Memories of war

| November 06, 1997

Veterans fight for serenity in peacetime

A conversation with near forgotten warriors and those who help them

As the baby boomers march onward past 50 and into their twilight years, the battles that distinguished that generation -- both domestic and abroad, and Vietnam in particular -- have come to color a new generation's understanding of war.

But while veterans' experiences remain largely an abstraction for those born and raised in an age of relative peace -- excluding the ongoing conflict with Iraq, and the continued role of the United States as global police officer -- the perceptions of those who have fought under the banner of stars and stripes have become increasingly uniform.

Listening to Montana veterans, it becomes clear that the injuries sustained, both physical and psychological, are increasingly seen as connected. In per capita percentages rivaling any region in the country, Western Montanans have served their country in war. Nearly 10 percent of the men and women living among us in this part of the state are veterans.

Their wartime experiences vary as greatly as their opinions about the propriety of fighting and killing, but Montana's veterans have much in common as well.

After surviving the trauma of war -- including life-threatening situations, the death of friends, the act of killing, and emotional and physical wounds -- many have had their injuries compounded by battles with the federal government over benefits, and by the process of re-acclimation, which haunts countless vets to their peacetime graves.

Many old soldiers settled here, a retirement of sorts, drawn by Western Montana's rich opportunities for the solitude, anonymity and the open space that more than a few say have helped them to clear their heads.

"Montana was settled primarily by Civil War vets, and traditionally Montanans have sent their young men off to wars," says Richard Johnson, one of four counselors at Missoula's Vet Center. "A lot of the veterans around here are from Montana originally, and many others have come here because they like what's here: the conservative, smaller-town atmosphere."

Missoula is unique in that it houses the state's only Vet Center outside of Billings, an outpatient counseling clinic supported by the Department of Veterans' Affairs that has served more than 4,000 veterans since 1985. And Missoula is home to a new outpatient clinic that saves a trip to the VA hospital at Fort Harrison near Helena for those needing only routine medical care.

Most veterans maintain a low profile, but the evidence of their presence is easy to find -- especially in Missoula. In addition to the Vet Center and VA clinic, a "Veterans' Tour of the Garden City" would stop by the doughboy statue -- a lone infantryman, rifle and bayonet at the ready -- on the lawn of the Missoula County Courthouse, commemorating the Montanans who served in World War I.

A short stroll would take the tour group across the Higgins Street Bridge, where we might stop to ponder the spray-paint on the sidewalk cataloging the United States' "Interventions, Invasions & Covert Operations," and listing 26 locations of American military activity during the 20th century. ("Know Yr Empire" one spray-painted inscription urges.)

The highlight of the tour would certainly be the Rose Park on Brooks Street, and its homages to the memories of those Montanans who were killed in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, "the wars of the 80s" (including Panama, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon) and the Persian Gulf.

Concluding the tour at the Rose Park, however, would likely perpetuate the prevailing image of war as being about death. In Montana and nationally, approximately 100 military personnel have returned to the states alive for every one who lost his or her life. In Western Montana, then, our tour could continue for a long, long time, as long as it would take to visit the homes and hear the stories of the approximately 55,000 veterans who live in the region.

In 1940, when Thomas Pablo decided to beat the draft and enroll in the Army, he was offered a choice of where to serve. Raised in Ronan and Pablo for his first 20 years, Pablo selected the "paradise in the Pacific"–the Hawaiian islands. For Pablo and many others, paradise transformed into hell on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

"I served about 200 yards from the dock where we loaded ammunition for the Navy," Pablo recalls 56 years later, relaxing at his home nestled between the Mission Mountains and St. Ignatius. "We lucked out that morning. A bomb dropped right between the narrow gauge railroad tracks but didn't explode. A ship had been there about four days before with a load of ammunition. If that ship would have been there, it would have become the deepest part of Pearl Harbor, and I wouldn't be here today.

