Veterans seek peace after war

Nicole Hennessy

War plunges into each crevice of humanity, making us abandon subtlety.

Wars are fought for respect, commodities, territories, religions or ideologies.

But they are not fought by countries; they are fought by men and women who must eventually forget the burnt bodies and the smell of flesh. They must forget the sound of bombs and guns.

The following are accounts of war and the war fought within upon returning:

Lt. Tom Saal was headed up a mountain just outside of Hue in Vietnam.

It was drizzling. The China Sea lay just on the other side of the mountain, which was dense with bushes and rocks. Reveling in the beauty of the scenery, he climbed to the top. He stepped up on a rock to get a better view, and just as his boot made contact, there was an explosion, and he was shot straight up into the air.

“Both of my boots were blown off, my right foot was hanging off. There was blood every-fuckin’-where,” Saal said as he recalled stepping on a land mine.

His face is covered in wrinkles now, a map of his life, sometimes crisscrossing each other, and other times running parallel, like the three deep-set lines in the center of his forehead.

Saal’s memories of war, which he now turns into poetry, include images of a naked, crucified enemy soldier “hanging Christ-like, from a makeshift cross erected from bamboo.”

Upon waking from a nap to make this discovery, he recalls feelings of “intense anger, turning into total depression, turning into apathy, turning back to anger, not leaving depression.”

“I absolutely shut down at that point. I lost all faith in God and my fellow man that day,” he said.

On May 15, 1970, Saal was discharged from the Marine Corps and sent home with two Purple Hearts: one from the explosion and one from an incident of friendly fire.

“I pretended I was never there (Vietnam). I never talked about it with anybody, which made the dreams that much worse. Veterans were coming home from Vietnam, and we were spat on. I felt like that big,” he said as he paused to demonstrate less than an inch of space between his forefinger and thumb.

“People would ask how many babies we killed. We shut down.”

Saal soon finished school and started a new life as an English teacher. A few years later, he married a fellow teacher with whom he later had four daughters.

For 30 years, he managed to keep everything “bottled up.” But that changed when two planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York.

“(9/11) it really depressed me,” he said. “When the Berlin Wall went down, I thought the end of the world wasn’t going to happen via war. And then this shit happened.”

In the winter of 2002, former President George W. Bush announced the invasion of Iraq.

“When this war came along, Vietnam vets by the hundreds just started cracking up,” Saal said. “That’s when I got bad, then progressively worse.”

The war in Iraq affected Saal in such a profound way that it began to consume his life, the veteran added. While grading papers at the kitchen table, Saal would smoke marijuana and clip articles about the war.

“I was smoking pot on the way to school. I didn’t care about anything but ending the war,” Saal said. “I would put the butt of my joint out on the school wall.”

In May 2006, he had a breakdown, something he claimed “was just a matter of time.” Subsequently, he retired from teaching and had to quit smoking pot.

After spending two weeks in a psychiatric ward and six months learning how to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, Saal was able to begin to deal with all of the thoughts he kept secret for so long and began to help other veterans address their unresolved issues.

As a housing specialist at the Freedom House in Kent, a local shelter for homeless or displaced veterans, Saal helps with military benefit applications, housing and counseling.

“I get better each day, and one of the reasons I get better is that I continue to help people,” he said. “It (helping people) allows me to do what I knew was gonna have to be done when this war started. Now I know I can’t end the war, but I can help people who are coming home from it.”

Dustin Szarell, a veteran of the war in Iraq, came to the Freedom House after tensions at home became unbearable for him. He said he was getting into fights with friends and family members and self-medicating himself with alcohol. He was also having flashbacks and nightmares.

When Szarell joined the Army in 2003, he said he knew he was going to be deployed eventually, so he used the military training to prepare himself the best he could.

“You grow up pretty quick once the first bullet flies by your head,” Szarell said. “The experiences I encountered made me more (of) a man; I was a lost boy for quite a while.”

While the war in Iraq was devoured by reporters and broadcast on televisions in living rooms across the country, Szarell said he would read Stephen King novels to briefly escape the reality of war and the desert heat.

Szarell said the media never highlighted the Good Samaritan acts Marines do in Iraq, such as providing people with food, teaching kids to read and helping build houses.

While working with and against Iraqis, Szarell added, he was able to see and begin to understand another culture first-hand.

“They’re very faithful to their religion, they benefit from what they read in the Quran,” he said. “There were some that said we were a gift from Allah, we gave them life. I didn’t want to let them down. If I was able to reach one individual that day, that was good for me.”

Szarell recalls seeing a flash of light and an explosion one day when he was heading with his unit to their base after a raid in Fallujah.

“The Humvee went up into the air and went down,” he said. “I don’t remember anything else.”

The roadside bomb explosion resulted in traumatic brain injury and hearing loss. He wouldn’t know this until he regained consciousness 25 minutes later.

“My memory’s not good since I have residual bruises in my brain,” Szarell said. “My short-term memory is weaker than my long-term.”

After just a month and a half of recovery, Szarell stayed in Iraq until 2005, when he decided to join the National Guard.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Szarell spent four weeks helping the New Orleans Fire Department. He recalls an orphanage and offering to children without foods items from the Toys for Tots program.

“It touched me a lot. I don’t have kids of my own, but I have a 6-year-old niece,” he said. “I kind of gave back to society; a humanitarian thing. I felt good about that.”

When he got back to Ohio, he said there was a huge bag of mail from all of the children from the orphanage thanking them. He also found out he was being sent to Kosovo.

Szarell believes Americans have been trying to teach people from the Middle East a democratic state of mind that they don’t want to be taught.

“I’m not one of those people that’s trying to be political,” Szarell said. “I don’t consider myself anti-war. I understand we’re fighting for a purpose, but not everyone should be there to experience that.”

Back at home, Szarell began to readjust to civilian life. After about four months in the Freedom House, Szarell was able to start going to school, get his car up and running and maintain his now two-year sobriety. He now lives and works as a case management assistant at a three-quarter house for people trying to stop drinking or using drugs.

Though he would not sign back up for the Army, he thinks “there is something more to this life than reflecting on something bad that happened.”

As the war in the Middle East continues, Tom Saal continues to oppose it.

“I can sometimes justify the world’s anger towards us, especially third-world countries,” he said as he mentioned cities such as Baghdad. “We’ve blown the shit out of them.”

Contact features reporter Nicole Hennessy at [email protected].