have courage. take heart. bear witness.

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Cindy Towne interview transcript

From one war zone to another

Cindy: I'm the middle of three children—an older brother, younger brother—and we were very close in age—about a year apart, each of us. And we had grown up in a pretty violent household. My dad pretty much tortured us with guns and threats. He would whip both my brothers, and I don't remember him ever touching me. I was his princess, I guess, is what he called me. But the three of us were very close, and I always think of us as, up until a certain point in our lives, we were just this little clump, and we survived a pretty horrible childhood, because we had each other.

And so when my oldest brother, Michael, was drafted, I felt abandoned, I think. Well, I know that I did. And it was something that was really hard to deal with. I don't think I dealt with it then. I think I was kind of numb to it.

And I remember the morning that he left. I remember it very clearly, and when I look back at that now, I probably had some sort of premonition about how things would change, and I think it was very subtle. But after he'd been gone a couple of months, I knew that everything had changed forever, and nothing was the same after that.

It was so different, because we'd always been together, the three of us. And I worried terribly, and I didn't even read newspaper articles about the war and how it was going, because I was always so afraid something was going to happen to him. I pretty much lived in fear.

And Tim—I don't remember exactly—Tim had another couple of years in school, but he never graduated from high school either. And he got into some trouble. Well, he was an alcoholic and a drug addict, from about age fourteen. He probably got arrested for using drugs, or drunk and disorderly and he was under twenty-one. And so his choice was to go in the service, and I was left with my parents.

When Mike came back from Viet Nam, he was really changed. He just seemed to be more morose, and when he drank, he started to become violent, like my dad had always been. And he was always right there on the edge, because, growing up, there were many times where had to step between my mother and my father—to protect my mother—and mostly it was he [Michael] would just end up hitting him [his father] and knocking him out and . . . when he was a teenager. He didn't do it, of course, as a young child. But he was just kind of fed up with the threats, and so when he came back from Viet Nam, there were several times where he got really drunk.

And there was one time, I remember, he put a hole in the wall next to my . . . next to where I was standing. He wasn't threatening to hit me, but he was angry at my dad, and he just punched. And I was standing very close. I could feel his fist go by my my face and put holes in the wall. And I don't remember him ever doing that before Viet Nam. He wouldn't talk about the war. He wouldn't talk about it, other than to say that he did things he was ashamed about.

And a couple of years ago, he decided to pursue seeking some help for his emotional condition, and going to the Veterans [Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)], and he's talked some. And he has talked some, over the last ten years, and some of the things that he has said to me . . . He was in a helicopter, and they had Vietnamese prisoners, and they were interrogating them. And if they didn't give them the right answer, they would throw them out of the helicopter, one by one. And I just can't even . . . I mean, that's about the only thing he's ever told me about. I know he's had other experiences. And I think that would . . . that would be enough for me, to see that happen.

Fred: Well, and we don't know that he was doing that. We only knew he was there when it was happening.

Cindy: Oh, no, no—he was in the helicopter. I don't think he . . . because he couldn't speak the language. So I think he was just being transported somewhere . . .

Fred: Right.

Cindy: . . . and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or whatever. And it doesn't even matter whether . . . you know, that he didn't try to stop them from doing that, I think, is what . . .

But, you know, we take our children when they're eighteen years old and we train them to kill. And whether or not they do kill, they see people being killed, or they do kill, and it's going to affect them when they come back and look back.

He hasn't been the same person to me, I think, since he went into the military, and I find that really sad, you know? Because we really . . . I thought we were survivors together, and I think he survived our home life, but he never learned how to thrive, like I did. And maybe it's because I wasn't sent from one war zone to another war zone, I don't know.

And the same with my younger brother—when he came back from Viet Nam, well, his experience in Viet Nam was a little bit different. He was a radio operator, and he finally couldn't take listening to people die anymore, and so he just walked off of his post and back to the base and said, "I quit." And I'm sure he did several things that he wasn't supposed to be doing. I know that when he was over there, he could buy packs of marijuana cigarettes that were soaked in opium. They bought speed, and so he did tons of drugs while he was there.

