Tales of Soldiers
Posted on March 8th, 2017
Dr. Ruwan M Jayatunge
Jose Naroskey once said “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers” Undeniably war has a profound effect on soldiers. It has a catastrophic effect on their health and wellbeing. I have met a number of soldiers around the globe who belonged to different Armies and various military organizations. Many of them are still affected by the reminiscences of the traumatic combat events. I recall some lines of Nancy L. Meek’s poem ‘The Sacrifice. In this poem she describes the state of mind of a soldier on returning from a war. This is what Nancy L. Meek writes…
“Will he ever find peace here on this earth?, Before death’s fingers encircle his throat, Or will peace remain just beyond his girth, Abandoning him eternally to a land remote” (The Sacrifice- Nancy L. Meek)
Victor the Red Army Soldier
Victor was my hostel roommate when I was studying at the Vinnitsa National Medical University –Ukraine. While Victor was studying for his medical degree he was drafted and sent to Afghanistan to fulfill his international combat service. He had served two years in Afghanistan. Before going to Afghanistan he was a naive and a bright student. He returned from Afghanistan as a changed man with emotional scars.
In 1979 Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev decided to send troops to Afghanistan. Although it was a proxy war Afghan rebels were deadly. They constantly attacked the Soviet defense positions. First the regular army went to fight the rebels. Later young people like Victor were drafted to support the regular troops. Eventually this conflict came to be known as the “Soviet Union’s Vietnam War”. The Soviet war in Afghanistan lasted for nearly nine bloody years.
Many young boys who went to Afghanistan had a dream. This dream was to buy a Japanese TV or a SONY or JVC video deck which were luxury items under the Soviet Socialist Regime. Some boys lost their arms and legs but still managed to bring those luxury items home. When Victor returned after fulfilling his military duties he brought a Sharp audio cassette player. But soon he lost the interest and gave it to his cousin. As his relatives and friends noticed, after Victor returned from Afghanistan he had changed remarkably. He had met fierce battle in Kandahar with the Mujahedin rebels and sustained an injury to his right shoulder. Also he sustained a concussion. Victor could not concentrate on his studies and started failing exams.
As a young student I adored rock and heavy metal music. When I played AC/DC (For those about to Rock), White Snake (Silver Nights), Deep Purple (Highway Star), Metallica(The Unforgiven) Ozzy Osbourne(Crazy Train) Victor became jumpy. He frequently asked me to turn off the music. Then I knew he couldn’t bear loud noises. He had a bad temper. He often became conflictive. Some nights Victor could not sleep and he had nightmares. During the exam period this became a problem to both of us. He knew that he was troubling his roommate and at nights he used to consume large volumes of Vodka and then go to sleep. So his health was falling apart.
Victor never liked to talk about his Afghan experiences. One day an unexpected thing occurred. It was a winter night and we were having dinner together. I offered him a cup of Ceylon tea.
“This is nice tea” Victor said.” It is ideal to make Chefeer ”
What is Chefeer ?I asked
“That is a drink soldiers make in the army. In Afghanistan we used to drink Chefeer frequently.
Victor said that sometimes the Russian soldiers used to indulge in highly concentrated Georgian tea which was called Chefeer . This highly concentrated tannin drink gave them some sort of kick to wash away their isolation in the Afghan mountains.
“It was too tough”he said suddenly. He dropped his fork and looked in to my eyes.
”We were fighting Dushmans (the Afghan Rebels) in the mountains. They were supported by the US and Pakistan. Some carried M16 machine guns. They killed a lot of Soviets. I saw how our boys died in the Afghan mountains. Every week they were sending bodies from Kabul to Moscow, Leningrad or Kiev.
“But now the President Gorbachev says that it was a mistake to send Soviet troops to Afghanistan” I interrupted
Suddenly Victor became annoyed.
“Hell with Gorbachev, they should have thought it before sending us to that godforsaken country, do you know that we lost over 25,000 boys? For what? Who is responsible for those poor souls? You tell me”
Victor became more and more emotional so I had to divert the conversation. I lived nearly one year with Victor in our hostel room. He disturbed me hugely but in the same time taught me many lessons of the war. His Afghan combat experiences later inspired me to write the novel – Ivange Lokaya (Ivan’s World) that was published by the Wijesuriya Publishers.
