James Robert Kane was three years ahead of me in school, but up until December 1968, he and I were of the same mindset when it came to the war in Vietnam. We were against it.
He had just graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. I was in the middle of my freshman year at Piper College in Pennsylvania, majoring in English and minoring in art. My career path was set for the clergy.
At roughly the same time period in the late 1960s, James and I reached the same moment of truth. My Selective Service card had me classified 1Y, which meant if I left school for any reason, I could be drafted, but would not have to fight. I expressed my displeasure with the war singing protest songs by Dylan, Donovan, Tom Paxton, and Phil Ochs in coffeehouses in the northeast. I still contemplated a run to Canada should things get testy. It became a moot point when I was downgraded/upgraded, depending on your perspective, to a 4F classification.
James, even though he was married and had a daughter, received a draft notice with a classification of 1A. He seriously considered a run to Canada as well, but in the end opted to serve in deference to his dad’s service in WWII.
On my end, I continued to oppose the war, but felt deep compassion for all who were serving. In 1970, my cousin Victor, who returned from Nam after a stint as a proud Marine, tried to drown his nightmares in booze, weed, and sticking his head between two stereo speakers blaring “In A Gadda Da Vida” at full bore as he attempted to slit his wrists at my 21st birthday party. It was a cry for help. “Shell Shock” was the term given it back then. Only recently have we begun to understand the ramifications of—and how to begin to deal with—PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Being caught in a horrendously unpopular international crossfire was bad enough. But James faced a violent inner war raging between the truth in his heart vs. truth foisted on him by the powers-that-be. His struggle haunted him for years until he discovered a way to free himself. Though he handled the nightmarish confusion differently from my cousin Victor, the intensity was the same. James’ secret weapon in the PTSD battlefield was the pen.
The crux of James’ nightmares was “a sort of three-legged stool thing,” he says. “One leg of the stool was being caught in a firefight where I was fired upon by the enemy as I climbed over the trunk of a huge tree blocking my path. Diving forward to avoid getting hit, I landed on my head and blacked out.
“The other two legs were the fear from constantly being stalked by the enemy and guilt over what we did there. The terror of that night on a listening post in the dark, being stalked by the Vietcong, certainly was manifested in many of my nightmares. So was the hamlet firefight after being knocked unconscious. Flashbacks about that incident left me wondering whether it was just another firefight or, perhaps, murder.
“More powerful than the battle experiences,” he continues, “I discovered what ate at me for 20 years afterward was the recognition that allowing myself to fight in that war was the greatest moral failure of my life. I did not have the courage to stand up and say Hell no, I won’t go. Lots of factors figured into that decision, but at the heart of it was that I didn’t want anyone, particularly other members of my extended family who served in WWII, to think I was a coward.
“The irony of that is this. One of my great uncles, a man I have admired since childhood, and himself a WWII Pacific Campaign veteran, read No Escape and told me, ‘I would have championed your decision if you’d had chosen to not serve.’
“So the firefight, the listening post and guilt. One hell of a powerful combination that took more than thirty years to work through.” And work through them he did. James confronted his nightmares by capturing them in his first novel, No Escape—Long Journey Back from Nam now available through Amazon or the Chanhassen Library.
“Telling a story over and over, it will loosen its hold on you,” James said in the Veterans Day issue of the Chaska Herald. No Escape is a poignant account of how protagonist Jim Nelson endured torture and met up with dead comrades on the other side of the veil separating us from life and the afterlife. After reading it I came away with a much deeper understanding and appreciation of postwar issues facing veterans.
PTSD is a struggle haunting and threatening the very lives of thousands of Vets still, and not just from Vietnam. James wants to continue helping Vets find their way to healing through writing, and he recommends Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Story. “I would like to encourage other veterans—it works,” he says.
James has continued to write, adding two new books to his list. You can check them out here.
Note: Space Larrabee is the main character in D. E. Munson’s Chronicles of Space and Thyme series of novels. Learn more about the reason for the existence of this blog here and author D. E. Munson here.