And so when he quit his job and walked back to the base, he told me that he was tear-gassing MPs. He was just trying to get sent home, I think, and so what happened to him was that they actually planted a marijuana cigarette in his locker and busted him for it, and he got two years in Leavenworth Prison for that. And I just, you know, I think that that was just enough to drive him over the edge. And when he came home from Leavenworth, I think he had about, maybe, nine months where he was fairly normal.

Fred: He was taking drugs all that time.

Cindy: Yeah, he was taking drugs, but I mean he could still kind of cope, have relationships with people. But then he just got worse and worse and worse, and he just was taking more and more drugs, and all of his friends dropped him and, probably for the next twelve years, he was a homeless person on the street. And if I wanted to see him, I would have to drive to Sacramento from Oregon. And there's a park in the downtown area where all the bums would hang out and I would just ask if anybody had seen him. And that's how I would get to see him, for a number of years.

And then, at one point, he called me and he told me that he was going to have a child and that he was living with a woman, and he was, naturally, very happy about that. And they had a child, and I think that relationship with the woman lasted about nine months before she threw him out and he became a homeless person again.

Fred: Well, and she was a . . . had her own set of problems of addiction and all the rest of it.

Cindy: Yeah, well she was a prostitute and she was addicted to drugs, as well. And she finally ended up in a mental hospital. And my brother found out about it, and he called me and said that he was going to go into a drug treatment program and that would I take his son and take care of him until he got out. And, at that time, his son was two-and-a-half years old, and so I agreed to it, and we kept him for a year, and then my brother was well enough to get him back, and that probably lasted . . .  And at the time, I told my brother, I said, "I'll only do this once. I won't be the dropping-off place for you to leave your kid when you decide that you want to do drugs again."

And I think he was good for about a year, and then he started doing heroin again. And so I had to take his child and turn him over to Children's Services, because I was following through with what I, you know, I told him I would do. And that was a really, really hard thing to do—to take a four-year-old kid and give him to Children's Services. And the minute I did that, my brother entered into another treatment program when he realized that I wasn't going to be taking care of his kid.

And when he got out of that, he was probably okay for six or seven years before he started sliding again. And, you know, eventually, he just . . . his son was taking care of him. The son was the parent, and the son was only eight years old or nine years old. And they ran away and I didn't know where they were for a couple of years, and then I found them again.

And my brother called me one day, and he said, "I just called an ambulance." And then he hung up. And, I found what city he was in, and I called the police in that city. And I found out that he had called the ambulance because he needed a ride to get his methadone. So that whole time I was thinking, "Oh, my God, he's killed his child," or whatever.

And I went down there to get his son, my nephew, and there was no food in the house and didn't look like there had been for a long time, and so we brought him home with us for awhile, and then we had to take him back. I tried to get help for him, but the Children's Services said, "You know, he's twelve years old and he's not a baby and we don't have money for children that age, and there is a program in Eugene [Oregon] that will help young children—feed them and give him a place to stay if he really needs it." And that was about as far as I got. And my brother behaved, again, for awhile, and then, I don't know how long it was before I got the call that said that he had been found dead.

And it wasn't . . . it certainly wasn't a shock. I didn't . . . I always expected it to end that way. And his son called me, and we went down to where his son was living with a family in Veneta, and my nephew said he wanted to stay there, he wanted to be with those people, and that was fine with me. And he did not want to believe that his dad died from a heroin overdose.

And, you know, I said, "Well, okay, Tim, we'll, you know, we'll wait 'til we get the autopsy report, and then we'll know. And, of course, the autopsy report was that he injected an overdose of opiates. And that was really hard for Tim, I think.

Fred: Tim the son.

Cindy: Yeah. The people that he was living with in Veneta, I believe, thought that they were going to get . . . my brother was getting $2,000 a month from the Veterans, because he was 100% disabled from the war. And when they found out that they weren't going to get that money, of course, they didn't want my nephew anymore, and so we took him in. And he was fourteen years old, and that was really, really difficult for all of us.

