty about is that I lived and [he] didn't."

At this, Duncan's eyebrows lift in recognition. Other Iraq vets nod in agreement. They have the nightmares, too.

New and old

As the night rolls on, those who are willing to speak get their turn.

Sarah Wilkerson's words gush like water from a broken dam. She says she and her husband were newlyweds when he shipped out to Iraq. He came back a different person.

"One the hardest parts about it is realizing how much anger he has," she says.

Sarah says she desperately wanted to help her husband, but she felt pushed away. Frustrated, she began to feel jealous of meetings such as this one, which her husband attended religiously.

"More than anything, you want to be that person that your husband can come to," she says.

Mark freely admits he has been more comfortable around other vets than he has around his wife.

The older vets interject, reminding Mark to tell his wife how much he missed her overseas, how much he desperately wanted to make it home to her.

But Mark is sternly honest.

"I didn't want to tell her anything," he says. "There's a battle going on between the new me who knows all this stuff and hates it, and the old me."

Osborne looks at him, sympathetic.

"In the end, the old dominates," he says, "and it's tempered by the new."

stanley@csindy.com

These organizations and individuals have had, or plan to have, forums for vets:
Colorado Veterans Alliance, coloradovets.org
Vets4Vets, vets4vets.us
Iraq Veterans Against the War, ivaw.org
Jos Barrera (e-mail), jjbarr46@yahoo.com

  • Vietnam survivors offer some friendly, if heavy, advice to today's soldiers.

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