"I never got scared until about mid-morning when I had to climb a water tower and act as the air guard. I got up there and looked toward the harbor and it was nothing but a mass of flames. I couldn't see Pearl Harbor, where the ships were anchored. I got scared and my knees wouldn't hold."

Pablo's three ensuing years of "island hopping around the Pacific" were a time when "our main battle was with the mosquitoes." After some time in California, Pablo returned to the Flathead Reservation without physical wounds, ready to resume his life.

Though he was never diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, its effects seem evident in Pablo's post-war life. The disorder is an emotional condition caused by exposure to traumatic events, such as car accidents, fires, or war. Symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, palpitations, headaches, muscle or joint pain, dizziness, disturbed sleep, forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating. It is especially apparent in combat veterans, and can manifest itself in the form of flashbacks and an inability to function normally.

A soft-spoken, man, Pablo is economical and precise in his use of words–traits evidenced in the poetry that he has written since returning from the war. Three of his poems hang, framed, above the television in the living room of his well-maintained double-wide mobile home.

"I had the intention of going back to school, but I couldn't concentrate," Pablo says. "I had my sights set on being a doctor, but I just couldn't sit still. It was just too doggone quiet. It was difficult to adjust. I never had no flashbacks, but I got scared a few times.

"The first Fourth of July I was just laying down and relaxing out by the lake at a park in Polson, some kid threw a firecracker right behind me. I don't know how I hit my feet but I was on my feet and moving in no time.

"I did a lot of fishing to gather my thoughts, and spent a lot of time in the woods and up in the mountains. That was more comfort to me than anything. I learned to relax. I think I blocked a lot of it out of my mind. I know anyone who said they wasn't scared is a darn liar.

"I drank for quite a few years afterward. Probably about 1950 I tapered down. I got married and had a family so made up my mind that I couldn't support a family and drink at the same time. One of 'em had to go, and that was the drink."

Anthologized in seven different poetry collections, Pablo wrote mostly nature poems, but also penned pieces such as "Forgotten," which was included in the Montana Korean War Memorial Commemorative Guide, dedicated to the memory of those men who remain missing in action:

"May their final resting place,/Under some unknown sod,/May that spot be forever hallowed,/For it is unknown unto God."

As the result of a head injury sustained during a recent car accident, Pablo says he "can no longer think" to write poetry. He says he is at peace, "taking life day by day," and believes that American soldiers from the Revolutionary War through the present day have been justified in fighting "for freedom." In fact, he began writing a poem on just that subject before his accident. He laughs as he says, "I guess that one'll never get finished."

Elmer "Sonny" Llewellyn thought he had served his time after an uneventful stint as a navigator for Army Air Corps troop carriers in Europe during World War II. But in 1950, the Korean War began. Llewellyn, still a member of the reserves, was recalled to active duty as a member of the Air Force. This time, his tour was to be disastrous.

Llewellyn and his crew received orders to leave Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines and enter the fray. Their first assignment was a long-distance leafleting mission covering six targets, with Llewellyn serving as the navigator.

Llewellyn and crew only completed five drops that January 12, 1953, night before their B-29 Superfortress was spotted and shot down by North Korean troops. Three members of the crew were killed, the other 11-including Llewellyn–managed to bail out and were eventually captured by the North Koreans. They were transported by car across the Yalu River and into China, and were taken by train into Peking, where they were accused of being spies and imprisoned.

"I was in solitary confinement for about a year-and-a-half," Llewellyn says. "There was a pretty extensive interrogation. We were on a very limited diet, and kept in very small cells. You weren't allowed to exercise at all. The first nine months, I suppose, I just sat at attention, eyeballing one spot on the wall. There were guards eyeballing us 24 hours a day. You had to sleep in a certain position. If you rolled over against the wall, they'd come in and make you lie on your back so that they could see you."

In a well-publicized trial, the 11 were convicted of spying and sentenced to from four to ten years in prison. Llewellyn, who had plenty of time to review the mission in his head, remains convinced that his crew never violated Chinese airspace.

