From a Hawk to a Dove

Vietnam Veteran Ray Cocks, who’d eagerly enlisted in 1967, was forever changed by the realities of war.

Ray Cocks | Longreads | May 2017 | 11 minutes (2,844 words)

Our latest Exclusive is an essay by Vietnam veteran Ray Cocks, co-funded by Longreads Members and published in collaboration with TMI Project, a non-profit that brings empowering memoir writing and true storytelling workshops to underserved populations.

When I graduate high school in the spring of 1967, I’m determined to go to war. I enlist in the army and prepare to leave, proudly, for Vietnam.

Before I go I encounter some older guys coming back home. They speak out against the conflict, but I don’t believe them. “Don’t go,” they tell me. “It’s bullshit. It’s all bullshit.” I think they’re just hogging all the glory for themselves.

Nothing is going to stop me. Besides, what ever happened to “My country, right or wrong”?

***

To tell my story, It helps to back up and start with my father’s.

During World War II, he was a gunner’s mate, third class, on board the aircraft carrier Yorktown — the second one, commissioned after the first was sunk. He was on a five-inch cannon, information that means little to me when I first learn it as a kid. But then I wind up on a four-inch cannon in Vietnam.

My generation was raised by World War II veterans — the iron men who served on such ships and watched as their friends were burned to death, blown to hell, drowned, eaten by sharks, shot to pieces literally. World War II, “the big one,” — a massive, global stroke of insanity that brewed from the ashes of World War I, the war that was to make the world safe for democracy.

These men went through the rest of their lives, for the most part, with untreated PTSD. My father was no exception.

***

When I’m growing up, my father is a man of few words. He shows me a picture of a kamikaze plane breaking apart from anti-aircraft fire as it passes harmlessly over the flight deck. No story, just the picture and the terse comment: “That’s a kamikaze.”

I am spanked, face-slapped, whipped with a leather belt, and rubber hose by my father. In the 1950s this doesn’t qualify as child abuse. It’s just the way you raise boys then. You raise them, brutally. You raise them for for battle.

Even some of my fondest childhood memories are tinged with battle at the edges. I’m sitting next to Dad on the couch watching Navy Log, and Victory at Sea, two documentary shows. He knows I like these, so he lets me stay up past bedtime to watch with him.

Dad’s a union plumber and often works away from home all week. When I’m six, he takes me to his job sites. My brother Alan has been born and my baby sister is soon to come, so it’s a welcome adventure for me to go with him.

Nights, we stay in a motel, and days I play in the muddy ditches of the construction site. I have a model helicopter and imagine I’m fighting in Korea. With the pilot shot down over Toko-Ri, it’s a failed rescue mission and the enemy soldiers are closing in.


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After work Dad talks with his co-worker over highballs back in our room. I have one, too; it’s a ginger ale. “This is my son Raymond,” Dad says. His co-worker shakes my hand. “Hello, Raymond.” I feel like a little man. I feel special. I feel comfortable, loved, and safe, next to this man who tells me about the war and the navy, who takes me on business trips. But I have a hard time understanding how this could be the same man who beats me.

I’m the second born of five, the oldest boy. We’re each three years apart, in good Irish-Catholic-repopulate-the-world fashion. But if being the first son in an Irish family is supposed to be some kind of exalted position, that fact is lost on me, as I am spanked, face-slapped (fore and backhand) whipped with a leather belt, and rubber hose by my father. In the 1950s this doesn’t qualify as child abuse. It’s just the way you raise boys then. You raise them, brutally. You raise them for for battle.

***

Despite my father’s violence — maybe because if it — I idolize and try to emulate him. In my adolescence, I read everything I can get my hands on about World War II. I build models of war machines. One Christmas my Mom and Dad give me a motorized plastic scale model of the USS Halibut, an assault submarine with nuclear missile capability used during the war.

It’s very realistic — it dives and resurfaces, and can carry out a figure-eight maneuver cycle. I’ve been building models since I was 14 as a result of meeting my best friend Barry, whose collection of model cars is displayed in a glass-enclosed cabinet in his room. His models are meticulously assembled and painted, some with their hoods open to show off engines painted realistically with chrome valve covers and air cleaners.

I’m going to Vietnam tomorrow and there is a very real possibility of being killed before I reach my 20th birthday. It’s the loneliest night of my life.

My car models often have windshields with glue smears made worse by attempts to wipe the adhesive off with solvents. I soon branch out into war machines. The German pocket battleship Graf Spee, scuttled after its defeat in the Battle of Scapa Flow, collects dust and cobwebs on my dresser. The USS Forrestal, an American destroyer, is there also — “tin cans” they were called in the Navy.

I ask my dad, “What were destroyers for?”

“To make you seasick,” he answers.

Various fighter planes are scattered around my room hanging from fish line, to give the impression of flight. The Halibut is to be the crowning glory though, a working submarine. I set the launch date for spring.

