The Long Shadow of War
As a young soldier in Vietnam, Cecil Ison saw something, something so horrific that he buried the memory of it for thirty years and swore he’d never allow it to surface again. Then, on March 20, 2003—the day after we started bombing Iraq—the past leapt up and grabbed him.
By Kathy Dobie, Photography by David Hilliard
First appeared in GQ, December 10, 2007
The month before we invaded Iraq, a terrible ice storm hit eastern Kentucky. Terrible and beautiful. The sleet began falling on a Saturday evening, hissing and ringing as it hit the rooftops and power lines. It fell through the night and all the next day, and when it was over, every tree on Cecil Ison’s land was encased and glittering in ice, so the eyes hurt just to look at them. Then came the cracking, the splitting, the pop-popping as branches snapped under the weight and fell. Tree after tree lost its limbs, tree after tree died.
The sounds—the singing, chiming ice; the groaning of trees; the sharp cracks of branches breaking, so like gunfire—filled Cecil’s days and, most awfully, his nights. The dying took a long time, and his grief deepened and sharpened until it seemed to saw away inside of him.
By that time, in February 2003, there was only the tiniest bit of hope, held on to grimly, that war could be averted. At the supervisor’s office of the Daniel Boone National Forest, where Cecil worked as a forest archaeologist, every conversation turned on war with Iraq. People had become restless. They were ready for the invasion to begin. All of which set Cecil on edge. Something dreadful was approaching, and his heart beat harder, his chest felt tight; more and more, the smallest frustrations were met with a blaze of temper.
“I remember people would talk about it at the lunch table, and I would just get up and leave because I didn’t want to hear, ‘Yeah, that’s the best thing we can do, just bomb the hell out of them and get it over with,’ ” Cecil says. “It’s amazing. Can I take your daughter out today and just smash her brains out on the side of the wall? What’s the difference? I don’t think people understand what war is. They don’t realize that war is about the innocents more than anything else.” He couldn’t see it then, but his outrage was like the desperate wave of a drowning man.
When the ice began falling on the night of February 15 and Cecil heard the branches breaking off the old oak and the apple tree, the entire top of a white pine thudding to the ground, his world suddenly felt as fragile as glass, and he felt powerless to protect any of it. “It tore the place all to pieces,” he says. “It totally devastated the woods.” The Ison farm, nestled in the Appalachian foothills, had been bought by his father when he returned home from fighting in World War II. Cecil was born on this land; he farmed it and played over every inch of it as a child, studied it as a man, and each spring, on his wife’s birthday, he took her for a walk through the hills that glowed white with the flowers of bloodroot and trillium. There wasn’t a frustration or grief that couldn’t be softened by a long tramp through those woods with his dogs at his side. But that winter, the land was grieving. “It hurt to see the trees suffering so bad,” he says.
One day Cecil would make a wind chime from branches collected on his farm, one branch from each type of tree killed in the storm—oak, pawpaw, walnut, pine, apple, maple. He would paint the words i will sing the beauty of trees on one limb. And on another: trees. hummingbirds. honeybees. The forest would regenerate itself, blackberry briars would flourish in the sunlight that poured through the trees, attracting the creatures that feast on them: songbirds, butterflies, and dormice. “The earth is resilient,” Cecil would say. “You have your scabies over in this corner, a nice fresh breeze coming through here as a result of the hurricane happening over there, and that’s all part of the earth.”
But when the storm first happened, Cecil mourned, and the people who love him saw it as a piece of what broke him. The beginning, or middle, of the end.
On the morning of March 20, Cecil Ison walked into the supervisor’s office, whistling. A favorite of the women who staffed the office for his kindness and humor, Cecil greeted each of them by name, tapping them gently with an invisible cane. At noon, Randy Boedy, another archaeologist, came by to take Cecil to lunch.
At nine o’clock the night before, George W. Bush had declared war on Iraq, and shortly after, the massive aerial bombing of Baghdad had begun. But that day, the two archaeologists didn’t talk of war; they discussed a forest project as they drove along the main road in Winchester, heading for Applebee’s. Randy was asking a question when, without warning, Cecil’s mind shuddered and broke. There was no one thing that was said; there was only Randy’s earnest voice, pattering on about forest matters and then lifting slightly in a question…and then Cecil was torn loose from sense and meaning and set afloat and spinning on a daylit street with cherry-colored trucks, grimy snow, and silver automobiles. His body, the stream of cars, Randy, the pale afternoon—all of it lost any sense of being real. Did he even exist? He felt himself scrambling to get back inside reality, but where was it? The world was coldly colored—it had no relationship to him. He felt like a figure in someone else’s dream. Cecil thought: I am losing my mind.
He told Randy to take him back to the office, where Cecil got into his own car and began driving blindly west, toward the VA hospital in Lexington, a place he had been to only once before, many years before. He had no idea why he was heading there, no sense of what was happening to him, only that he could feel himself slipping away.
When the emergency-room doctor called Cecil’s wife, Bet, that afternoon, he asked, “Have you noticed your husband acting differently?”
No, Bet told him, but there was something about the doctor’s description of Cecil’s state that seemed familiar. “He acted this way when I first knew him, when it was closer to when he had come back from Vietnam.”
“He’s a Vietnam vet?”
“Yeah, didn’t he tell you?”
“No.” The doctor took a breath. “Okay. Last night when we heard the news that war had been declared, we were talking among ourselves about what kind of repercussions we might see in the emergency room, and this all fits in.”
Later that afternoon, Cecil was moved upstairs to the mental ward, where things became even worse. His mind, which had been whirling round and round, suddenly stopped and fid on an image, a horrific image from thirty-two years ago out on the rice paddies near Chu Lai, an image long buried and forgotten. Whirl and click, whirl and click. Cecil lay down on the bed, lay as still as a stone, staring blindly at the wall, while his own mind tortured him.