Finally, on Aug. 1, 1955, after 32 months in jail and two years after the Korean War ended, Llewellyn and his crewmates were released, largely thanks to the diplomatic work of Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield, and then-Secretary General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjold.

"It seemed like a bad nightmare over there and now it seems like a pleasant dream to be home," Llewellyn told the Daily Missoulian on the day after his Missoula homecoming. Llewellyn celebrated by presenting his wife Marjorie with "a new mink coat, a string of pearls, and other gifts...which her husband bought on his return trip home," the newspaper reported. According to the article, Sonny Llewellyn spent August 14 buying himself "a 'comfortable' wardrobe of civilian clothes including loud sport shirts, 'loafer' shoes, a sport coat, slacks, socks, and underclothes."

But a May 3, 1981 story presents a more reflective profile of Llewellyn and chronicles a troubled homecoming. Entitled "Soldier of Misfortune," the Missoulian piece discusses Llewellyn's problems in bouncing from job to job, and his breakup with Marjorie in 1960.

Offended by the "two-fisted drinker" label pinned on him by that article, Llewellyn recently waxed philosophical about his experiences while sipping a beer in the living room of his Missoula home.

"I still think about it subconsciously, how damn nice it is to be able to get up and open the door," Llewellyn says. When asked about the psychological trauma of his imprisonment, he responds that "I think everybody has [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] to some extent." His current and third wife, Kay, adds that "he has it to the extent that he still won't sleep without the light on."

"They kept lights on us all the time," Llewellyn explains. "I thought when I came home I was gonna have to glue two eyeballs on my bedroom door. They were constantly looking in at you. All you could see were these two eyeballs."

Despite losing almost three years of his life as a Prisoner of War, Sonny Llewellyn is not bitter. "In wartime, I don't see how anybody could stay home and feel guiltless. I don't regret any of my time in the service."

The same can't be said for Jake Sirota, who served as a company commander in the Army's First Cavalry Division in Vietnam. "I look back and I was pretty successful until Vietnam, and then my life just went downhill," says Sirota, perched on a stool at the Rhinoceros bar in Missoula, where he operates his own soup and sandwich concession. "I haven't done anything worthwhile since then, and that's the truth."

Sirota was drafted in 1966, and completed Officer Candidate School in the United States before spending "the best two years of my life" in Germany. In 1969 the call came to report for duty in Vietnam.

"Six of us arrived in Saigon on roughly July 15," Sirota says. "We went to the officer's club and processed in, and our conversation all centered around what units we were going to be assigned to. The whole conversation was 'Jesus, I don't want to go to the First Cavalry Division. I'll go anywhere: First Infantry or whatever. Just not the First Cav.'

"They were the only air mobile unit in Vietnam, so they had their own helicopters and they were always in the shit, leading this and that. The next morning we went out and checked our assignments and I got the First Cav. It terrified me."

Sirota spent about eight months commanding the First Cavalry's Delta Company, with approximately 100 men under his command. His company engaged in "what you'd call search-and-destroy operations. We'd operate maybe six days on the ground and then they'd pick us up and put us somewhere else. There'd be a company here and a company there and a company over there looking for North Vietnamese and then hopefully destroying them.

"You don't think about it at the time, but looking back, I can remember every day, living in fear of how many men I was going to lose if I made a bad tactical decision," Sirota says, who estimates that 60 or 70 men were killed under his command during his eight months in the field. "Not only did I have the stresses of combat, but I had the stresses of being a leader in combat. I had the stresses of putting them in body bags."

Others who know him would disagree that Sirota's post-Vietnam life hasn't been worthwhile. Sirota starred as "Doc" in "Tracers," a local theater production about the Vietnam War, and has done much to try to help other veterans, and to increase the general awareness of the issues confronting Western Montana's vets.