In 2005 I saw Fyodor Bondarchuk ‘s movie 9th Company – the movie about the Soviet War in Afghanistan. According to some film critics 9th Company was equivalent to Oliver Stone’s famous movie Platoon. After watching the 9th Company I realized the hardships experienced by young soldiers like Victor in the Afghan mountains.
The Ukrainian Partisan
Once our University organized a Victory Day celebration over the NAZI Germany and invited several soldiers who fought against the Hitlerite forces. I specifically remember the story of Mr. Ivan Guminuk who fought the Third Reich soldiers in the German occupied Ukraine. This is what he said to us.
“I was born near Kiev and when the Germans invaded our motherland violating the Brest-Litovsk pact I was a 16 year old lad. By that time I was working in a factory as a manual labourer and attended the night school. I was eager to learn German and I could speak the German language fairly well.
When the Fascists soldiers invaded Ukraine they killed many people. Jews were deported or hanged publicly. I witnessed many public executions. There are many mass unmarked graves near Kiev, the city of Vinnitsa , Uzhgorod and Lvove. They deported young men and women to work as slaves in Germany. The food was rationed and the native population suffered immensely. Only the NAZI sympathizers and collaborators got constant food supplies. People like us partially starved. There was no meat, butter or milk. People used to eat unpalatable Garrokh (Dhal).
The NAZI s had an efficient administrative system and they knew each and every person living in the occupied territory. During the occupation I was living in the Vinnitsa region. I was an underage but I was photographed and given papers. Every month we had to report to the regional headquarters in Vinnitsa town. There were rumors that once we turn 17 we would be taken to the German city of Ruhr to work in the coal mines. It was terrifying news for my family. I decided to go underground. I joined a secret partisan group that operated in Ukraine. We had a very small amount of arms, mostly old rifles. We Partisans used to hide in the woods and attack the German supply lines. Sometimes we used to destroy railway tracks by placing explosives. To uplift the morale of the people we used to display posters in public places.
It was a deadly game. If you are caught with a pistol or a rifle or explosives in your hands you are either shot on the spot or hanged by piano wires in public. Even to have anti-NAZI posters or documents in your possession was an offence punishable by death. We used to carry bees honey to stick the posters on the walls. Often we did it by dawn aiming public gathering places like markets and churches. Some of our brave comrades fell in to the noxious German hands while operating underground. All were executed.
While operating underground one of our comrades brought us an important massage. The Germans were constructing a massive building complex in the forest of Vinnitsa region. The informer told us foreign workers from Norway were brought to work in this complex. At the end of the war we came to know that these Norwegian workers who were enslaved to build it were shot in cold blood by the NAZI soldiers and buried in a mass grave. Later the Red Army excavated this mass grave and found decomposed bodies.
When we first heard about this construction site we thought that the Germans were building a military base to expand their military muscle. But our reconnaissance patrols told us a different story. It was a heavily guarded complex and day and night people worked. Hundreds of truck loads went to the woods taking building material. Despite the heavy security some of our partisans infiltrated the complex. Then we knew that Hitler was building a headquarters in the forests of the Vinnitsa region.
Adolf Hitler had a plan to rule the entire Europe from this underground center. He needed a focal point to establish his future headquarters and he had selected Vinnitsa Ukraine as the center. Hitler was fascinated by being in Vinnitsa; he liked the weather and the vegetation. Some say that it reminded him his native Bavaria. Even Hitler and Herman Goring had visited this complex and spent some time in this secret underground bunker complex.
When the Ukrainian Partisans got the news that Hitler was in Vinnitsa a message was sent to Moscow immediately. This secret massage went up to General Georgy Zhukov and then passed to Stalin. Moscow replied us promptly, do not attack the supply lines or continue any sabotage work. They asked us to stop all the hostilities and observe the movements carefully.
Perhaps the Red Army wanted to capture Hitler alive but he never returned to Vinnitsa again and after the Stalingrad debacle the German high command lost their interest in this underground center which was called “Werewolf”. They knew that they were losing the war and abandoned the plan to rule Europe.