I first heard about Cecil Ison while researching a story about archaeological sites in the Daniel Boone Forest in the spring of ’06. He was, I was told, a passionate archaeologist, an eccentric and charismatic figure, a man who cared deeply about preserving prehistoric sites and respecting the remains of archaic peoples, an outsider artist and minister who had presided over the marriages of many of his friends…and a man who had suffered a mysterious mental breakdown. Everyone I spoke to at the Forest Service believed Cecil had snapped under the stress of his job, but when I finally met him that spring and asked about his sudden retirement, his wife said, “He has PTSD,” and looked pointedly at me, like she wanted to say more.
One glance at Cecil’s graying hair and I asked, “Are you a Vietnam vet?”
“Yes, I received a letter from the president of the United States one day,” he said with sardonic cheerfulness. “I was out playing Wiffle ball, just having a wonderful time, and I got the mail and it said, ‘Greetings. Your friends and neighbors have selected you to serve in the Armed Forces.’ At that point, I knew I had no friends and no neighbors.”
We began to talk of war, but when I mentioned a young woman I knew who drove fuel trucks in Iraq and was haunted by the children she’d seen die there, Cecil got up and left the room. So for the rest of the day, we talked only of archaeology, of rock shelters set high above the forest floor and their early inhabitants.
But when I got home, I couldn’t get Cecil’s breakdown out of my mind. As the weeks and then months went by and the war dragged on, and I began to hear about other veterans from World War II, Korea, and most of all, Vietnam breaking down and checking themselves in to VA hospitals and detox centers, I wrote to Cecil, asking him if he would talk to me about his condition. Here was a man, after all, who had had no apparent problems for more than three decades after he returned from war, had built a life, a good life, a productive, interesting life, and then the past had come out to grab him, to smash him into pieces. Why?
I sent him the opening line of Dante’s Divine Comedy—“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost”—and waited for a reply. Two days later, Cecil’s e-mail arrived.
My dearest Miss Kathy,
The mind is a strange thing—how it can paint over harsh images for decades but then for some reason they can emerge as quickly as the bare wood on a whitewashed fence after a rain. (One thinks) this is something that other people experience but not me, until it strikes like a blow from a sledge hammer. You are most welcome to explore my condition. I’m still struggling with the fact that this is a real condition and many, many others struggle with the same thing…
With all my love,
The Hon. C.R. Ison, Archaeologist by training, Reverend by calling, Commissioner by appointment, and gentleman bygod.
I arrive at the Ison house shortly after New Year’s, on a balmy winter day. I had been assured that I could not miss the place, not in a million years, not if I was half blind and it was pouring rain. The road curves and climbs and then begins to flatten out—there on the right is McGraver’s Grocery and gas station, just as I’d been told—and ascends gently once again, climbing up through green and yellow fields, and then, perched atop a hill: a shaggy barn with cutout figures of children dancing along the top, and parked in front of the barn, a beat-up Toyota truck covered with troll dolls. Across the road, a two-story house is surrounded by a low picket fence that is decorated with dolls’ heads and cow skulls. More dolls swing from trees and are staked into a garden. Blue bottles hang from the branches of a walnut tree, and a trio of dying sassafras trees are upholstered in patches of green, blue, and yellow vinyl. There are whirligigs made from bicycle wheels, and fully dressed mannequins lounge on the porch. Presiding over the whole scene is an eerie figure tied high on a light pole; its long, coiled body is fashioned from baling twine and topped with an eyeless doll’s head. A hand-painted sign reads: do not speak to strange children.
Three dogs lope across the yard, barking happily; Bet comes out the door to greet me, and when we walk into the house Cecil is standing in the center of the living room, like a one-man receiving line. “Well, howdy do, Miss Kathy,” he says. Cecil’s not thin, but he gives that impression. He has a drooping mustache, now white, and a small head—a “pinhead,” he says—and when outdoors, he always wears a hat, usually a soft gray fedora. A braid runs down the back of his neck, and the shorter hair at the sides of his face is almost always unruly. He might be wearing jeans and a white button-down shirt, but over it he will wear a wool vest with a tin sheriff’s badge pinned on it. His hiking boots are decorated with rhinestone clips. He looks like a man in a tintype except for the touches of whimsy and glamour. One day he’s wearing gold stretchy socks, and he takes off his boot and sock to show me that his toenails are painted rose pink. It’s clear that Cecil Ison is a man who does whatever the hell he wants. And enjoys doing it.
Cecil is surrounded by family. The Isons populate two ridges, Trent and Kegley, and the small cemetery where they will all lie one day sits atop a small hill next to the hay barn. Even in winter, Cecil’s sister Lil keeps the graves decorated with flowers. Cecil’s two brothers, Big James and Arnold, live with their families farther down Trent Ridge. His mother, his nephews, and their children live on Trent or along the road that runs between the two ridges. They visit one another constantly. “One Saturday I counted up the people who came,” Bet says. “By the end of the day, it was twenty-nine. So much for the myth of isolation in Appalachia.”
All three Ison brothers served in Vietnam, and none of them talk about it. Big James went first. He volunteered for the air force and ended up in Saigon during the Tet Offensive. Then Cecil was drafted into the army and sent to Chu Lai. The youngest, Arnold, also a volunteer for the air force, was sent to Da Nang. “There’d be many a time I’d lay and my pillow would be wet,” their mother, Katherine, says.
Cecil still has breaks with reality, never as severe as that one on the first day of the Iraq war, but they come often enough, and they can last from a half hour to thirty-six hours. “Shit happens,” he says. “And it’s going to happen again and again and again, but I know how to deal with it much better now.” Sometimes he can feel a break coming on and he can stave it off, but the effort saps every bit of his strength. “If I can, I try to avoid them. If it means getting up in the middle of a conversation and walking away, I try to do that, but sometimes you can’t, and that’s it, I’m done,” he says. He doesn’t know the triggers. He can only say we know “jack shit” about our own minds.
