Throughout my 10-plus years of researching this book, I strived to keep events, dates and facts as true as possible. I am also a veteran of the war in Iraq.
This book is about the soldiers who fight our wars. The horrors they face, the bonds they form, the cruelty they endure and their grit to survive. And after the treaties are signed, their struggle at home to find peace, coming to terms with PTSD. The reader will come to understand why, if you were there, you don’t talk about it.
Marine Lance Corporal and boxing champ Mel Sheya leads his four, fun-loving best friends, Paulin, David, Doc and Mike from winning a boxing match in Shanghai to fighting the war in the Pacific, from Corregidor to Bataan to the Manchurian death camps. Battlefield humor surfaces often in conversations among the friends, helping them cope with the horror they are living. After three of the friends are captured and sent to the notorious Camp Hoten, Manchuria, Mel, through his loyalty, humanity, trustworthiness and honor, becomes the imprisoned soldiers’ beacon of hope. When the camp commandant learns Mel is a former champion boxer, he sets a trap to execute Mel in the ring, knowing that killing Mel kills the spirit of the prisoners. Mel knows it’s a trap, but he fights anyway.
Does he survive?
Depends on how you look at it, I suppose.
A few easily digestible footnotes help readers recognize dates, cities, camps and other true accounts that US soldiers faced when deployed in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
Mel didn’t know why he finally spoke of the war. Maybe he wanted to talk about it. Maybe it was because he had promised Elise all those years ago. Maybe it was because the doctor and Muhammad Ali were both staring at him.
Maybe it was because Mel thought people, at least one, should know the truth about war. His war. That it was, is, something more, something much more, than boys playing guns in the empty field behind the Safeway grocery store, or framed lithographs hanging in the hallway, or slick Super Bowl commercials featuring knighted Marines slaying computer-animated, fire-breathing dragons, or anthems belted out before opening pitches, or pledges, or allegiances, or tattered, framed flags -- those embroidered, manufactured things;
Something more than killing, something more than dying, something more than glory, something more than bone and blood and salt and tears and bags of lye and parades and band majorettes, sequins glittering in the morning sun, hurling and twirling and silver batons, knees high marching in step to rolling snare drums and crisp bugles;
More than the rumpled and ancient veterans, whose new shoes don’t quite camouflage the artificial feet, shuffling along behind the oompahing tubas like forgotten, unrequited promises; more than choruses of Allah Akbar and God is on our side rising to heaven on curled fists;
More than its own diluted terminology like “collateral damage” and “acceptable losses” and “friendly fire” and “Gott mitt un” stamped into Wehrmacht belt buckles;
More than the combat automatic rifles AR-15s and MP4s and .50 cal sniper rifles with thermal and starlight scopes, blessed by priests, and rabbis and imams and stamped with John 8:12 — I am the light of the world — into the gun metal;
Something more than “victory,” more than “defeat,” more than “death,” especially for the living;
Something more permanent, more ethereal, more primary, more primitive. More than its own paradox, of peace through war, and live to kill and kill to live, more than red white and blue, the primary colors of blood, veins and bone.
Maybe it was because his heart had wept for so long, suffocating from the weight of it all. Maybe it was for his family, Elise, and their only daughter, Kate, who died of Polio at 6-years-old; maybe it was for the girl she was and for the woman she could have been.