When they retreated from Ukraine they demolished the underground complex. I was overjoyed and even cried when Ukraine was liberated but when they left they had killed and tortured our population. We still live with those horrors but personally I have no repulsive feelings towards the German people. It was not the German people who committed atrocities in Ukraine. Those were NAZI s and they consisted of Germans, Rumanians, some Italians and even Ukrainian Stephan Bandera fractions”
Mr Guminuk’s narration captured the audience and after this narration a group of University students visited this historical site. Today Hitler’s bunker complex or the Nazi ‘Werewolf’ is a tourist destination. But there are no buildings on the surface except some huge concrete blocks. Some military historians say that Hitler probably had spent about 2 to 3 months in the Werewolf Bunker outside of Vinnitsa. Supposedly, the bunker was 7 stories deep and a couple football fields in size. Hitler ordered to blow up the Werewolf when he was convinced that the defeat was inevitable. Explosives were set and the Werewolf was blasted from inside and subsequently bombed from the air. . It has been said that when the bunker was blown up, the impact was felt by the every living creature in the city of Vinnitsa.
Nazi ‘Werewolf’ has not been excavated to this day because the archeologists believe that there are still unexploded bombs which were deliberately left by the German Army.
When we visited this site I was thinking how Hitler’s megalomania consumed millions of lives. How many lives had been perished for an ideology? A few hundred meters away from the Werewolf there is a mass grave with a statue of three crying men. This is the place where the 14,000 Norwegian laborers were buried.
Mr. Arthur the British Soldier
I met Arthur in Walthamstow Central London somewhere in 1987. He had been a solder in the British Army and served in domestic reserves. I could not take part in the D Day but we had fearsome air war in Britain said old Arthur.
“The Luftwaffe bombing of England was dreadful. After the air raids we found many people dead in the rubble. Mostly the victims were civilians. Although England was never successfully invaded perhaps due to its geography Hitler constantly bombed major English cites to lower our morale. General population suffered hugely. Everything was rationed, butter, cheese, petrol, you name it, practically everything, so the black market thrived”
After the War Arthur re-entered the civil society and worked as a factory worker until his retirement. Arthur’s wife died several years ago and his son moved to Leeds. So he lives alone. To minimize his isolation and wistfulness he raises a bulldog. He treats the dog like a family member often talking and cuddling him. Although it had been many decades after the WW2 Arthur still recalls the devastation that was caused by the air war in England.
Mr LXX the Sri Lankan WW2 Veteran
I met Mr. LXX at the ex-servicemen’s ward at the Military Hospital Colombo while he was under the care of Col Dr. (Mrs.) N.K Ariyarathne – Consultant Physician. He had Hypertension and Diabetes Mellitus. Dr. N.K Ariyarathne referred Mr. LXX to me following insomnia. But after a brief intervention he was able to sleep well and discharged within a few weeks.
Mr. LXX told me his life story as a soldier under the British Empire. He joined the military during the World War 2 as a private and had a brief physical training in Sri Lanka. They haven’t had extensive weapon training. The British Army recruited the local youth to the Army not to fight the Axis Forces but to do clerical and manual work. It was a new experience for the unemployed Sri Lankan youth and they had the opportunity to see the world at the government expense. Many Sri Lankan troops were stationed in Egypt and Italy. They helped supply arms, ammunition and food to the warfront. A small fraction of Sri Lankan soldiers engaged the enemy in Burma and Malaya. According to the reports they fought bravely and earned respect among the British officers.
Mr. LXX had served in Bombay and in Cairo as a soldier helping the Allied Gigantic Military Machine. May be he was as an insignificant bolt in this giant war machine. There were many of them but their efforts helped the warfront. Today we are respected by the British Government expressed Mr. LXX. “They value our service and still pay us a pension. Our numbers are decreasing annually. But we are proud to pay our honor to the fallen comrades on the Memorial Day”
After our first meeting I met Mr. LXX at the OPD several times and each time I was happy to help him. After 2006 I had no contacts with him. A few years ago I met one of our junior doctors who worked at the ex-servicemen’s ward and she told me that Mr. LXX passed away peacefully under her care.
Lt BX47 – The Officer who witnessed the Deaths of Seven Soldiers
Lt BX47 served in the Sri Lankan Army and met with a traumatic battle events in Paranthan Jaffna in 1999. He witnessed the deaths of seven of his soldiers. He explained his horrendous experience thus.
