Desnee Flakes's Blog

That Noise You Hear Is Real Talk For Real People

Desnee Flakes

Desnee Flakes
Aiken, South Carolina, US
December 04
I am a recently employed activist who has been writing all my life about the issues that mean the most to me. My interests lie in politics, parity, race, and history. I believe that each of those things are interconnected and that only when we look straight at something do we actually see it. My politics are left of center, and I don't rely on any movement to define where my center is. My father taught us to measure others with the same yardstick you measure yourself.


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MARCH 1, 2012 7:15PM

Waiting On The Storm

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"I'm waiting for my first thunderstorm. I don't know how I'm going to react, and I'm afraid it won't be good!" That is what the young soldier sitting in front of me on the train was telling his companions, as we moved away from the Farragut North stop on the DC Metro red line.

In an effort to try not to eavesdrop I would stare out the window only to see my own reflection staring back at me. These men sitting in front of me seemed so out of place, not because of their clothes or anything tangible. But they seemed to sit like they were in some unseen bunker, almost huddled together. They were in our midst, yet almost instinctively they created an invisible wall, which screamed we're not like the rest of you!

One of the young men had a southern drawl, and as he spoke I could see him traveling down a desolate two lane road with his girl tucked under his arm. He looked no more than 22 or 23, and he was telling the others how guilty he felt going to Walter Reed for  group sessions. He felt he was taking the place of someone more worthy. To look at these men there were no visible indications that they had been wounded in a war. Apparently not having missing limbs or shrapnel scarred faces made them feel undeserving of the services afforded them. 


 As we traveled farther down the line the one who mentioned being afraid of storms was asked when was the ceremony for him to receive his Medal of Honor. The idea that you could win a Medal of Honor, but not feel worthy of a group session struck me as odd.  I started to think  about my father's two tours in Viet Nam. He --never-- talked about it. In a rush of guilt, I was aware that I didn't know if my own father feared a coming thunder storm. These young men, who without knowing it, had made me aware of the possibility of my own father's fears.


Navy Medal of Honor (also USMC) 

I felt that I had been let in on a deep dark secret: and I felt that I had been remiss, because as clearly as I could see how different the war had made them from the rest of us, I had never seen it in my dad. How do you miss that other worldliness, the haunted look, which accompanies combat? Maybe because you see what you want in a loved one, but in a stranger you see the truth. Maybe because they had given me the key to see their pain, fears, and worries while my father gave me silence. 

I felt I owed them something for this insight that I would never have gotten if I weren't able to hear them speaking. So I tapped the Medal of Honor winner on the shoulder and told them I knew they were in the service. I then told them that my father had also been in the service, and that I was glad they made it home okay. I had climbed that invisible wall in an effort to make them feel at home, cared about, something. Their response was quick and to the point, yes they had been to war, and the wall was quickly repaired.  I sat back in my seat aware that not only does one need to want to welcome them, they also must want to be welcomed in order for it to work.

As I came to my stop and got off the train, I saw a young soldier in uniform on the platform waiting for a train. A young man dressed in leather wearing a spiked dog collar approached the soldier. He asked him if he had just gotten back from the war, and how he was doing and held his hand out. The soldier didn't respond he just looked forward without moving a muscle.

That night I called my dad and told him about the train, and about the young soldier afraid of his first thunderstorm. I asked him if he had been or if he still was afraid of thunderstorms. He never answered me, instead he changed the subject. I never asked him about the war or his fears again. I figure that when a soldier builds an invisible wall he/she does it to protect themselves, and maybe even those who love them.  That wall may be all we have between a person rationally absorbing the horrors of war, and eventually healing, or losing it altogether.

