Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Listening to Michael Dempsey: A Black American Vietnam Veteran

It took some time to read the transcript following this long interview with Michael Dempsey from the Courage to Resist website.  If you have the time, I recommend listening to it or reading the transcript.

An excerpt from the July 1, 2019 podcast:

Michael Dempsey: Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you this. There has never been a movie made that comes close to what war is. The closet thing that I’ve seen was “Saving Private Ryan,” and I have yet to watch that movie, because that opening scene, where they’re getting off, they’re landing on the beach, and those bullets are hitting?

It’s like, that brings everything back to me, and I can’t stand it. I can’t. I’ve tried to watch that movie three times now, and I’ve even tried watching it, like, from in the middle. And I’m watching it in the middle, and that guy is standing in that window, and that sniper shoots him? You know, and it’s like, yeah. I go, “I can’t watch this.”
I would say, that is the closest thing to reality about war that I’ve seen. Yeah. This laborer said to me one day, he said, “Are you seeing a psychiatrist?” And I said, “What the fuck are you talking about?” He said, “You have post-traumatic stress disorder.” I said, “What the hell are you talking about? And how do you know that?”
No, I didn’t. Actually, I had a longtime girlfriend for like seven years, and one night, she told me, she said, “I can’t do this anymore.” She said, “I wake up in the middle of the night, you got your alarms, you got your hands around my throat, you’re yelling and screaming.”
And she said, “Sometimes you’re fighting with people while you’re sleeping, you’re throwing punches and kicking,” and she said, “I can’t do this anymore,” and she left me. [See am's note below **]
I still— Again, I didn’t realize what was going on, and it was actually 30 years to the day that I got out of the service that I was diagnosed by a psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration. He told me… He talked to me for… He interviewed me for 15 minutes, and said, “You have severe post-traumatic stress disorder.”

While R was on the plane on his way to Vietnam in 1970, he wrote his first letter to me and began drawing on the backs of the envelopes.  It took me three days of letters to realize what he was spelling out.  Before he left for Vietnam, we committed to writing each other every day, if possible.  We kept that commitment.  

**A few nights after R returned from Vietnam, R punched me in the face in the midst of a nightmare.  When he woke up, he was devastated by what he had done to me.  Since then I've come to understand how common our experience was.  When R died in 2008, he was blind in one eye, just like Toggle in the Doonesbury strips in 2009:

My art work from the 1970s through 2008 was the best way I could express what I couldn't speak of in words.

Thank you to everyone who commented on my last post.  Fifty years ago, I felt absolutely alone with my experience of being against the war and loving a veteran who was against the war before he went to Vietnam and remained against war until the day he died.  I've come to understand that we were never alone.  I may not watch "Da 5 Bloods."  Maybe all I need to do is be grateful for this photo taken in connection with the film.   For me, it says something hopeful, something beyond words.

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