“It was like thunder when the mortars fell on us. Seven of our soldiers were near a Kovil and I was several meters away from them. I heard the zooooo….. noise and then I knew it was an incoming mortar and I lay on the ground. The other soldiers had no time to go down and I saw how their bodies smashed in to thin air. I was near a concrete well and undoubtedly it saved my life. Although I was physically unharmed I was in a shock. Blood came through my nostrils and I don’t know how I bled. My men were dead and scattered on the ground. Their bodies had been mutilated due to the explosion. One soldier was gasping and he asked for water. But he could not hold his breath for longer. He died after several minutes.
The entire area was covered with black smoke and dust; I could not see more than five meters a head. I started crawling. While I was crawling the enemy fired a number of mortars towards our direction. My aim was to move away from that devastated point. I gathered my entire body strength and moved forward. While I was crawling I found a group of our soldiers and they helped me. But I have severe memory gaps and I don’t know how I came to Colombo from Paranthan.
After this terrible incident Lt BX47 had nightmares, intrusions and severe startling reaction. He avoided any reminders of the trauma.
After he became a psychological casualty Lt BX47 had to face many psychosocial problems. His Unit refused to recognize him as a battle casualty since he had no physical wounds. Some officers accused him of being a malingerer. Only a very few understood the suffering that he underwent. He had severe survival guilt and he accused himself for leaving his men in Paranthan Jaffna. He personally felt responsible for their deaths.
When his illness progressed he had no aim in life. Although he was newly married he was not interested in his marital life. He could not concentrate on his work and study for the promotional exams. His memory was fading. On numerous occasions he lost his temper and acted with extreme hostility. The traumatic memories of Paranthan was imprinted on his mind and made him dysfunctional. On one occasion he planned to end his life. Fortunately his life was saved. After this attempted suicide he was referred to the Combat Trauma treatment Center at the Military Hospital Colombo. He was diagnosed with PTSD by Dr. Neil Fernando- Consultant Psychiatrist of the Sri Lanka Army.
Lt BX47 gave his consent to undergo treatment and he was treated with medication and psychotherapy. His traumatic intrusions were desensitized by EMDR and Cognitive mode of therapies helped him to regain insight. Medication helped him to fight the altered brain chemistry that was caused by combat related psychological trauma. Gradually he realized that he was not responsible for the deaths of his soldiers. He was able to come to terms with the prolonged survival guilt. Psychosocial rehabilitation helped him to rebuild his social and professional life. Today LtBX47 is a father of two children and got his due promotions and is leading a productive life.
Lance Corporal HJXX- The Vietnam Veteran
In 2006 I was undergoing psychotherapy training at the Coatesville Veterans Hospital in Philadelphia under the renowned Clinical Psychologist Dr. Susan Rogers. There I met a number of Vietnam veterans and I specifically remember Lance Corporal HJXX who told me an unforgettable story of the war. His story still echoes in my mind and I still recall his words.
He went to Vietnam when he was just 18 and suddenly found himself in an unfamiliar country with numerous hostilities. Life in Vietnam was uncertain said Lance Corporal HJXX.
“When we went to Vietnam to fight Communism we considered Vietnamese as sub humans. We were proud US marines. We called them Gooks. We were surrounded by booby traps and hostile North Vietnamese Forces. But we fought them with courage.
I worked as a Radio Operator and called Napalm attacks by air. I had destroyed many Vietnam villages by requesting air attacks. But there was no end to it. Yet the enemy was active. After finishing my tour I came home as a tired soldier. I saw no welcome home signs. We were sidelined by the society. They have forgotten the Vietnam saga. But we couldn’t.
After coming home we had to fight another battle. The battle of Vietnam recollections that hounded our lives. I was moving from job to job and drinking heavily to ease my emotional pain.
Today I am in my old age. When I see my grandchildren I remember what had occurred in Vietnam. I feel that I had helped to destroy men women and children in those Vietnamese villages. Most certainly I had killed little children like my grandkids by requesting air attacks. Today I am repenting for those actions. Now I know the value of a human life. Life is precious. Life is something sacred and has to be treated with respect.”
