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Robert L. Mitchell, Vietnam Veteran and Lead actor in From Hell to Here –

After spending the year of 1967 in training as an army helicopter pilot, I was assigned to the headquarters company of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. I arrived in Vietnam in January of 1968, just weeks before the decisive TET offensive turned the tide of the war. Four months later, my helicopter crashed. I was severely burned and med-evaced out of the combat zone.


It was embarrassing to have crashed, to have to admit to myself that the only adversaries my warrior spirit had confronted in Vietnam were Al Eason’s defense of unit morale and Captain Miles’ failure to follow proper procedure with the helicopter. (Miles, who caused my helicopter to crash, escaped the incident unscathed.) I was tormented consciously by the embarrassment, but I was even more tormented by my failed initiation. I had imagined that the only way to complete my initiation into selfhood—to gain mastery over myself—was to meet death in a face-to-face, blood-right confrontation with another warrior. Confronting death in a helicopter crash left my initiation in limbo and, unless I could return to the war, it would never be completed. That realization threw me into a suicidal depression, and I cursed and blasphemed the Dark Angel of Death that had embraced the other and let me live.

In the intensive care ward of the USS Sanctuary, my injuries were stabilized with painkilling drugs and antibiotics. Both my legs and both my arms were severely burned and wrapped in white gauze. My face too was bandaged. Only the tips of my fingers emerged from the gauze bubbles around my hands. After two days, I was sent back to Da
Nang, placed on an Air Force transport with a number of other wounded troops and shipped to the naval hospital at Subic Bay in the Philippines where I stayed for another two days. My burns were washed and swabbed with sulfur-based creams to prevent infection and re-bandaged.

From Subic Bay, I was sent to the 106th General Hospital in Yokohama, Japan where doctors began the first series of treatments. The tedious and painful procedure was called “debridement,” which involved pulling the dead, burned skin away from the raw muscle tissue with tweezers and carefully cutting it away with surgical scissors. Again, the raw muscles and nerve fibers were swathed in antibiotic sulfur creams to prevent infection. I was once more packaged in white gauze and given a numbing cocktail of painkilling drugs.

After two weeks in Japan, I was loaded onto an Air Force transport with a dozen other burn patients for the long trans-pacific flight, via California, to San Antonio, Texas. We were driven from the airfield by ambulance, wheeled on gurneys into the army’s Burn Center at Brooke General Hospital, Fort Sam Houston and greeted by a dozen doctors and nurses from the staff. The Chief Surgeon inspected each of us, one at a time. He looked at the severity of my burns, marked his clipboard and pronounced his professional opinion of my injuries. I heard him say to the other doctors without emotion, “We’ll have to remove both his legs.” Though I was conscious, the painkillers made me giddy, and the news made me want to laugh. I had an absurd vision of rolling my severed body along on a wooden platform tied to four roller skates. At the same time, I wanted to cry.

But, once again, my Guardian Angel interceded. A young doctor stepped in. “Let me have this one. I’ll see what I can do to save his legs.” The Chief Surgeon agreed, and I was wheeled off to the burn ward.

My legs were not amputated. Slowly, the weeks of doctors and nurses, bedpans and the aseptic smell of the burn ward turned into months of surgical procedures, healing and recovery. The less severely burned areas of my body healed on their own, and pink patches of new skin appeared under the scabs on my face, my hands and my elbows. The remaining seared flesh on my arms and legs was removed. Then began the slow and tedious procedure of skin grafting.

As my body healed, I slowly reconciled myself to the fact that my will to live had overruled death. My Guardian Angel had saved me for some undisclosed purpose of its own. I had not been defeated but neither had I completed the blood-right initiation that I had imagined when I joined the army. Rather, my warrior spirit seemed to slip into a shadow zone somewhere between victory over death and defeat. The only thing that was certain was that even though I had confronted death and had the scars to prove it, my initiation was incomplete.

