Jack’s War Never Ended

by Sergeant Major (Ret) George S. Kulas

My friend Jack returned to his hometown of Milwaukee over 30 years ago. Unfortunately, while those years have flown by for me, Jack has remained trapped in the one-year time span prior to his return. Every day, week and month in Jack’s life continues to be part of this horrendous, endless year.

I met Jack in Okinawa, Japan, in 1967. We were Marines on our way to Vietnam. He noticed me at the gym sporting a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt. He asked me where I was from, and when I replied Sheboygan, Wisconsin, he said, “That’s a suburb of my hometown, Milwaukee.”

Over the next several days, we talked a great deal about our home state and the new home we would have for the next year. Jack told me he had two goals he wanted to accomplish: First, he wanted to perform to the best of his ability during his tour in Vietnam, and second, he hoped to return home safely to live a happy and productive life. Jack’s fulfillment of the former was probably instrumental in his failure to realize the latter.

Although we were both going to Vietnam, our experiences there would be much different. Jack, who said he had seen enough combat movies and now wanted to see the real thing, was going to the “bush” as a proud infantryman. I was being assigned as a communications specialist.

While in Vietnam, Jack and I corresponded through letters. I noticed shortly after our arrival that Jack’s enthusiasm for combat had quickly dwindled. “It’s definitely not like it is in the movies, “ he wrote in one of his letters. “I’m soaking wet all the time from the sweat that pours out of me in the sweltering heat while we trudge through the dense jungles. The blood and the terror are real; I can’t say it’s only a movie and go home. It’s reality, and it’s scary as hell. I’ll only go home if I’m lucky and, if I’m luckier still, I’ll go home in one piece.”

As time passed, Jack’s attitude became more negative. “There is no glory in war,” he said in another letter. “Only death, mutilation and sorrow. Many nights I have cried myself to sleep. I can’t remember what it’s like to smile, much less laugh.”

When he was wounded, Jack was actually grateful. “It got me out of the bush,” he said. But as soon as he healed, they sent him back. Although Jack’s tour was winding down, he was still a long way from home.

In the last letter I received from Jack in Vietnam he wrote, “I have lost count of how many buddies of mine have been killed, or the number that have been maimed for life in this dreadful war. I see them in my dreams. I hear their screams of agony. The hysterical cries from boys for their mamas keep getting louder and louder, until I wake up screaming myself.”

Jack and I have remained in touch since Vietnam. Recently, his youngest son was discharged from the Marines, and I was privileged to attend his welcome home party. His son didn’t see any action during his stint, and Jack was very happy about that. His wife was just as happy.

She has seen what action did to Jack. “I know Jack’s nightmares almost as much as he does,” she said to me the day she phoned about the party. For awhile she would wake him, but now she just lets the devilish dreams take their course. “He tosses and turns violently,” she said. “His frantic shrieks are horrible.”

No, it’s not like the movies. Jack, like many other combat veterans, is an unwilling viewer, having been taken hostage by nightly reruns of horrifying experiences in war. Jack’s yearlong tour in Vietnam never ended, and he still isn’t home.