Finally, the big day is arrives. It’s sunny, and I’m at the creek behind my house. I turn the Halibut’s electric motor on and ever so gently set it on the surface of the water. It dives toward the bottom of the stream. I watch expectantly. But nothing happens. It just sits on the bottom, and I review every stage of building the model for a clue as to why it doesn’t execute the figure-eight and then resurface triumphantly.

This disillusionment is miniscule compared to the ones I will experience in the years ahead.

***

It’s New Year’s Eve, 1967 — my last night before I leave. I’m in my bedroom at my folks’ house listening to a countdown of the top 100 tunes of the year on the radio, with number one to be played at midnight. I hear “Paint it Black” by The Rolling Stones and all of a sudden I’m aware of how alone I am. I’m going to Vietnam tomorrow and there is a very real possibility of being killed before I reach my 20th birthday. It’s the loneliest night of my life — so far.

When I go to Vietnam, I leave behind Leila. She writes me. I don’t write back. She writes again, this time a scathing letter telling me she’s giving up on me because I haven’t written her. I’m sorry to lose her, but it is a relief. I’ve gone off to war, a rite of passage into manhood, and don’t want to be concerned with an idealized girl back home.

I am in Vietnam for 18 months over two tours in various artillery units. During my time there I always try to seem cool, while the truth is that I live in a constant state of fear, anxiety or panic.

***

It’s late night at the Special Forces compound in Trung Lập, my first tour. Nights we often fire our high explosives randomly into the jungle darkness, supposedly to interrupt enemy activity, to harass them. Shooting snakes seems more likely.

Earlier in the day I’d noticed the hand brake on my side of the cannon didn’t seem to hold when we shifted the gun. I made a mental note to tell the chief, but then forgot it.

The day passes as usual. The call for a fire mission comes around midnight. I’m the assistant gunner, and so will be the one to pull the lanyard. Everyone is walking away while I wait for the command to fire the last round. Nobody is watching when I fire. The brake doesn’t hold and the recoil rolls the gun up the back of my leg, throwing me flat on my face. I’m pinned, and the crew is walking away. I want to say something but don’t dare speak until I can minimize the fear in my voice.

“Somebody wanna get this thing off me?” I say. Sergeant Anuska turns and sees me. He yells, “Get up there, you guys, and move that bad thing!”

I’m not hurt beyond a bruise and a scrape. A few jokes are made about a dust-off to base camp and cold beers. It’s just another day.

***

Later, closer to the end of my second tour than I know, we’re in a relatively secure fire base somewhere in the Central Highlands. Good weed is plentiful and I have a case of beer under my cot.

The more time I spend in Vietnam, the more I abandon my pro-war stance. One day I’m riding shotgun in a jeep that runs over a boy, exposing the obscenely white bone of his ankle. While I stand in the swirling dust and the convoy roars past, I realize I am an unwelcome soldier in a foreign country.

One night I shuffle over to the mess hall. The new guy, Schroeder, is there playing a guitar and making up songs about anyone who comes in. He makes up a song about me. It’s funny. I’m flattered and I laugh. Then he makes up a song about the captain who just walked in. I’m alarmed. You can’t make fun of officers. But for some reason it’s okay. I like Schroeder, he’s a funny, cool guy. He doesn’t seem like he belongs here.

I’m sick of the Army. I’ve been in Nam longer than some of these guys have been in the service. I’m coming unglued. I’m offered an allocation for an R&R to Taipei, and I grab it.

A week of drinking, clean beds, showers, good food, and sex does me good. In Qui Nhơn, waiting to fly back to my unit, I hear we’ve been hit — and that Schroeder has been killed.

I ask Schroeder’s corporal, “What happened?” He looks at the ground and doesn’t answer.

Schroeder was the third guy I made the mistake of liking, who died the next day. I think, I’m a jinx. Don’t get near me.

The more time I spend in Vietnam, the more I abandon my pro-war stance. One day I’m riding shotgun in a jeep that runs over a boy, exposing the obscenely white bone of his ankle. While I stand in the swirling dust and the convoy roars past, I realize I am an unwelcome soldier in a foreign country.

***

I’m waiting for the flight out of Tan Son Nhut airport, for the freedom bird that’s going to carry us back to the world. There’s no tomorrow in Vietnam, just today, right now. Some time in a far off future is when you go back to the world, and life is supposed to begin again. It’s not a day I ever thought would come, the day I would leave Vietnam for home. I’m not ready for this.

I’d left from Tây Ninh base camp, after a contentious week. A sergeant’s bullying had me screaming obscenities and threats of murder at him, resulting in my being demoted to private yet again.


Me and another guy go out to the grass airstrip to hop a flight to Saigon on a Caribou cargo plane. It’s dusk. We’re standing at the dispatcher’s hut. “The last plane out is taking KIAs,” he tells us, referring to bodies of those killed in action. “Otherwise, you’ll have to wait for the morning flight.” I look at the other guy. We shrug. I turn back to the dispatcher. “We’ll wait till morning,” I say. I just don’t want to fly with dead people. Too spooky.