During these breaks—which Bet likes to call “episodes” because that sounds less crazy—Cecil locks up, shuts down. He can’t speak, can barely move. Sleep is the only cure. And Cecil can sleep anywhere: on the hard wooden bench outside the house, down in the fields, under a cliff face, in the middle of a briar patch. Not a bad place to sleep, he says, for if you get yourself stuck inside of one, you know it’s going to hurt coming out, so you might as well postpone the pain.
The morning I arrive, Cecil, Bet, and I drink coffee and talk in the living room. I start by asking Cecil how he became an archaeologist.
“I was going to school in Maryland, and a friend and I went to a Who concert one night,” he begins. “We both had a milk jug of stale beer left over from a party. So we were listening to the Who, drinking and torching up a big doobie, and my friend said, ‘Let’s go to school somewhere else.’ So the next day, I went to the library and looked up colleges, and Trinidad State Junior College in Trinidad, Colorado, offered bookbinding, basket weaving, jewelry-making, carpentry, and beadwork. I said, ‘All right, maybe I’ll major in beadwork.’ So on Christmas Eve, we packed up my car, tied my bed to the roof, and headed off to Colorado.” It was 1974.
He took museum technology at Trinidad, not beadwork, and there, while excavating rock shelters, he met Bet. Bet is short for Betty Sue. She hates “Betty” and used to hate “Betty Sue” until Cecil made it sound like a song. He was 23 when they met; she was 18. “A child bride,” Cecil says with pleasure. Bet’s parents were not pleased.
“He was a rural Appalachian Kentucky boy from a poor family, and a Vietnam vet,” Bet says. “My parents were master’s-educated social workers from the Midwest, Swedish-American Lutheran. I grew up mostly in suburbia. When I called up and said, ‘Cec and I are getting married,’ there was dead silence on the phone. I said, ‘Mom, are you still there?’ And she said, ‘I thought you said Cecil didn’t believe in marriage.’ She had really been hoping Cecil didn’t believe and I would be saved.”
After a lunch of homemade acorn bread and government-issue cheese, Cecil and I sit alone in the kitchen. We need to talk about Vietnam and that haunting image, of course, to travel backward in time—and by the next day, we’ll find the best way to do that: sitting in the smokehouse that stands next to the main house and is heated by a wood-burning stove. There, Cecil sips Old Rip Van Winkle and smokes pot, his only protection as he resurrects the past.
“if you could take Cecil’s family and bottle them, there would be no need for medicine,” Bet tells me one afternoon. We’re talking upstairs in the sewing room while she works on her Vietnam quilt. The room is stuffed with fabric: tweeds, cottons, velvets, hundreds of men’s ties. Bet sews at a small table by the window. She listens to oral histories of Vietnam veterans as she works. On the left side of the quilt is an army-green map of Vietnam, showing the three cities where James, Cecil, and Arnold served. The rest of the quilt is blue, and three male figures float there, separated from one another and bearing labels: anger, despair, and guilt. The quilt reads: my husband and his brothers came home from vietnam…three islands in an ocean of silence.
James is the Angry one, Cecil the figure of Despair, and Arnold is Guilt.
Bet has brown shoulder-length hair, light blue eyes, and thin, curved lips. She has what I can only describe as a thoughtful face, ideas, connections, and realizations playing there as clearly as any emotion would. She is, according to her husband, “so honest it hurts sometimes.” Bet often uses writing in her quilts, which is fitting, since she’s a very verbal person who, at 19, came into a culture that isn’t. She says she was never truly happy until she met Cecil. Still, Bet’s an outsider here, with the perspective of an outsider or an anthropologist. From the sewing-room window we can see Cecil and his nephews, Jamie and Archie, in front of the barn, conferring around a truck. Bet turns from the window, laughing. “See, here’s the deal,” she says. “This is how you get boys in eastern Kentucky, if you ever want to do that. Stop at the side of the road and pull up the hood of your car. It’s like bees to honey.”
In the months leading up to Cecil’s breakdown, Bet says, there were signs of trouble. He always had a temper, but he began to get angry at small things, and he would stay angry. He became withdrawn. “But you never think that somebody’s just gonna break apart,” Bet says.
That March afternoon, after the call from the emergency room, Bet waited to hear from Cecil or the doctor. The day passed and no one called, so the next morning she and their 27-year-old nephew, Jamie, drove to Lexington and found Cecil in the mental ward, lying in a small room with barred windows, wearing a hospital gown five times his size. The room was painted a sickly green. Cecil was staring silently at the wall. Bet sat down on the bed and began to comb his hair.
Over the next few hours, Cecil went from almost comatose to a state of severe agitation where he would pace the floor and rant against the hospital staff for treating the other patients badly. “Cecil’s trigger is abusive behavior from people who are in power toward people who are weaker,” Bet explains. Then, like he’d blown out all his circuits, Cecil would lie down on the bed, catatonic again. “Anger was his only bridge to the world. It was the only way he could communicate. The rest was…he was just, like, gone.”
Jamie lingered in the hallway, measuring the scene. When a male nurse’s aide came in with food and Cecil refused to eat, the aide threatened to strap him to a bed and force-feed him. Jamie waited until the aide stepped outside the room. “I told him you don’t know that man, you have no reason to talk to that man that way, and if you want to talk to somebody that’s in their right mind, here I am.”
When Jamie and Bet went down to the hospital cafeteria for lunch, Bet cried on his shoulder. Her husband was ill, so ill; she wanted this to be the right place for Cecil, but it was becoming clear that it wasn’t. Jamie told her so. When they got back up to the room, Jamie said to his uncle, “Cec, time to get out of here, buddy. Get yourself dressed. Let’s go.” Five minutes passed, ten…and Cecil just stared off at a spot on the wall.
“Let’s get out of here, let’s go home,” Jamie said again.
