have courage. take heart. bear witness.
Bob Raphael is a Marine at heart.
In 1964, six months before his eighteenth birthday and with his guardian's permission, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, swearing "to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic."
Whatever abstract meaning those words may have held for him then, once Bob had been choppered into combat in Viet Nam's Mekong Delta, his keenly felt allegiance was to more concrete, immediate concerns—"staying alive, covering your buddy's back, and doing what you needed to do."
Bob did what he needed to do for nearly eight years in the Marine Corps, including two tours of duty in Viet Nam, where he served as a forward observer operating with front-line troops, in 81mm mortar platoons and line companies, with the 1st Battalion 5th Marine regiment and the 2nd Battalion 7th Marine regiment.
Sometime during his second deployment, he came to the conclusion that he was fighting in "a useless, bullshit war . . . a corrupt war."
But that was not the reason he accepted the early exit offered to him, in 1972. "I didn't want to take the early out. At that time, I liked the Marine Corps. I would have stayed for a while longer."
Bob's wife, however, felt that they'd be pushing their luck if he stayed in. Most likely, he'd be sent to Viet Nam a third time. She didn't want to risk becoming a widow with two young children, so he opted out.
If you wonder why Bob was willing to continue risking injury and death by fighting in a war he believed was wrong, consider this aspect of his experience: "Never in my life, since then, have I felt more needed and more a part of something. It was the time of my life."
Consider also that this time spanned his late teens and early twenties, years during which we leave childhood homes and find new ones as adults. It seems that, for Bob, the Marine Corps was one such home.
But it came at a high price and with a lifelong mortgage. He left with disabling injuries and, today, is afflicted with four diseases presumptively caused by exposure to Agent Orange, an extremely toxic chemical compound, manufactured and used by the United States during the war, to defoliate rural and forested areas throughout South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
The war levied taxing emotional and social costs, too. Homecoming was not what many veterans expected. This war became a highly contentious political issue for Americans, and a military uniform was as likely to provoke hostility as it was to elicit appreciation. And then there were the long-term, psychologically disruptive effects of combat known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"You know, a lot of us were short-tempered with our kids. We were short-tempered with civilians in general. Some of us were not suited for family life. The divorce rate among my generation of veterans who got married young was very high. Many of us, including myself, are still estranged from our kids."
The variety of programs available today for veterans—for treatment of addiction and symptoms of PTSD; help with family and community reintegration; sufficient and timely medical care; financial assistance with education; employment training and placement—these did not exist to the same extent for returning Vietnam veterans. Until, that is, they took it upon themselves to establish their own support systems, creating organizations like Vietnam Veterans of America, in 1978, and lobbying for programs within established organizations and agencies, such as the peer-to-peer counseling Vet Centers within the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
In the mid 1980s, while working as controller at an addiction treatment center, Bob initiated a program designed specifically for veterans. Since then, for more than thirty-five years, he was worked—as facilitator, mentor, board member, advocate—with various programs and organizations dedicated to serving the needs of military veterans and their families.
His advocacy includes the young men and women that the United States currently sends into combat. "There are people that don't know we're still fighting wars here. I have my Google alerts set up for every death as it's reported, and I post it to Twitter and to Facebook. I believe every American needs to do that. People need to know. Kids are dying here. Every day."
Bob's decades-long commitment to his extended military family has reached far beyond the particular war he was assigned to fight, in keeping with a Corps value, Semper fidelis—always faithful.
Recorded in New York City, November 2013.
"So that was the first I knew this was a real war. That people I saw in the morning and had coffee with, now they're coming back in bags already."
"Never in my life, since then, have I felt more needed and more a part of something. It was the time of my life."
"Nobody every welcomed me home for the first twenty years. They'd have been happy to see me go back. Yeah."
"When the Vietnam Veterans of America was formed, it was no coincidence that their motto was, 'Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.' And we knew what we meant by that. We are not abandoning this new generation. We are there for them."
"It was just a young girl giving me a doughnut and saying, 'Welcome home.' It was nice. It was a good doughnut."
". . . there were more of us over there wearing peace signs on our helmets, listening to the same music you guys listened to at home, smoking the same dope—only ours was better. They didn't have any control over us. We were in the Marine Corps. We didn't walk around with buzz cuts. We grew our hair long and says, 'Fuck you. What are you going to do, send me to Viet Nam?'
But when we came home, we kept quiet."
"So if you are in the military and you're in Iraq, Afghanistan, Viet Nam, Somalia, wherever the hell you are, and you really don't think you had a purpose there, then what's the purpose of this killing you're doing? How do you reconcile it?"