But maybe I should have. Every day we wait for this plane. Now it’s in Hawaii. What’s the problem? I’m left to wait around in dress khakis with no weapons. What am I supposed to do if something happens?

There’s an air conditioned beer hall run by the Air Force, for sergeants and corporals. I’m at the door with my friend Harrop, and the guy there wants our IDs, to make sure we’ve got rank. I think, Who needs this shit? From inside I hear a voice boom out. “Sergeant Cocks! Sergeant Harrop! How are you?”

The guy at the door turns round and says, “You know these guys Sarge?” We’re in, thanks to our old chief, Sergeant Anuska. Cold beer, good talk. This is living large.

“I heard you was dead, Cocks,” somebody says to me. I reply that I am. I’m being a wiseass, but it’s not too far a stretch from how I feel inside. Still, I know I’m luckier than some of the other guys. Ferraro and Johnson were both shot in the head. Some others were killed in action. But it looks as if most of my platoon have made the year.

Finally, the plane comes, courtesy of Braniff Airlines. We’re in formation, roll is called. We look at each other and try to wrap up a conversation that has no ending. Somehow we agree: this is something everybody should go through, and something nobody should go through.

***

When I return home in 1969 the first question I’m usually asked is, “Were you at the front?” followed by, “Did you see any action?’ or, worst of all “Did you kill anybody?” All of these questions are asked with a pained look of concern. I get tongue tied.

“There is no front,” I start to say, but I would have to explain the entire universe to make that simple point, and so I stop.

After Vietnam, I am unrecognizable from the clean-cut boy the cops always let go before I left. There are the first attacks of malaria my first month home. There’s the pistol stuck to the side of my neck outside a bar one night, and me yelling, “Shoot, motherfucker!”

I go underground for a quarter-century. Sure, I work, I reproduce, I keep up outside-appearances. But inside, I’m dark. I look inside myself and see my heart is black.

Then, in my 40s, I land in a detox and a 30-day rehab. I get sober. It’s like coming out of a trance, a state of suspended animation where I watch my own life, hypnotized, as if I’m an outsider.

From there, over many years, I slowly take steps to move myself ever further out of the trance. I attend retreats for veterans, and go to conferences where I learn about the fates of other veterans. One, held by the Equal Justice Foundation (EJF) is called “When Johnny Comes Marching Home…He Goes to Jail.”

According to a 2013 EJF report, more than 500,000 Vietnam veterans have been arrested or incarcerated. It’s estimated that there are 100,000 Vietnam veterans in prison today, and 200,000 on parole.

Suicide and homelessness are other common outcomes. According to the report, since 1975, nearly three times as many Vietnam veterans have committed suicide as were killed in the war. Suicide rates among Vietnam vets are higher than those among any other group in the United States.

These aren’t just statistics to me. They are borne out in my own family. I lost one brother to suicide after the war. My other brother is homeless.

Now, like my father and his peers, I’m wrestling with PTSD. But although I had long ago emulated him, I realize I am not my father.

I’ve felt torn for years about serving in an unpopular war, which the soldiers were blamed for losing. That has shifted into a sense of purpose. There is room for elder warriors like me. We still have a duty, one that goes beyond country. We have a duty to reveal the truth about war, to help younger veterans returning home, and to do what we can to bring about peace.

***

In 2014 I make my first of three trips back to Vietnam. There are twelve in the group, including a few other vets — two others who served in Vietnam, one who served in Afghanistan.

Our Vietnamese tour guide, Anh, gives us background as we ride through the countryside past rice paddies, cemeteries, and villages. I’m viewing this all from inside an air conditioned tour bus — a far cry from my recollections of bouncing along in the back of a “deuce and a half” loaded with ammunition and armed to the teeth, sweltering and covered in dust.

Anh describes the conditions following the American departure: war with Cambodia and China, the re-education camps, refugee life, boat people, famine. Tens of thousands of people died of starvation.

There’s a service component to our trip. We’ve come to Vietnam in part to volunteer in health clinics. Members of our group offer chiropractic adjustments, massage therapy, aromatherapy, and whatever else they’re trained in. I play my guitar and sing.

We travel to Nui Ba Den, the Mountain of the Black Virgin, a landmark of my first tour of duty in War Zone C, northwest of Saigon. There, on the mountain, we perform a memorial ceremony honoring the many who were killed there, on both sides.

Afterward, one of my companions hands me a small bird he’d purchased from a vendor for a dollar, buying the bird’s liberation. I hold the bird close to my face briefly, then release it above my head. I can’t even begin to tell you what that feels like, watching as it flies straight up, then disappears above the tree line, to complete freedom.

* * *

Ray Cocks had once considered becoming a career soldier. That all changed as a result of serving in the Vietnam war. After a life-long attempt to understand what went wrong, he is now engaged in validating the Warrior ethos in the traditional way of walking through life with integrity. This essay has been adapted from writings produced in TMI Project workshops.

 

Editor: Sari Botton