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Ever since I heard that soldier say he was afraid of how he was going to react to his first thunderstorm upon his return home, when there is a storm I wonder how many soldiers are out there afraid. And how many have family that are totally unaware of it.
Powerful writing, Desnee. I felt as though I was on that Washington Metro with you.
Powerful piece. To think that 'just' a thunderstorm to us would evoke flashbacks in vets - never thought of it. So much we non-combatants will never know.
This was a poignant story. Even if the soldiers put up a wall, they felt your kindness. After that encounter, you connected with your dad, and he did too.
Having never served in the military I can only speculate. I'm guessing that the soldiers have seen or maybe done things that are too horrible to remember, except in the company of those with shared experiences. The father of a high school buddy of mine was a tail gunner in the Europe campaign in WW2. It was a position with the highest mortality rate of that war and he never talked talked about his experiences except, presumably, with his old army pals. An uncle of mine served in the North Atlantic on some sort of warship protecting the merchant shipping. As kids he said they'd never seen action except for depth charging some unfortunate what they mistook for a German sub. I took this all at face value but years later I wondered if that was just the cover story. Fascinating topic, and post Desnee.
I like your observation about the "invisible wall." And that you took a moment to say something welcoming to those soldiers. I'd guess there are a lot who come back that are afraid of things or changed by what they've seen and done and worry about what the hidden trigger might be. Might not be thunderstorms, maybe it's crowds. Or when things get too quiet. Not the kinds of experiences you want to share in everyday conversation either; only things another soldier can understand.
My mother had brothers and brothers-in-law in WWII and they absolutely refused to talk about it. From what I know that's pretty common.
Beautiful and sad at the same time. As I've said repeatedly is that one of the many reasons for not rushing to war is that it's not just the soldiers on the wrong side who are forever altered by the fighting.
I didn't see combat but I was raped and had to deal with the court martials. The military isn't kind to the victims. I don't want to be thanked for my service because that 9 months is what defines my time and I feel like I'm being thanked for that. My guess would be that combat vets have a similar feeling and don't want to be thanked by a country that allowed them to be shattered while we were at home picking out a new big screen TV to watch the Super Bowl on.

Good post, bad memories. R.
Good story. Painful, too. It's like I say about Native Americans or anyone, it's as harmful to place them up on a pedastal as it is to place them down in a hole.
@Phyllis, there are no words for your experience, I deeply regret that you were not protected.
@Daniel, Myriad, Seer, greenheron, Abrawang, Margaret, Tom, and Patrick some conversations are meant to be eavesdropped on. Thank you all for reading and commenting.
My dad never wanted to share his experiences from WWII either. Nor did he ever join any of the veteran related groups. I just think there were things he didn't want to remember. Whether about himself, others, or the world, I'll never know. Nice, thoughtful post. I think your simple acknowledgement was perfect.
jlsathre, There are a lot of soldiers who are going back and forth I'm hoping that this post will give them/us an opportunity to see that maybe this is something we children, wives, siblings, cousins, and friends have in common, the unknowable. Thanks for sharing.
Excellent story, Desnee. Sad but excellently told.
Great, moving piece Des. I don't know how anyone carries the burden of war. Your Dad had learned how to live with it and it's unfortunate that he didn't or couldn't share it with you, but his silence about it speaks more clearly than words. Your piece does remind us that we need to recognize and validate our returning heroes who come home to very little or no reward.
Thank you both Fay and June.
Amazing 'our' amazement . . .

I share with John P. Baca . . .
J. P Baca had that Valor medal.
He's a guest here on occasions.
He's nicknamed a`Pot Flopper.
Respect . . .
I was there we he lay on a grenade.
Wow and
Big Sigh
John Finn died last autumn.
He was last seem with Barach.
J. Finn was a centenarian. 100.
He was (still) adoring women.
He respected folk under 100.
He'd tell stories from past.
He said in Baltimore if Ya`
wanted to be a city Mayor`
You got inside a boxing ring.
I mentioned a great grand Pa.
He was a Baltimore Mayor.
Of, course that was before:
I was conceived and born.
Another terrific story, Desnee. My father was never in combat, thankfully, but he was a West Point graduate (as was my grandfather and great-grandfather), and during the few reunions I attended with my father at the Point I don't ever recall any of his classmates who were in combat talking about it. Do you think it might be guilt. That as much as soldiers intellectually understand they are defending something they love, there is still that basic emotional guilt at having killed a living thing. And that is a good thing, no matter how much pain their humanity may bring them. That might explain the feeling of unworthiness you heard from the Medal of Honor recipient.
"A curious boy asks an old soldier
Sitting in front of the grocery store,
"How did you lose your leg?"
And the old soldier is struck with silence,
Or his mind flies away
Because he cannot concentrate it on Gettysburg,
It comes back jocosely
And he says, "A bear bit it off."
And the boy wonders, while the old soldier
Dumbly, feebly lives over
The flashes of guns, the thunder of cannon,
The shrieks of the slain,
And himself lying on the ground,
And the hospital surgeons, the knives,
And the long days in bed.
But if he could describe it all
He would be an artist.
But if he were an artist there would be deeper wounds
Which he could not describe."