Fred: Well, he was fourteen years old, he'd lived on the street, he'd lived in homes where, you know, just anything was the rule.

Cindy: Mm hmm. It was such a different life from what our children had.

Fred: Yeah.

Cindy: You know, I just think about if my brothers would have had the opportunity or the support, or whatever, to—when they came home from Viet Nam—to have parents that would say, "Let's get you some help." Or to have at first said, "You do have a choice. You don't have to go into the service. There are other. . ." And I don't think they ever knew that they could say "no." They just believed that's what they had to do. They weren't educated. They were ignorant. And . . .

Fred: The thing that they did not know, really, was what the implications of being in the Army were. The other thing about Tim that I think is really important is that, for years and years, he didn't really approach the Veterans, but at some point, he realized that, "Well, you know, I should talk to them about disability and PTSD and all of that." And so he worked through all of that with the military, and he finally got to the point where they agreed, "Yes, you're disabled, and we owe you back money for ten, fifteen years, or whatever.

Cindy: Oh, that's right, they gave him a great deal of money.

Fred: So here's this . . . here's this guy that they, basically, said, "Okay, you're damaged mentally as a result of your time in the Army, and we owe you money and have owed you money, per month, for this damage. Here's $80,000 cash, and here's $1,500 a month." So, basically, you're mentally ill, but here's $8,000, or, $80,000." And so we made a point, right off the bat, of trying to get him to invest it into a house and, basically, he stuck it in his arm, you know?

Cindy: He was dead in two years.

Fred: Yeah.

Cindy: I went through a period where—after he died—that I felt a bit of guilt, because I wondered whether or not I could have intervened. I could have said, "He's not capable of being in control of this money, and taking care of himself and his child." And I remember thinking about it at the time—thinking about, "Oh, I could go to the judge," or whoever, and I just did not have the energy to do that. You know, I did as much as I could. I took him out and I showed him houses that he could afford, that he could have paid, pretty much, cash for and had something to give to his child.

You know, the government is not responsible enough to take care of these wounded people when they come home. They get them over there, and they don't care what they do when they're over there, or what happens to them. If they do something good, they give them medals, and they don't take care of them when they come back. And I just think that's such a disservice to human beings, you know?

They talk about supporting the troops. And I think part of supporting the troops is supporting them when they come home. And I don't see that. I don't see that today, in the year 2008. I didn't see that in 1968. You know, thinking of when my father was in the war, and he wasn't one of the first batch of troops who came home, who got the parade and whatever. He came home later, and they didn't take care of him, either. He was pretty damaged by war.

I can only hope that some day we will quit doing that to our young people. You know, I think I came from the same place that my brothers did. I lived in the same family. But one of the differences that I see is that I wasn't sent off to another war zone when I was eighteen, like they were. And my life has been so much better, or peaceful and serene because of that. And I realize that we all grow up and we do change, but I think war just changes us in such a different way. Anyway.

Let me just say that I was terrified at the thought of speaking into a microphone, and thinking that other people will hear my voice. And when I started talking about my brothers, I . . . in my mind, I was being sort of—and probably still am—a little bit hesitant to talk about their experiences because they were so negative, and I wouldn't want people to believe that I love them any less. And I had never thought about that before, so just speaking made me understand that a little bit better—that it . . . that they made the best decision that they could have made at the time. And I don't at all judge them for that, and never will.

I think we all make choices in our lives, and the choice we make comes from the knowledge that we have at the time, and we do the best in that situation. And I believe that of my dad, as well. He came from a completely different place, and I'm not excusing some of the things he did, but I think he did the best he could. He was a much better parent to me than his parents were to him, and I think I was a much better parent to my children than my parents were to me. And we just do what we can.

And I think I really realize that more when I talk about all of this, and it was a good experience, and I think that we all have stories, and it's a good thing to tell them. And however you get there, however you can get yourself to that place where you can tell your story is a wonderful process, and I know, for me, I feel better for doing it.