The Gulf War Veteran
I met the Gulf War Veteran RGXX at the Coatesville Veterans Hospital in Philadelphia. RGXX belongs to the new generation of combatants. He had served in the 2nd Gulf War (The military campaign which began with the invasion of Iraq by forces led by the United States). He was stationed in Mosul Iraq. While serving in Mosul he was exposed to traumatic combat events and became a psychological casualty of the Gulf War.
A considerable number of veterans like RGXX came home with horrendous memories of the war. Many veterans have been diagnosed with GWS (Gulf War Syndrome) which is characterized by chronic fatigue, headache muscle pain, neurologic signs memory loss, sleep disturbances gastrointestinal symptoms and cardiovascular symptoms. After long term therapy and rehabilitation he is recovering. He wishes to go to NY and start a new life.
The Ex-Soldier and the Healer
Terry is a special person who had served in Vietnam as a combatant and now completely dedicates his life to treat combatants with war trauma as a mental health clinician. Terry was introduced to me by Dr. Mahasen De Silva -US Board Certified Psychiatrist of the Colmary O’Neal Veteran Administration Topeka Kansas. (As far as I know Dr. Mahasen De Silva is the only Sri Lankan who is treating the Vietnam veterans in a VA Hospital)
Terry is a very constructive person and I have learnt many positive psychotherapy tips from him. He went to Vietnam when he was just eighteen and saw the naked reality of the war. After serving his term we returned to the United States with numerous life experiences. A large percentage of ex combatants who returned from Vietnam had readjustment problems. The American society was very critical and judgmental towards them. Many ex-servicemen began to drink and abused drugs to break the isolation.
When other veterans were fighting a new war after coming home Terry took a different path. He began to study and analyze the war trauma. There were many psychosocial challenges in front of him. Terry took these psycho social issues as life challengers and faced them positively. He studied combat psychology and joined the VA.
Since he was a soldier Terry understands the problems of the war veterans very well and he is very empathetic to the combatants who are struck by the war. Today he is rendering a comparable service to the war torn soldiers at the Colmary O’Neal Veteran Administration Topeka Kansas.
Roland Glenn the Soldier Who Fought in Okinawa
In 2010 my friend Roland Glenn of Kittery USA requested me to write a review to his autobiographical war memoirs “The Hawk and the Dove: World War II at Okinawa and Korea” As an Infantry Combat Company Commander, he saw significant action during the battle of Okinawa.
“I was in charge of leading about 200 soldiers, an enormous amount of responsibility for someone 20 years old says Glenn. The killing of fellow human beings in the name of democracy remains my most vivid memory. I was brainwashed to think of the Japanese as sub-human monkey runts. I totally believed in the mission to obliterate the Japs. I was trained to kill and that is exactly what I did on Okinawa but there is nothing in our training that really prepares us for the taking of another human life. I have written my book about my own recovery from the traumas of combat.”
His book is a first-person account of the horrific hand-to-hand fighting at Okinawa, where 12,500 Americans died. Glenn was a brave soldier and was awarded both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. Glenn’s book “The Hawk and the Dove” is the first hand account of a WWII combatant who fought in Okinawa and Korea. The author vividly describes his transformation from an innocent Pennsylvanian young lad to a fully-fledged combatant. During the War the author undergoes profound traumatic battle events and comes home as a hero but with the displeasing memories of the war. After coming home his second battle begins and he fights the next enemy – combat related PTSD which he overcomes with his will and determination and innate love for the humanity.
One marvelous thing about this book is throughout the book the author has not lost the human touch and his feelings for the fellow soldiers and even for the enemy. Yet after 50 years of the War, he still recalls the upsetting event in which he was compelled to put a bullet through the head of an enemy (Japanese) soldier. The Hawk and the Dove is one of the best books on war experience that I have read after Erich Maria Remarque‘s “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
Today Roland Glenn lives in a small American town enjoying his retirement. He expresses his views on war in these words.
“I do not think that wars solve problems. I strongly believe that more serious diplomatic efforts should be undertaken to resolve international problems. One of my major concerns right now is all the veterans returning with symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This has got to be one of the biggest stories to come out of the Middle East wars. These veterans will require medical and psychological care for the remainder of their lives.” I’m hoping that youth who are considering careers in the military will have the opportunity to read my book. I’m not advocating that young people not have careers in the military, but am suggesting to our youth that there are many more options to serve our country and our communities than going to war.”
