Stripped Naked

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic

In an atmosphere of high anxiety, vulnerability and exposure 24/7, military men and women in a war zone immediately find themselves stripped naked of their individuality, privacy and intimacy. Service in Vietnam was no exception.

STRIPPED NAKED

By Al Garcia

In an atmosphere of high anxiety, vulnerability and exposure 24/7, military men and women in a war zone immediately find themselves stripped naked of their individuality, privacy and intimacy.  Service in Vietnam was no exception. 

I always thought that “brothers in arms” was just an old adage said in passing by those who had served in our fathers’ wars of long ago.  Soon after arrival in Vietnam, I found I was wrong.  I, along with thousands of other young men and women brought together by the hand of fate with the help of self-absorbed and self-important politicians in Washington, were suddenly confronted with the unreal reality of being dropped into a war with little if any understanding of what was going on or what was expected of us, other than to “persevere” and make it back alive.  We were alone, thousands of miles from home.  Our only refuge was finding a sense of sanity and normalcy with fellow soldiers sharing the same experience at the very same time. 

I found that in war, a simple acquaintance or even fleeting association with someone suddenly and without thought or effort or the luxury of time, quickly developed and grew.  I found that in a matter of weeks my colleagues and I had become more than just fellow combat correspondents or soldiers serving in the same unit.  We had made a connection.  We had opened ourselves up to each other.  We were bound by some inexplicable energy and essence.  We didn’t prick our fingers and pledge an allegiance, nor did we stack our hands-on top of each other’s as in “one for all and all for one,” reminiscent of the Four Musketeers.  Yet, at an unknown time and in this unexpected place, we formed a bond beyond mere collaborators or camaraderie.  There were no words nor actions to confirm this new link between us.  And the reason was simple.  We didn’t know it had happened.  It was natural.  We had become “brothers in arms.” 

The bonding is fast, quick and deep.  There are no rules of etiquette to be followed.  The circumstances don’t allow for inconsequential chit-chat, such as your favorite color, your zodiac sign, your religion, or your political persuasion.  You are stripped naked to the bare essentials – name, how you got to Vietnam and where you’re from.  Neither ethnicity nor the color of your skin plays a role.  You answer those questions and you’ve got yourself a new best friend.  It’s all about having a connection to home and someone that’s relatable.  The rest just happens day-by-day, and soon there is such a deep and abiding connection that you feel you’ve known your new friend(s) all your life.  You begin to feel that you wouldn’t exist without them, and in war, you just might not. 

As a young 20-year-old in Vietnam I found myself stripped naked of my inhibitions.  No family to lean on.  No friends to share my thoughts with or joke with.  All of a sudden, I’m thrown into an abyss of loneliness and isolation.  It’s either sink or swim – make friends or become an island onto oneself.  And as John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself.”  In war, loneliness, solitude and isolation can become a killer of a man’s soul if not his spirit.  When once I was shy and introverted. When once I was reluctant to speak up or be noticed.  I suddenly found myself motivated to reach out to the strangers around me in this strange and foreign land out of a need for a link to my origins – America.  In a sense it felt strange and yet stimulating to expose my inner self to total strangers and to be accepted into the confederacy of mostly raw and untested warriors.  The only link to my past was the occasional letter from back home and possibly a phone call for the lucky ones. 

The more war reveals itself the younger soldiers shed their emotional armor.  And as I travelled throughout the southern part of South Vietnam visiting outposts and units of unseasoned boys and young men playing soldier, the more I heard the uncertainty and apprehension in the voices of those I spoke with.  As soldiers, we were indoctrinated to fight and to possibly die.  We were, however, not inoculated against asking why.  And in whispered voices I would hear so many ask why we were not allowed to win the war.  We had the manpower, the equipment, the knowhow and the treasury to overtake and overwhelm.  Yet, the boys and men I spoke with all kept asking why they were not allowed to do the job they were sent to do.  Yet, as soldiers in a war we have only two things we can do – fight or die.  We are stripped of most of the things we took for granted in civilian life.

Like many soldiers in my position, I found myself befriending individuals that I would have never thought of having as a friend back home.  All of a sudden, I was associating with individuals twice or three times my age or more.  Individuals who were career military.  Individuals who were drafted, enlisted, or individuals serving their second or third tour of duty.  Individuals who were star athletes in school back home.  Married.  Single.  Divorced.  Engaged.  And even individuals who had never before had a Mexican-American as a friend.  However, the one thing we never spoke about was politics and sexual orientation.  There were no Republicans or Democrats.  No Independents.  No Green Party.  No gays.  No bisexuals.  No lesbians.  No transgenders.  We were all simply soldiers, with a name, a hometown, and a story to tell of when and how we got ourselves to Vietnam.  It made befriending easy and simple.  No one had any personal luggage.  We were all American GIs.  That was the great thing of being stripped naked – there was nothing to hide.  No one cared about your past, your politics or anything else.

Some 40 plus years after my tour in Vietnam I reconnected with a couple of buddies from my days as a journalist in the Mekong Delta.  It was refreshing and exhilarating to know that like me, they too were experiencing the “Vietnam Syndrome” after all these many years.  The “Vietnam Syndrome,” to me anyway, is the reliving of the Vietnam experience and feeling the depth and scope of the cynicism and surreal environment and atmosphere.  It is a real and haunting emotional experience for many Vietnam veterans. 

These two individuals that I reconnected with were journalists and writers with me in the Mekong Delta.  Yet some time after we reconnected I found out they were supposedly Trump Republicans – not Republic Party Republicans.  I have no problem or animosity toward Republicans, Democrats, Independents or any other legitimate political faction.  After I shared an article I had written for a local paper entitled “Hail to Chaos,” a personal commentary on Trump’s early days as President, I found out that they supported a Commander-In-Chief who labeled the press “the Enemy of the People,” and wanted journalists jailed if they didn’t disclose their sources, I could not believe it.  It seemed impossible that these guys I had shared and opened up to were actually not individuals I would have ever associated myself with in the real world.  They were now supporting “fake news,” untruths and total fabrications – the complete opposite of what journalists are tasked with doing and upholding.  I would have gladly continued my association with them, but one of them told me that if I wanted to write about Trump he wasn’t interested in my views and thought it “disrespectful” of me to say anything negative about Trump.

For months afterward, I felt depressed and dejected.  I was disheartened at their revelation, because of the openness we had shared in Vietnam which I felt was certainly genuine.  We shared the experience of recording a war we all felt to be a sham.  We laughed together.  We joked.  We drank together and we felt the same loneliness and solitude.  I had assumed that they were as American as I was, and as committed to a free press and a democracy and all that it entails.  They see a different America than I do.  I didn’t know these guys very well after all it seems.

In a way Vietnam exposed me to the real world.  It stripped naked the world and the people around me and presented me with the challenge to grow and open myself up to others.  It also made me realize that life is simply too short and too precious to keep silent for fear of upsetting or offending someone with the truth.  In Vietnam I found that genuine friendship had no forced boundaries or exceptions.  And I have tried to live my life since then that way.  Unfortunately for some, they knowingly or unknowingly reverted to their old habits and began to again erect fences, boundaries, and exceptions as a prerequisite to friendship.

Being stripped naked and exposing your inhibitions does make one vulnerable and susceptible to those around us.  And in life, that can be a welcoming experience in self-awareness, self-awakening and empathy.


Submitted: June 08, 2021

© Copyright 2021 A.Garcia. All rights reserved.

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