Maybe it was for his country — this country, our country — the country he loved so desperately and resented so deeply; maybe it was for the country it was, the country it could be, if only maybe, just maybe;
Maybe it was for the customers waiting with crossed arms in Starbucks’ lines and post offices and the Safeway, waiting with steaming lattes and Christmas packages and with grocery baskets stuffed with fresh bread and fresh eggs and hormone-free beefsteak and non-GMO imported mangos, impatiently tapping their feet as the war, his war, any war, presses forward, vomiting on 'nips, krauts, dagos, tommies, chinks, juden, jews, joes, slants, gooks, skinnies, towel heads, sand niggers, hajis’ and peeling away skin and hair and genitals, turning blue and brown and green eyes red, charcoaling flesh, chalking bone;
Maybe it was for the ash. Maybe it was for the real housewives growing ulcers over which color to paint the bathroom;
Maybe it was for the blackened, bloated, aborted bodies floating face-down in canals of shit. Maybe it was for the black blood pulsing out of gunshot livers; maybe it was for the shrapnel-torn intestines, seeping shit into the bloodstream, sepsis, baby;
Maybe it was for the disemboweled families with framed 8 x 10 pictures of the dead propped up and smiling on the mantle;
Maybe it was for the legions of back-slappers and solemn nodders and Thank you for your service-ers who listen, eyes wide, with astonished admiration at cocktail parties and picnics that anyone could live through “that.” Maybe it was for those who don't, or can't, or won't, listen at all;
Maybe it was for the “greatest generation,” whomever that is. Maybe it was for the worst, whomever that is not. Maybe it was for being called a hero for killing and a coward for cowering, both of which he was, and both of which he did; maybe it was for shitting his pants, for letting piss run down his legs, for running, for hiding, for wanting to go home and sleep;
Sleep, sleep the peace of the young, in cold, clean sheets, where the summer breeze is cool and tugs at the window curtains, and the safe sound of coal trains clacking over the tracks and lowing goodnight;
Maybe it was for his courage, or for his cowardice, or for ours, or for just trying to keep alive that some small part of himself, that tiny sliver of what was, of what he wanted to be, of what he could have been, that waning flame, that obscure pinprick of gleaming hope, buried deep, deep, inside, out beyond the breakers where the still, dark, water lies and the hammerheads swim;
Maybe it was to hold on to that something inside himself that was still good and free and hopeful and kind and compassionate and young and childlike, and yet, failing, failing so profoundly, for the sake of living, to do so; for choosing life instead of death, but not really, not when you think about it, which you can't because it hurts too much;
Maybe it was for the millions of eyes seared by the witnessing of it, into thousand-yard-stares, those vacant, distant stares into nothing, nothing but the horror of the present-past and the present-pain, and oh, God, the pain, the pain of what was, of what is, of what will be, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, coming up and at you like an inevitable, inescapable truth;
Maybe it was for the night terrors and the terrible days, and for the soaked sheets and pissed beds, and for the blinding migraines and the orange-flavored chewable tablets, for the whiskey’d nights and the foggy days, for the hidden bottles, and the A.A. meetings, and the stashes of food and the flashbacks -- those awful, awful, dreams aflame -- and the startled responses, and the diving for cover -- behind park benches and parked cars and restaurant booths whenever a fucking balloon pops, and everyone stares down at you thinking, Who's this crazy guy?; and for the uncontrollable weeping that shudders up and out of you like a cannon shot, and the secret regrets and the open wounds. And the guilt.
The guilt. The guilt that you are not dead, that it is not your corpse stacked among the pyre, that it is not your body buried behind a German farmhouse, that it is not your ashes falling gray upon the fields of Auschwitz, that it is not your thumb whom those ghouls working in mortuary affairs shipped home in a gun-metal coffin - that white silken-lined husk — because it was all they could find;
That it is not you who still shits blood years later, that it is not you who drinks himself into a stupor in front of the kids, that it is you who can see, still see, see it all every day —the beauty of the sky, that it is you who can still smell the lilacs, you who can still breathe, you, who can hold a paintbrush;
You who can still walk the dog and bend over to pick up its shit with a black plastic bag; you who can still fly a kite with your grandson, your son, your daughter;
You who can still hear your lover's whisper, and feel her hot, shaking breath as your hand slides over the soft rise of her breast, down over her nipple, erect and strong, you who can feel the lift of her naked hips, anticipating your tongue, moving toward her center, her heart, that moist, warm, whoosh, whoosh, whooshing heart; and the overwhelming, unending, molten desire to go back and do it all over again, despite her pleas, despite your daughters, despite your change and your promise-promises and the welcome home parties and new jobs; all for the desire to fight, to kill to die, to laugh, to live, to rage, to finish it, finish it all,…to…to what? For what? Why?
Maybe it was for all of that, all of it, all of them, all of us that he began to speak. Maybe he wanted to talk. Maybe he needed to. Or maybe, he thought, it was just time.