Cecil turned and looked at him. “Well, Jimbo, I’ve hit rock bottom and I don’t know if I can get back up.”
“Cec, if there’s a rock, you can climb back out,” Jamie said.
On the ride home, Bet drove Cecil’s car and Cecil rode with Jamie. “Somewhere along the line, I remember cutting loose with just a huge tirade of blasphemies,” Cecil says. “Jamie had just recovered from spinal cancer, and he just said, ‘Yeah, I know, man. I know, man. Shit happens.’ ”
The next morning, as Cecil stared down at a breakfast he couldn’t eat, he announced to Bet, in a voice filled with rage, “I curse them for what they have done to me.” He meant the VA. During the case conference that was held on his first morning at the hospital, before Bet and Jamie arrived, the doctors had made Cecil talk about the terrible image in his head. Now there was no stuffing the genie back in the bottle; from here on in, he knew, it would be hell.
So Cecil decided to write the memory down, thinking that might banish it from his mind. After he was done, he swore he would never speak of the memory again.
For the next month, Cecil was spookily docile. He wouldn’t eat unless Bet coached him through the meal. She took him to a private therapist who put him on drugs. Cecil wouldn’t return to the VA, wouldn’t admit he had PTSD, wouldn’t admit that this break had anything to do with the war in Iraq or his own combat experience.
Bet had to go back to work the week after Cecil’s breakdown, but Jamie came by every day, got Cec into his truck, and took him for long drives, hitting every dirt road he could find. “For about a month straight, I got ’im out and wandered,” Jamie says. “The first week, Cec was tight, real tight. Maybe in a day, I’d get five, six words out of ’im. It just took him a while to realize where he was at again. I believe if Cec stays in his woodlands, Cec is happy. I believe that’s where he gets his peace, right there.”
That summer Cecil attempted to go back to work. It took two more severe breaks, one while he was at the office, for him to admit he might be suffering from combat trauma. One day he went with Bet to a local VA outpatient center—not Lexington; he swore he would never go there again—and he was given a handout listing all the symptoms of PTSD.
“I think I might have this,” Cecil said.
when cecil came home from Vietnam in November 1971, his belief in God was gone. Granted, it was never a hard-won belief to start with, simply there, everywhere. His grandpa was a preacher—the family still has his Remington rifle with the tiny cross that he carved into the wooden handle—and Cecil’s most vivid memory of church is playing outside with the other kids during services and then running into the church, screaming, a crawfish attached to his ear, his cousin’s idea of funny. Still, God was there, everywhere, and after Nam, God was gone.
“How can you believe in a God that allows one person to kill another person without any type of remorse?” Cecil asks. “That a person is an object rather than a person? How can you believe in a God that will allow that?” He had no plans to lose his faith; it just went. Still, he wishes he had some belief in the Unseen.
“I’d like to believe in fairies,” he says.
We are in one of our afternoon smokehouse sessions, as I’ve come to think of them. There’s a wood-burning stove that Cecil keeps fed. There’s a worn couch, a straight-backed chair, an old bureau that serves as the bar. Three blue-eyed and freckled Howdy Doody dolls hang from one wall, their cheeks punched up by red-lipped smiles. Next to them, a female doll seems to float in the air. There’s a jagged hole in her skull above her left eye, and her nipples have been cut off. Another example of man’s inhumanity to dolls.
Besides being an archeologist, Cecil is a self-proclaimed “forensic anthropomorphologist”—that is, he studies trauma inflicted on baby dolls. “My speciality is hard plastic bodies,” he says with a straight face while showing me one of his victims. People send them to him from all over the world. “Here’s one with multiple gunshot wounds to the head. It was lying probably on a north face, because it had moss growing on it. Probably lying there for three to five years. I usually have a toe tag, but since this one doesn’t have toes…”
Cecil sits in a hard-back chair, fortified by a small glass of bourbon. “I think I’m as well as I will ever get,” he says, “but it isn’t anything I dwell on. The day-to-day thing is just absolutely wonderful. I have the best of anyone’s life that I can imagine. But when you have those little dips, I guess it’s like having the stomach flu—it’s just pure hell, but you get over it.”
At 17, Cecil was a naive farmboy, a Mayberry-type kid, as he puts it, “minus the Boy Scout bit because I always fucking hated the Boy Scouts, still do.” He had been recruited by the FBI while still in high school—the FBI often recruits in Appalachia on the belief that Appalachians are both patriotic and unsophisticated enough to be molded into loyal employees—and two weeks after he graduated, he arrived in Washington, D.C., by bus, carrying one suitcase and dressed in a brown suit. He began in the fingerprinting warehouse.
Cecil didn’t like the FBI, not the rules and regulations about everything from the length of your sideburns to fraternizing with females, not the soul-shriveling hatred that characterized the agency under J. Edgar Hoover. “It was during the riots in D.C., and there was an instilled hatred for blacks who were rioting because they were against everything the white middle class stood for. It was exuding from the walls almost that these are criminals, these are thugs, and we are a law-enforcement agency and we will not tolerate it.”
While employed by the FBI, he was drafted, and though his bosses assured him he would get an occupational deferment, within weeks he found himself in basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. After he completed his training, Cecil was sure he would be assigned to the National Identification Center, in Maryland, so when he was handed the infantryman’s collar pin with the crossed rifles, he thought a mistake had been made. He was assured he would probably be stationed in Germany.
“Then one day they told me I had to go to the optometrist,” Cecil says. “And they gave me a pair of sunglasses that had rvn on it, and I was thinking to myself, ‘Damn, that snow must be bright in Germany if they give you sunglasses to strut around in!’ And I asked the dudes, ‘What province is RVN in Germany?’ They said, ‘That’s the Republic of Vietnam, you dumbshit.’ ”
He was assigned to C Company, First Battalion, Fifty-second Infantry, 198th Infantry Brigade, Americal Division.