That realization had a lot to do with the fact that I refused the offer of a medical discharge and decided to complete the two years remaining on my military service contract. Perhaps I could even return to the battlefield. The warrior still belonged to the domain of the military, and I did not intend to give up my initiation so easily. For all its faults, the military provided the paternalistic nurturing essential to the warrior—a nurturing that was as deep as the ancient tribal warrior cults on which it was based. I had nearly given up my life to the warlords, and I owed them nothing more. But they owed me. Without the completion of my initiation—in whatever form it might now take—I felt as thought there could be no place for me in civilian society.
* * *
I was reassigned to the Department of Tactics at Fort Rucker, Alabama and promoted to the rank of Chief Warrant Officer (CWO-2). Outwardly, I conformed to the expectations of my superiors in the performance of my duties, to the limits of propriety afforded by the bars on my cap and collar and to the loyalty oath I had sworn to uphold. But I did not feel that I was master of myself. My loyalty to the military forced me to accept the unanticipated delay in achieving the mastery-over-self that, to me, was so importantly implied by the warrior’s initiation into selfhood.
Inwardly, my failed initiation created mounting conflicts and frustrations. My training as a warrior had evoked a spirit in me that I could not consciously define, but whose presence in me was, nonetheless, intuited and felt. Still, I had not seen its face and did not know its name. I did not know the eternal part of myself that transcended death and would define me and guide me to my destiny. That was the true failure of my initiation, and without that knowledge I felt trapped in a relentlessly mundane reality that stretched the limits of my sanity.

What I knew for certain about myself was that the blood-lust violence of the killer instinct had been awakened. Perhaps it was a lingering remnant of our primordial past when hunters needed to kill in order to feed the tribe—prey and predator locked in a dance-of-death that awakened in our ancestors a transcendent spirit. Or, perhaps it was a remnant of some primordial hunter-warrior who first raised a weapon to defend himself and his tribe against another human being. In either case, in the darkest corridors of my being, the blood-lust still possessed me and could not be easily dismissed as a “figment of my imagination.”

I felt it as a hunger, an urge that boiled up from deep inside: a rage that could be easily provoked and not so easily repressed. Even though I knew that those who had killed were tormented by nightmares, I still longed for the taste of blood, and it was that un-punishable license to kill that I missed most about combat. The god of death, whom the Greeks called Thanatos, had been awakened in me. My failure to confront and triumph over him kept me in his grip, and in my dreams the urge rose-up to challenge my sense of rational self-mastery.

Having returned to civil society meant keeping the primordial killer instinct contained by cultivating a self-image convinced of its own self-mastery. It was a clever self-deception. Still, it described the ordinary way I went about my duties and seemed to describe the way others who had returned from Vietnam went about their duties as well. Most of the men with whom I worked had faced death in combat and, it seemed to me, self-mastery should have been evident in their personalities. But I sensed that it was not. Were they not successfully initiated? Had they met the blood-right requirement for initiation only to find that their power of self-mastery was not acknowledged by their comrades or by the culture? Most of them just wanted to complete their tour of duty and go home, and they seemed to know that the appearance of normalcy—not self-mastery—was the prerequisite for being accepted back into American society.

Thus, the returning Vietnam veteran was not expected to achieve mastery over the warrior spirit and transform its energy and passion toward productive ends. He was only expected to generate the same mask of civility worn by the average citizen so that he could fit back into society. Yet Thanatos festered deep within him. How long would it take for sanity to snap?

Already there were emerging horror-stories of returning veterans who were released directly back into society from the war zone. How could they not have carried the war with them? No longer able to support the burden of the blood on their hands or to contain their inner conflict, many young veterans committed suicide. Others inflicted their revenge on their families or on the society that invoked the warrior to serve its political ambitions, but then abandoned him. Either way, the god of death won the battle for the warrior’s soul.

JOURNEY TO MYRTOS: Vietnam to Crete—Healing the Wounds of War
By Robert L Mitchell, “Old Man” in FROM HELL TO HERE
Publisher: CreateSpace, Dec. 2011, ISBN: 1466313033


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