After moving to Missoula from Georgia in 1978, Sirota became involved in an organization called Vet-to-Vet that sought to support Vietnam veterans with emotional problems connected with their war experiences. In trying to help other veterans, he came to realize that he had more unresolved issues with his time in Vietnam than he allowed himself to believe.

"The main reason I began to go to counseling was because I wanted to set an example for other vets here in town, because they just started the program where we could get free counseling," Sirota says. He wound up being diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

To compound his problems, Sirota has been battling the VA since the late '80s when he first applied for benefits.

"Usually, they'll give you benefits back to the time that you were diagnosed, which for me was 1983," says Sirota, who was awarded a 30 percent disability, with no retroactive benefits, in 1992. He appealed to have his disability raised to 50 percent and to collect back benefits. "I've been flooded with paperwork. What they figure is that I'm gonna quit, and if they drag it out long enough, I'll eventually say fuck it, which I've done three times. This time I'm just determined not to.

"Nothing can give you your life back. The benefits can help."

Missoula native Larry Keogh has a different sort of battle with the VA on his hands. Also diagnosed with PTSD, Keogh is also dealing with what is commonly known as "Gulf War Syndrome."

Keogh spent three months in the Persian Gulf in early 1991, working as a water well driller. Not a combatant himself, as part of the third wave of the ground invasion of Iraq Keogh was "closer to the combat than most of the military personnel in the theater."

"Our instructions when we left for the invasion were that, since we were going to be crossing the desert which had soft spots in it, if you were in a vehicle that got stuck, remain with the vehicle and they'd come back and get you. If the vehicle in front of you got stuck, then go around them," Keogh says. "We went around them, and went around them, and went around them.

"About midway through the second day, when we were going around an armored column, an officer stopped us and asked us where the hell we thought we were going. We said, 'Well you guys were stopped, so we were going around you.' He indicated that we might want to hold up since they were the front line. About 20 minutes later they peeled off and engaged one of the Iraqi Republican Guard tank battalions.

"The ground war was not as eventful as ground wars of the past, because their communications had effectively been cut off by the air war and they were reluctant to get out of their bunkers," Keogh adds. "Mentally, I think they were defeated before the ground wave ever hit."

In fulfilling their duties of providing water for the Army's Third Armored division, Keogh and his crew mates engaged in "the biggest adventure I'd ever been on. It was like a kid going through a dump, full of tanks, lots and lots of tanks, and ammunitions dumps. In essence, we saw the aftermath of combat: tank turrets with half-cadavers where they had been severed from the hips, fly-infested bodies around the bunkers. It probably made me more callous in some respects, more sensitive in other respects."

It also made him sick. Aside from the PTSD, which has made him "jumpy," Keogh suffers from achy joints and depression. He also endured a 30-day period from February into March 1993, during which he had a 100-degree fever he describes as "malarial."

"It's been a struggle to come back to health ever since," says Keogh, who adds that neither VA nor civilian doctors have been able to concretely diagnose his ailments.

The Defense Department, Keogh says, is investigating a number of possible causes for his illness. "I received a letter indicating that our unit was in the downwind area of the Khamisiyah pit explosion," he says, referring to an ammunitions dump which was destroyed by U.S. forces–a refuse site containing the chemicals sarin and cyclosarin, which are known nerve agents.

His illness could also possibly be traced to having taken pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills, which were given to U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf to protect against the possible effects of chemical weapons. PB has been shown to react with the insect repellent DEET, a combination that has proven fatal for laboratory rats. Keogh took PB while in the Gulf, then used DEET heavily to ward off mosquitoes while on assignment in Panama.

Despite his concern over his physical condition, Keogh values his military experience. "Every trip outside of the United States is just an appreciation-enhancer. You get back to the United States and it's immediately so much better. Then you get back in Western Montana and you're back in heaven."


Photos by Jeff Powers

Elmer "Sonny" Llewellyn spent more than two and a half years as a Chinese prisoner of war during the U.S. engagement in Korea.

World War II vet Thomas Pablo found stability in his life through fishing and poetry.

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