When Cecil arrived by helicopter at landing zone (LZ) Stinson, a treeless fortified plateau, he was immediately sent to pull guard at bunker thirteen. When he found the bunker, the grunts were kicked back smoking pot. “I was scared shitless, and I was sitting out in the trench, looking out over the countryside, knowing I was going to get my throat slit that night, and then all of a sudden, down in the valley, this beautiful light show was going on. Man, everything was going off down there. Artillery was just cranking loose and big flares going off, a big, steady stream of red piss coming out of the gunships.”
He asked another soldier, “What the hell is going on down there?”
“That’s Charlie Company,” the other soldier said. “They’re getting the shit kicked out of them tonight.”
After dawn, a line of filthy, bedraggled men came humping up the hill. Their feet were bandaged because of jungle rot; some were wounded but not badly enough to be medevaced out. “They just looked like… They looked like old men,” Cecil says. “But they were the same age I was. So that was my introduction to the company. From there on, it was just normal stuff.”
Normal stuff: Cecil’s company fought in and around tiny hamlets populated only by children, women, and very old men. Farmers like the people he had grown up with, only living in grass shacks and working in rice paddies. He shows me photos of two young women draining a rice paddy and explains the “ingenious” system they used—they could drain the whole paddy with a basket in a couple of hours. And once it was drained, they would gather the fish, snakes, and eels for food.
These hamlets were riddled with tunnels and spider holes built by the Vietcong, and the soldiers of Charlie Company called one area Dodge City because every time they came into town, there would be a shoot-out. As Cecil’s commander, Lee Basnar, told me, “Whenever we approached a village, the VC would shoot at us, and then we’d have a firefight and we’d sweep into the village. We’d always win and kick them out, and sometimes we’d find a dead VC or two, but generally they had such a network of tunnels and spider holes, so well camouflaged, that we usually couldn’t find anybody but some bleeding civilians that had nowhere else to go. It happened over and over again. You’d walk into a village at the end of a firefight and there would be women and children lying there dead and bleeding.”
Cecil never mentions the dead civilians. I approach the subject a dozen different ways, but not once does a dead woman, child, or old man make an appearance in our conversations. He talks instead of “the sorrow” he felt for the Vietnamese people. He alludes to their suffering. “We are such a lucky country that for the most part people don’t know what it’s like to have their door broken in and be hauled out in the middle of the night, or have someone come strutting into your town—‘Okay, we’re gonna burn your house today’—and cruise on through.” He pulls out a photo in which he and another soldier are squatting on a small cleared space, M16s slung on their shoulders, their gear spread out around them, and says, “We set up on a grave because they kept their graves swept nice and clean, and it was a great place to camp. You know, ‘Fuck these people.’ ”
That’s often how Cecil’s anger makes an appearance—out of the blue, a quick hot flash, and then it’s gone. But one suspects it’s always there.
“That’s the U.S.’s finest going over the hill to bomb the hell out of somebody,” he says, showing me another photo of a big-bellied B-52 heading out over the mountains. And here’s one taken at LZ Stinson at Christmas, showing two women with flip hairdos wearing button-down dresses, like nurses’ uniforms only in yellow and pink. “Those were the Donut Dollies. I met them once, Christmas Day; they brought packages, and I received one from a church in New Orleans—a Boy Scout signal mirror, a comb, some pieces of candy.” A beat of silence. “I sent them a thank-you note.” Oh, and here’s a downed helicopter in a rice paddy in My Lai, and “that’s the pilot.”
Where’s the pilot? I ask, peering closely at the photo.
Inside the flight helmet there, the one the soldier is holding for the camera. Those are the fragments of his skull.
katherine ison and I sit at her kitchen table, and her eyes are always on mine when she speaks. She’s blue-eyed with a full head of snow-white hair, soft and downy looking. She wears wire-rimmed glasses, a Christmas sweatshirt printed with a picture of a lighthouse in the snow, and a powder blue cardigan. She’s got a beautiful smile, shy-like, but with some mischief in it. When she cries, she apologizes but doesn’t hide her face. She would’ve made biscuits this morning, but she woke up feeling dizzy and barely got the house cleaned for my visit. Her children still call her Mommy.
War has laid its shadow over all of Katherine’s life. Her father served in World War I and died when Katherine was 6 from complications due to inhaling mustard gas. Her husband served in World War II, starting in Normandy, where his job was to retrieve the bodies of dead servicemen from the sea. Her older brother also served in World War II, in the navy. “His ship was sunk out under him, it was torpedoed,” she says. He survived but many didn’t. Her youngest brother served in Korea.
Her three boys have never talked to her about their war. “They didn’t want me to know what they went through,” she says, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I don’t think I’ve got a child that wouldn’t try to run through fire for me. And that’s the way I feel about them. I’d rather have them all around here than have everything I own.”
Katherine’s house needs serious repair work, so the family moved her into this trailer next door, crammed full of family photographs, angel figurines, Christmas decorations, candy and cookies. Quilts and afghans cover the couch and easy chair. A parakeet named Petey, who can both wolf-whistle and imitate a whip-poor-will, is perched in a wrought-iron cage in the living room.
When her boys came back from war, she says, they were changed. At first Cecil couldn’t eat. Except food out of cans. He weighed 119 pounds, and even homemade soup made him sick. When the spring rains came, he would pace the house like it was a cage. One time her husband let the National Guard use one of their fields for training ercises, and when that first helicopter buzzed over the ridge, Cecil ran for cover. “We saw him outside; he was trying to hide somehow around the trailer, trying to find a place to git,” Katherine says. “’Course I never did bring it up to him or nothing.”
Big James always had a temper, but now he was nervous, too. “We tried to get him to go to the VA, but nothing will do him but work,” she says. “One factory would close down, he’d get a job at another. I think that’s the way that he gets things off his mind, maybe, working. He couldn’t stand to be around nobody.”
