When I first started writing Green Bay Outsiders, my current work in progress, I knew one of my characters was going to be a Vietnam War veteran so I delved into stories that highlight the experiences of such men and women. Although Sylvester Stallone often serves as the butt of jokes because of the many atrocious movies he has made during his career, many other films he has made have significantly more merit, including the first “First Blood” movie. The film, released in 1982, approximately a decade after the end of the Vietnam War, shows a war veteran displaced by the trauma of his experiences overseas whose buddies back home are dying from various ailments and who can’t find a home for himself back on American turf.
It was an evocative film which took care to show sensitivity for the veteran’s experience even as he went on something of a rampage, turning a small town with a hard-ass sheriff into a fireball. The film (which I blog about here) also helped me develop the character of Uncle Jack, who serves as a mentor of sorts to Carl Daniels, the protagonist of Green Bay Outsiders. Carl ends up wanting to leave his home town of Green Bay, Wisconsin following graduation from college, having come to the realization that the vast world offers a breadth of experience for anyone brave enough and willing enough to go out in it.
Journey of War Veterans Map
I was fortunate, more recently, to acquire a copy of a document called the Journey of Veterans map from my ex-wife who is on assignment with the Office of Veterans’ Affairs Veterans Experience Office, documenting the experiences of war veterans from the time they enter the armed forces through the rest of their lives. (The last stage in the journey map is called, quite literally “dying”).
In one scene from Green Bay Outsiders, I discuss Jack’s experience getting back from Vietnam in late 1968 shortly after serving his tour of duty as a Marine in Bravo Company during the famous siege of Khe Sanh that same year. Many war commentators point to 1968 as the year when the public tide in the United States began to turn against the war. Before the relentless, months’ long siege by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army against Khe Sanh, a camp held by American forces just south of the Demilitarized Zone, a large part of the American population really believed their armed forces were beating back the communists.
But the attack on Khe Sanh, which was only the first attack in the much broader, coordinated campaign known as the Tet Offensive, showed that even if the North Vietnamese seemed to be losing militarily, their relentlessness was its own victory of sorts. Staggeringly, a Gallup poll in 1968 showed that one out of every five hawks who supported the war back in the United States turned into doves that year.
Uncle Jack returns to the United States and, more specifically to his hometown of Missoula, Montana, at the end of the year to face serious hostility (including from his sister, Carl’s mother Sharon, who openly began to protest the war even as her brother was fighting in it). That Jack does not land well would be an understatement. A relationship he had with a young woman before he went to war goes south and then ends altogether and he ends up, briefly, in jail before leaving his hometown and family behind.
Stages of the Veterans’ Journey
It was interesting to get a copy of the research-driven Journey of Veterans map. Although the film “First Blood” gave me some ideas to work with in building Jack’s character, nothing demonstrated the level of detail shown in the map. The veteran’s journey, according the map includes the following stages:
- Getting Out
- Starting Up (meaning stateside again, a process which doesn’t go well for John Rambo or Carl’s Uncle Jack)
- Taking Care of Oneself
- Reinventing Oneself
- Putting Down Roots
Due to the development of Jack’s character, it is hard to define each stage of his personal life according to all these stages. Indeed, these stages are amalgams, one might say, based on profiles of countless veterans from different wars. No one vet, presumably, would fit perfectly within each stage.
A descriptor attached to the map says: “This map covers ten life stages any veteran may encounter, from pre-service to end of life. These life stages are organized in three phases in which veterans’ goals and aspirations are distinctly different. Each life stage lists out moments veterans typically experience and associated VA services (Jay Lemming note: VA is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs), and calls out key “moments that matter” which may have significant impact on Veterans’ experiences.”
Jack is a strong secondary character in Green Bay Outsiders, not the protagonist. So it would be impossible to explore his veteran’s experiences as deeply as a story such as “First Blood” or “The Deerslayer”, another Vietnam War-era film, which was released in 1978. But Jack’s war experience, the disillusionment he goes through after his return stateside, the strains that emerge with his family including the tension that develops with his sister Sharon, and an array of other challenges and opportunities in his life, create a compelling character whom Carl finds highly influential.
Although Carl would never want to experience war the way Jack did, the complexities of his family member who carries so much baggage even while serving as a kind and encouraging mentor make for a character I found exciting to create.
Do you have a friend or family member who is a veteran? What do you find most memorable about their experience now that they have come home?