The IDF Combatant
In 2010 one of my colleagues referred a young soldier from the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) for EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). He was a young guy who was on vacation in Canada to see his relatives. The said combatant had participated in several life threatening missions in Israel and he was troubled by nightmares and intrusions. There was no marked avoidance in him and he showed positive clinical picture of partial PTSD. He underwent six EMDR sessions and in each session his psychological distress reduced up to a significant level.
The Canadian Peacekeeper
I met Sergeant HXXV in Hamilton Ontario several years ago. He was in the Canadian peace keeping contingent that served in the former Yugoslavia.
Peace keeping is tough says Sergeant HXXV. “Sometimes you are helpless and just become a spectator who is helplessly watching atrocities. It gives you a paralyzed feeling with a sense of defeat and sense of guilt. Even after coming home these feelings are with the peace keepers. It does not leave you. We peace keepers live with that feeling in the rest of our lives”
The Former Child Soldier
In 2009 I went to buy some refreshments at a convenience store at Don Mills and Shepherd in North York. At the counter there was a young Sri Lankan Tamil guy and he easily recognized me as a Sinhaleses. It was a few months after Prabhakaran’s death and some of the Tamil Diaspora living in Canada were extremely hostile to the Sinhala people. When he saw me his faced changed. I could read his eyes. It said “I wish I could have you for my lunch you Sihalese …” But he suppressed his hostile feelings and served me as a usual customer.
After this incident I had to go to this convenience store several times and every time he was unfriendly. One day I met him face to face at the store and I greeted him by saying “Wannakam” He was stunned but returned my greeting. After this incident his attitude towards me was better. Once on my regular visit to the store I wanted to verify a dental product and I spoke to him in broken Tamil (Dr. Ram Manohar who worked with me at the Negombo Hospital taught me Tamil words and some phrases. Later Ram became the JMO Jaffna Hospital and is now living in the UK) He explained about the product to me in a very friendly manner. Later he asked me who I was etc and we became acquainted with each other.
Within several months we became friends and once he told me his life story. To conceal his identity I would call him Sathi. Sathi was from Prabhakaran’s village Valvettithuraiand he knew Prhabahakaran and his family. Sathi decided to join the LTTE when he was very young. As a child soldier Sathi participated in several attacks that were launched against the Sri Lanka Army. But he did not precisely mention these attacks.
After serving in the LTTE for some years, he came to Colombo and accidentally met a relative. This relative had offered him the option of going abroad. First they thought of going to Norway or Australia. Sathi’s relative had a friend in Canada. So they decided go to Canada. Sathi and his relative entered Canada as refugees. Today he is a Canadian Citizen and working in a convenience store.
One day Sathi called me in distress. His father who is living in Valvettithuraihad suffered a heart attack. He was helpless and did not know what to do. Knowing my medical background Sathi asked for my advice.I immediately sent an email to Prof Daya Somasundaram of the Adelaide University Australia and asked for help. Prof Somasundaram contacted the Cardiologist at the Jaffna Hospital (who was one of his students) and did the needful to Sathi’s father. After a few weeks of treatment Sathy’s father had a complete recovery.
Sahthi thanked me a lot. He never expected such a help from a Sinhalese guy when he was in dire straits. I think this event changed his understanding of Sinhala people dramatically. Later Sathi told me that when he was living in Jaffna they were constantly told that Sinhala people were ruthless and they are the enemies of the Tamil people. He further said that this personal incident helped him to change the myths about Sinhala people.
This is a personal incident that occurred between two people who have come from the same country but with different views and rivalry. Positive communication helped both parties to eliminate the myths about each other. This small example allowed me to think in big. If Sinhala and Tamil people come to a common ground putting aside petty differences, past antagonisms and work together for peace Sri Lanka would be a paradise once again.
During these years I have met a number of soldiers who participated in different wars. These combatants came from different countries, different societies and different cultures. They had seen death and destruction in these conflicts. They had witnessed the human suffering. Although they belonged to different ethnic groups, spoke different languages their emotional pain is very similar. There is an university in their emotional anguish. Human pain has no ethnic differences.
I recollect some words of General Omar Bradley who once said “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than about peace, more about killing than we know about living.” I think Bradley was correct.