I meet James later that afternoon at Cecil and Bet’s place. When he knocks at the door, Bet tells him to come in, but James won’t come in to the house if there are women alone there. So we step outside. James is a tall, strong-looking man with a lean face, the tallest of the brothers. He’s had back surgery recently and seems to be in pain. He walks stiffly, jerking one leg along after him.
I’ve told Bet I want to talk to James and she has said there’s no way, he has never spoken about Vietnam, even hearing the word propels him out of the room. Bet introduces me, and I say something about PTSD and James says, abruptly, “That’s me.”
Bet moves in. “She’d like to interview you—”
“Well, now is as good a time as any,” James says, and walks over to the porch swing and sits down. He’s wearing a red trucker cap that shadows his face; he sits perfectly still. His nephews had described him as a “hard cat,” but his sister Lil had said he’s not as tough as he’d like to think he is. When James was in Saigon, he sent home photos of the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. Lil remembers them as “just mounds of Vietnamese, where they was going to do a mass burial, they’d just dig a big hole and push them in with a bulldozer and bury them…children, everybody.” His voice is toneless but his answers come quickly, like the words have been living inside him for some time, waiting to come out.
James worked on the flight line loading ordnance into B-52’s at the Tan Son Nhut air base. He lost a lot of his hearing due to the jet engines running twenty-four hours a day and crippled his back hand-loading 1,000- and 2,000-pound bombs.
“I don’t talk about Nam,” he says. “I stayed drunk about two years after I came back. I was pretty wild then. I didn’t care if it snowed silver dollars or diamonds.”
James wasn’t surprised when he heard Cecil had a breakdown. “A lot of my friends are either dead or in the loony bin,” he says. He believes the only reason he’s still here is because work has always kept his mind “pretty well occupied,” and when the memories of war intrude he’s able to go off by himself somewhere. Cecil once described his family as people who would not burden you with their troubles but would always be there when you need them. The men, in particular, go it alone. Their father never talked about World War II, and in Cecil’s mind at least, his father had the tougher war. For a time, Cecil was ashamed that he was the one who broke. What the Isons seem to do so well for one another is call the tortured wanderer back to the day at hand: the tractor that needs an overhaul, the cold beer that waits after a long day of cutting hay, the children who want—no, need—to go fishing.
One thing I know soldiers hate being asked, I say to James, is did you kill anybody, and every soldier I talked to says—
“I didn’t directly,” James interrupts. “But I know the ordnance did, and I know the machinery I repaired did, so… I was there in the Tet Offensive, that last big push. Our base was surrounded by, they estimated, 35,000 North Vietnamese. They surrounded us.” Tears start rolling down his face. He stands up and walks swiftly out of the yard, jerking his stiff leg along, and disappears down the road.
when i ask Cecil how many men in his company were killed during his tour, he gets a stubborn, pinched look on his face and says he doesn’t care to recall. Lee Basnar, though, speaks of a force of 150 men whittled down to seventy-five, with most of those losses due to land mines. What Cecil does care to recall: the mountainous terrain of Vietnam; the leeches and soaking jungle rains; the tigers and snakes and makeshift swimming holes and cooking a ham slice over a little chunk of C-4 explosive, which worked better than the military-issued heat tabs, but you had to remember not to put out the fire by stamping on it. If he could turn a year of combat into a story about an extreme camping trip, he would. He recalls the time he almost stepped on a bouncing Betty—it was attached to a 105-millimeter cannon round. When he looked down at his boot, he saw the telltale three prongs. If his foot had landed a quarter inch forward, he and a dozen men would’ve been blown into pieces. Fear has a taste, he tells me: like you’re licking a nine-volt battery.
Jeff Brothers, who served with Cecil in C Company, remembers him as a country-bumpkin type who was so smart you could see it a mile off. Cecil was always joking, always lifting people’s spirits, but when he had to get serious he got serious the way very intelligent and competent people do: deeply, deadly. After Cecil and two other men were wounded by shrapnel in an RPG attack, they refused to be “dusted off,” taken by helicopter to the rear for medical help. They didn’t want to abandon their squad.
Cecil never mentions his refusal to be medevaced out, nor that he was the one who went down into the spider holes and into the tunnels to clear out VC. This was a self-elected position, and Cecil was skinny, he could fit, so he volunteered. Cecil doesn’t mention the spider holes, and I don’t think it’s only because he’s not one to boast.
When I ask him if he believes in heroism, he says, “Heroism is a spontaneous act, so I don’t know. Most people don’t set out to be a hero, whether you’re saving a busload of crippled schoolchildren who went over a mountain and are being eaten alive by tigers or…whatever. It’s just a spontaneous act at the moment.”
When I ask him if war teaches soldiers the value of life, he says, “They already know the value of life. It doesn’t teach them anything other than what total assholes people are. The military shows you the evil in mankind and the evil of power.”
And with that, he decides to tell me one story, about the death of a man in his company, the last man to die before Cecil was shipped home. They had moved the company onto a barren hill for reasons unknown to Cecil or any of the soldiers. “I have no idea what their motives were in this mission—I never knew what the motives were—but this guy, I think his name was Jones, they had transferred him to our company because he had just extended for sixty days, so he could get out of the military.** **He had a child at home that he had never seen, and he just wanted so bad to get out and have it behind him so he could have his life and his kid and his wife, and a sniper got him. And we were all just pouring everything we had into the location that the sniper shot from, and the colonel’s up there in a helicopter, circling around, and he called our captain and was bitching him out because we overreacted from a single sniper. They sent a medevac in and Doc Carpenter left with his finger in the guy’s chest, which happened to be his heart, trying to save him, but he was dead.”
As I listen, I become aware that I’m not having the reaction I should have. This is a story that should fill me with grief and rage that luck—dumb, stupid luck—could gain the upper hand, win the day, end a good man’s life. There is Jones wanting to get home to his wife and new baby, Jones doing everything he could, Jones looking at the situation squarely and making a choice, a bit of a gamble, yes, but keeping his eyes on the prize—getting home to Debbie or Joyce or Mary Jo—and luck, bad luck, taking him down, all his dreams and well-laid plans, yes, but also his breath, sight, love of his wife and his unseen, miraculous child: all gone.
