I recently read Thomas Childers Soldier From The War Returning (2009) in which he explores the lives of three Second World War veterans and their families. The book documents a part of our collective past—an inconvenient truth—that has been airbrushed from our national memory. Yet millions of Baby Boomers grew up in the shadow of that history.
By the spring of 1964 I was tired of my mother and stepfather’s constant feuding. As soon as school was out I left our farm in northern Minnesota and spent much of the summer riding freight cars and living in hobo camps—jungles—across the Northwest. I look back from more than fifty years out and try to recall the men I met. They’re faceless now but I remember a story passed around in the Wenatchee jungle that prompted many of them to hop a freight car. Witnessing the way this story spread like wildfire, even through the prism of a sixteen-year-old worldview, I realized it was somehow unusual.
The tale circulated that there was a state program in the South—I don’t recall what state—that was giving every homeless veteran fifty dollars, no residency requirement necessary; all one had to do is show up at the disbursement office. Younger men gave older and crippled men a boost up into slow-rolling freights. I realize now those old men were probably First World War veterans—possibly a Spanish American War veteran or two. The helpers, the majority of the hobos, were Second World War veterans. How I wish I had known to take notes; to visit with those men.
Statistics in the “Introduction” of Childers’ book are what first grabbed my attention. For example, he writes, “By 1943 the U. S. Army was discharging ten thousand men each month for psychiatric reasons, and the numbers increased as the war dragged on. During the Battle of Okinawa…the Marines suffered twenty thousand psychiatric casualties. …Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals were swamped with “psychoneurotic” cases, and two years after the war’s end, half the patients in the VA medical facilities were men suffering from “invisible wounds.” Post traumatic stress disorder was not diagnosed until 1980….” (page8)
My stepfather was one of those men who was discharged early but slipped through the cracks when he did seek help in 1948 from an overwhelmed VA system.
The majority of those hobos I lived with the summer of 1964 were no doubt a remnant of the legions of rootless veterans from those earlier conflicts. It was that summer I met my first Vietnam Veteran—of him my strongest memory is his drunken, unpredictable rages.