That is an excerpt from "Silence" by Edgar Lee Masters. Your poignant piece made me think of it. I read it while I'm listening to heavy winds right now.
Art James and fusunA thanks for the lovely poetry. @Ted thanks and yes it may be guilt and yes that is a good thing. The only soldiers I've ever known to talk about their war experiences were Viet Nam vets when I was in college. I think they needed to make it real for their classmates.
I thought this was going to be about the recent outbreak of tornadoes. Glad I stopped by. My father was a WWII European Theater veteran. When he talked at all about the war it was to say that he had been in some castle portrayed in a t.v. show, or tell of having Christmas dinner with an elderly French couple; how they had brought a side of bacon and the couple had root vegetables to share and it was a great Christmas dinner.
He changed the subject when we asked about the war. Only after my brother and I had both been to Viet Nam did he ever talk about the horror and terror he experienced.
I think soldiers can't talk about these things to people who have no perspective.
Your dad may have some private hell shut off in a corner of his mind that he still can't look at. Also, when we came home from Viet Nam no one wanted to hear about it. I was looked on as either a fool for going or a baby killer who relished the role. It was ten years before I ever talked about, even to my wife, and 35 years before anyone said, "Thank you for your service to your country."
You did the right thing. They just weren't ready. To put this in perspective, I never knew a Medal of Honor recipient in V.N. that did not receive the medal posthumously. R
You're right Rodney they weren't ready and I pray that one day they will be. You are also correct that our Viet Nam era vets were treated so much differently and that is the shame of our nation. I wish they still had the USO right in SF airport (if they still do I didn't see it last time there). I would like an opportunity to stop by. Let me take this opportunity to thank you for your service as well. I have never been for any war in my lifetime, but I'm thankful for those who are moved to do what they feel is right.
I was not in favor of the Viet Nam war. It never made sense to me; before, during, or after I went. I went because I am an American. In my simple reasoning going to Canada meant never seeing my family again. Of course President Carter (I think) granted amnesty to the draft dodgers who went north.
There is a confusion in the minds of many individuals between the war - which is declared by our CIC, the president and Congress, not by the citizenry - and the men and women who fight our wars. An attack on the war is not an attack on our troops, and attacking the troops, as happened during the V.N. era, is equally unfair and irrational. The folks in Washington get us into wars and get us out of wars.
And, thanks for your thanks.
Your story is moving, and brings up a question of etiquette and acknowledgement of the service of our troops. That's good, makes me think on it, and put it into words. Hopefully, I will honor their sacrifice in a way that is acceptable.

I saw my brother hit the ground in reaction to the backfire of a passing car. I think he was embarrassed, but it was the most eloquent way to tell me the reality of his life as a Marine.
The wall goes up to protect ourselves from being hurt.

Semper Fi.
Dianaani exactly I recall working with a friend who would run around the race track backstretch looking for "Charlie" half asleep having night terrors. I never saw my father do that so I didn't know what the mechanism for his terror would be or if there was one. Like your brother a simple backfire could be the trigger. I was born in Gary, In. and I have to tell you that because of the gun violence there it isn't uncommon to see everyone downtown drop to the ground on a car backfiring. (Sad but true)

Belinda T. as I said I don't know the exact purpose of the wall but I imagine that serves more than one purpose. Thanks for your service.
I haven't served in any of our country's military branches. My grandfather/grandfather-in-law, father, father-in-law, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law served our country during WWII, the Korean conflict, Viet Nam and the Gulf War. Each of them enlisted and all of them shared some of their stories with me at various intervals of their lives and every one of them have suffered losses which cannot ever be compensated. Even the Purple Heart came with bittersweet memories.

Your writing will benefit many and it will help you understand your father. Many men and women return from war with wounds in their hearts so deep nobody will ever get to them. Loud noises often bring on flashbacks. So do certain smells and other stimuli.