I can’t see Jones, can’t see the blood, the hole, Doc’s finger plugging it, the colonel circling overhead watching Jones get shot and fall; cannot hear him furious over the waste of his soldiers’ ammunition, the ones fighting not to be like Jones, and firing for Jones in fury and fear, and all too late.
It has taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that while we might be able to imagine explosive anger or mind-altering lust or the joy of any child anywhere eating something cold and delicious and unexpected on a hot summer day, imagining violent death happening next to you, or seeing the emptied face of the one you just killed, or living for months on the edge of terror because you are the hunted animal and someone wants to shoot and kill you, is impossible. Even when we think we’ve grasped a piece of those experiences, the fact remains: To deliberately kill another person, to see people blown apart and rearranged grotesquely, arms or legs detached, a head, a face now a slick and bloody shawl, and to live, eat, sleep, shit, walk through rice paddies or on jungle trails or teeming city streets hearing the ridiculous fragility of your own breath are experiences that don’t have any connection to the range of experiences that make up most lives. These things we cannot surmise, cannot take a “pretty good guess” at. We cannot see war, those of us who haven’t seen it
It comes as no surprise that his favorite archaeological period is Terminal Archaic, when hunters became farmers and human ingenuity turned from the fashioning of spears, bows, and arrows to seeds and soil, or as Cecil puts it, “when people are starting to get religion and they’re putting out their gardens.”
it’s snowing in Kentucky. The road to Cecil and Bet’s house follows Christy Creek, and today it’s the color of the Caribbean Sea, racing so fast it’s crested in whitecaps. Snow flies down into the tumbling waters and onto all the rolling farm fields, flies whitely through the black smoke rising from every chimney and scenting the air with hickory and oak.
When I arrive, Cecil’s sitting in the living room listening to Santana and typing on his laptop, working on an archaeological paper called “A Cup of Earth.” In a liter of dirt taken from a rock shelter north of the Daniel Boone, Cecil has found seeds from sumpweed, goosefoot, maygrass, and sunflower—all plants that were domesticated around 700 b.c. Those early farmers worked in unimaginably fertile soil, he says. The bedrock lies directly beneath the surface, and all the water seeps down there and collects, ready drinking for the roots of plants. And the forest duff, that rich decay, “has accumulated over thousands and thousands and thousands of years.” Cecil has no trouble talking archaeology, but since his breakdown it’s harder for him to gather his thoughts for writing, to make them march across the page in a logical, organized way. He has been retraining his mind by reading children’s books.
We head to the smokehouse for our last Vietnam interview. There remains the unfinished business of the memory that Cecil has sworn he will never talk about, the one he’d buried for thirty years and then became fid in his head while he was at the VA. Whirl and click, whirl and click. In my motel room the night before, I had written a wish list for this interview. It included: to know the image that so haunts Cecil.
Yet I find myself unable to ask him directly.
“I told myself years ago that I don’t talk about it,” Cecil says. “I knew that was one incident that was blocked out of my memory for thirty-something years; it was totally gone and there was no use ever trying to resurrect it.”
But it resurrected itself.
“It resurrected itself.”
The wood stove is giving off enough heat to cut the chill in the air. Cecil wears a thick crocheted hat and a red-and-black flannel shirt under his green-yellow-and-blue plaid thrift-store suit jacket. He looks jaunty and faded at the same time.
When Cecil finally realized, in the fall of 2003, that he would not be able to work again and applied for service-related compensation, he had to be interviewed by a therapist at the VA. To receive compensation, it is not enough to have served in combat for a year and not enough to display the symptoms of PTSD: There must be a “kicker event,” one appalling memory. The VA therapist, Karen Tufts, told Cecil he would have to talk about that memory. She led him gently toward it, but Cecil began to cry at that point in the interview; he couldn’t talk about it. Bet told Karen that he had written down the event shortly after that first break in an effort to banish it from his head—would that do? Karen had Bet fax Cecil’s written account to her that afternoon.
Cecil made Karen promise that she would destroy the fax, which Karen did.
Months later, Cecil told Bet and his daughter, Sunshine, that they could read what he had written. Bet chose not to. She felt she already knew enough of what Cecil wanted so desperately to forget. After Cecil’s compensation hearing, they received a complete written review, and in it was the sentence: “Suffice it to say, he witnessed war crimes and tremendous loss of life.”
“That quote just hangs in my head,” Bet says.
Sunshine decided to read it. That bothers Cecil now. “I don’t know if I should’ve done that or not,” he says. “It was a very, very unpleasant event, but…war is full of unpleasant events.” He wanted Sunshine to understand why he was suffering, but mostly he wanted her not to worry.
Don’t you think when children become adults they’re hungry to know their parents?
“I don’t know.” He pauses, a long pause. “But…” An even longer pause, and he’s staring at a place low on the wall. I can’t see the struggle on his face, but I can feel it, a kind of frantic scratching in the dark. “Shit happens to everybody.”
He descends into silence again. Even coming sideways at the memory has brought him close to breaking. Now he is struggling to hold off an “episode,” to stay here inside this moment.
“But if you can get through life for the most part with, uh…,” he begins and then stops. His face is gray. “Whatever.”
Honor? Love? Dignity? Happiness?
“Happiness,” he says, and with that Cecil grabs ahold. “Happiness is the most critical component of life. And if you could be happy 51 percent of the time, you’ve got it made. If you drop below 50 percent, what is there to continue life about? You’re just occupying a body that you’re unhappy with.”
Well, there’s always the hope that you’ll get back to 51 percent.
