Veterans share experiences

By Vickie Aldous
Ashland Daily Tidings
May, 28, 2008

Vietnam War Veteran Bob Eaton sings a song he wrote while veterans of the conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan listen during the Memorial Day “Voices of Veterans” event in Ashland.

Vickie Aldous | Daily Tidings

"Today is the fourth anniversary to the day that my son was blown up in Iraq by a roadside bomb. It's also his birthday," Cynthia Lefever said.

Before a capacity crowd in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Theatre on Memorial Day, family members and veterans of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam described their experiences during the Welcome Home Project's "Voices of Veterans."

The evening of stories, poems and music followed a retreat at Buckhorn Springs resort outside Ashland for the veterans and family members.

Though he suffered severe wounds, including a traumatic brain injury and the loss of an eye, Cynthia Lefever's son, Rory Dunn, survived.

Stan and Cynthia Lefever accompanied Dunn on a flight back to the United States after the explosion in Iraq.

They listened to the click, hiss, click, hiss of the ventilator that kept him alive amid the intravenous drip bags, mounds of medical gear and injured soldiers stacked in stretchers four-high.

Dunn spent more than a year at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center with soldiers suffering from disfiguring facial injuries, paralysis, burns, amputations and other injuries.

Stan Lefever shared a poem he wrote urging people who walk the halls of the hospital to do so without averting their gaze from the soldiers and their damaged bodies. He said to look into a soldier's eyes, if the eyes are still there, and if not, look into the person's heart.

"They are changed forever. But they are still the same," he said.

Although he was never expected to walk or speak again, Dunn walked to the microphone on the theater stage and shared his memories of Iraq.

An Iraqi who was being trained to help secure his country with the help of American forces was shot, his body blown into two pieces. Dunn and other soldiers were ordered to return the man's body to his family rather than letting it be hung off a bridge by insurgents. They delivered the body to the man's terrified wife and screaming children.

"I think about that day every day," Dunn said. "That will be until the day I die."

On Memorial Day four years ago when he was hit by the bomb, two of his friends died. One, who Dunn described as gracious, kind and an outstanding distance runner, had become the new father of a baby girl the day before.

"That child will never get to meet her father," he said. "You can never replace that."

As her son's condition slowly improved, Cynthia Lefever said she got worse because he no longer needed her 24 hours a day. She said soldiers without assertive parents to watch out for their interests are falling through the cracks.

She told of a dream in which she saw a young, handsome soldier in a fresh uniform and boots. But when she looked up at him again, half his face was gone and he had an empty eye socket. He reached for her and said, "Be my mom. Bring me home."

Then a twin appeared at the soldier's side with the same injury. Then there were four soldiers, then eight, then 16, then 32 and then row upon row of young men. Without moving their lips, they telegraphed in unison, "Be our mom. For God's sake, bring us home."

Like many of the family members and veterans, Mandy Martin, an Iraq War veteran and mother, is plagued by nightmares. She said she dreams that she has forgotten to check on her sleeping daughter when she hears a noise. Martin creeps to her daughter's bedroom, pulls the window curtains open a crack and sees a man coming who is dressed in flowing white robes.

Moe Eaton, the wife of a disabled Vietnam veteran, said her husband still suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He cries out in his sleep, she wakes him up and he tells her he felt like someone was in their bedroom.

"This scenario has repeated itself since day one of our marriage and it still goes on to the present," Eaton said.

In a poem about war and homecoming, Laura Carpenter said she feels like a piñata, "dangled out to be cracked to the marrow." She is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, but is preparing for a deployment to Iraq. When strangers reach out to thank her for her service and shake her hand, she checks their hands for grenades.

Carpenter said she saw the remains of a young suicide bomber, his body reduced to pulp like kitchen waste.

"I know they promised him glory," she said. "We are all promised glory."

She worries about her own son, growing up near Army bases and facing G.I. Joe figures, video games about killing, violent movies and recruiters. There will be no "kitchen waste" in the advertisements promoting military enlistment.

"I want to say, 'Hush now, world. A child is sleeping,'" Carpenter said.

As a medic in Vietnam, Mike Schenk bathed, fed and shaved injured soldiers, who shared stories about their families. When they died, he pulled out the tubes, packed all their bodily orifices with gauze and placed them in body bags. He refused to do the work any longer after six months.

"Sometimes I still do it in my sleep," Schenk said.

Many of those Vietnam veterans are now reaching out to help younger generations, said Iraq veteran Melissa Steinman. They have spent the last 40 years hacking through the brush, trying to find a way to heal, The message she has received from those older vets: "We saw you coming, so we ran all the way back to get you."

At the conclusion of the evening, facilitator Michael Meade — a Vietnam era veteran who studies myths — led the veterans, families and audience members in a song inspired by the legend of a bird who helps the lost halves of a tribe rediscover each other by carrying pieces of a traditional song back and forth. Those with direct experience of war and its aftermath had shared at least some small part of their burden with others.

As Martin, the Iraq veteran and mother, said, "I wish I didn't have these stories."

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.