Cecil smiles. “Now, that is true. You’re looking at it very optimistically, and I was able to do that. But if you’ve bottomed out, and you don’t see any way out of it, then what’s left? Why should you live? Sometimes it’s just overwhelming that you will not reach that 50 percentile.”
Did you feel that way?
“Oh yeah. I think I was very close. I was somewhere around 23 to 27 percent, and sinking. It’s a horrible thing.” He was fortunate, he says, to have been put on drugs to stabilize him and to have met Karen Tufts, the VA therapist. “Every time I saw her, I saw that glimmer of hope.” Karen was the first one who understood exactly what he was going through and to tell him that he could manage his PTSD and live a good life, and if Karen, with her “psychic abilities,” thought that, then Cecil knew it to be true. With faith, he moved forward. Faith and a rare capacity for joy.
When I ask Cecil what makes him happy, he says, “I could answer that question a thousand different ways every day. Seeing other people happy—I mean, that’s a big deal. I just like to see people happy. And to see the earth happy, that’s a big deal. And to see a dog grinning, that’s a big deal.”
Three hours pass, during which he comes perilously close to that one terrible memory, but it’s clear he is not going to talk about it. We leave the smokehouse and head inside where Sunshine and her husband, Cavin, home for a visit, buzz about the kitchen, eager for fresh coffee and conversation. From the adjoining room, Cecil announces, “Ladies and gentleman, I think I will retire for—” and he wavers; he cannot speak. He stands at the foot of the stairs, looking up, unable to climb. I don’t even know if the stairs are there anymore for him. “Cec, you need to sleep for a while?” Bet asks. He doesn’t respond. Gently, she guides him up.
The next day—a day I term our “grace note,” a day with no talk of war—Cecil and I roam the roads in his troll truck, though perhaps roaming is the wrong word, since he drives like a maniac. The trolls shake and bounce, their arms outstretched, their pink and blue hair flying. At one point, on a dirt road that tracks a creek, we stop and climb a leaf-sodden slope to a rock shelter that is as large as a cathedral. Perched above the forest, sand-and-rose-colored, immense, embedded with creatures from millions of years ago when the area was a saltwater sea, worn by mighty rivers that rolled through this part of the earth, it’s a place where you can almost see men sharpening arrowheads, children playing, women grinding hickory nuts, all of them precariously, stubbornly alive.
when i get home, I e-mail Cecil, asking him if I can read the memory, not expecting that he will say yes. A week or so later, an envelope arrives in the mail. Inside, a letter from Bet, a note from Cecil, and the memory, written in blue ink on two sheets of unlined paper. Not a copy—the actual note he wrote after he had returned home from the VA. Bet’s letter reads, “Cecil showed me your note and asked me to send this to you. I was a little afraid you might be worrying he’d reacted badly to your request—which he didn’t at all.
“I want to tell you that he was—how can I describe it? almost joyous? relieved? lightened? by his decision to send this to you, to have it gone from the house. And the thought of having it gone from the world, burnt to ash, to dust. So do as he requests. Finish it off.”
Burn it? He’s sent it to me to destroy? I look at Cecil’s note again and see no request to burn the paper. Instead, he writes of stag- and pearl-handled knives, fingerprint whorls, the dogs, and tells me that he and Bet are “cruising along pretty good.”
The memory is dated Monday, March 24, three days after he checked out of the VA hospital. It is written with great presence of mind until it stops, midsentence—and describes what is, simply put, one of those deaths that governments accept as a cost of war but soldiers never do.
For thirty years, Cecil put war out of his mind; “every now and then you could see the evil seeping out from under the door, or the door would flash open real quick and it would jump out and yell boo! at you,” he says. He did not want to ever see those hellish visions again, but he never adopted a sanitized, sentimental picture of mankind, never denied that evil exists, that life is chaotic and cruel. One time I said lightly, “Well, there can be something ugly about human beings,” and Cecil’s reply came swiftly: “Ugly? Human beings are ugly to the core. We’re just ugly to the core.” That knowledge, and his resurrected memories of combat, the demons that dance in his head, are what make his efforts to not let the killing and the dying darken his days so harrowing and so meaningful. Inside of him, the past battles with the present, death with life, ugliness with beauty. It is the same for hundreds of thousands of others who find that war has followed them home—from the hedgerows of Normandy or the hamlets of Chu Lai or the alleys of Fallujah—and has the power to poison and destroy peace of mind, pleasure, tenderness, joy. It is an ever present possibility for the combat veteran, a fact that is as enraging as it is terrifying. Governments decide to wage war and send others off to fight and kill and die. Would their war cast its black shadow over the rest of your life, over the green fields of home, over your very soul?
After reading the memory, I write a long, impassioned letter to Cecil asking if I can print some of it. A week passes, and then comes his reply:
Last night bestowed the ridge with a beautiful snowfall of approximately three inches in depth. The dogs love to skim their noses just under the surface, which leaves a haphazard groove in their trails. Big Chief Buffalo Nickel would have examined the tracks crossing the little bridge and recorded that ‘three maybe four dogs and one human had crossed the bridge on a trek of enjoying a small piece of nature’s blessings’ on his palm pilot. And his diagnosis would be correct. It’s amazing what beauty the earth provides us with.
Miss Kathy, I would prefer if you didn’t use the piece I wrote about one particular experience. In every war it is the innocent that suffer the most. I hope you will burn the piece of paper on which I scribbled those feelings. I’m afraid that others who have gone through similar events might read of it and old, old visions would once again appear. AND, I would not be able to read your piece. You may allude to the event and point out that there is never any glamour for a combat soldier. Those who believe in war have never smelled the stench of blood. Unfortunately most who read of war seem to be attracted to the horrors of it and not what it does to people who participated in it.
And now for my grace note. Bet just came home from her quilt meeting and delivered a bag of valentine candy hearts. One that I can see through the bag reads ‘MY GIRL.’ I am a lucky man I am. May your dreams be sprinkled with fairy dust tonight.
With all my love, Cec.