I shared “Battle Scars” in 2017. Its introduction states that it was not the original post intended for Veterans Day that year. I never published that piece, and it may never be published in its entirety. It hits too close to home in some ways. However, this year, it seems appropriate to tell a part of the story that inspired the title “Battle Scars.”
Technically, I am a Vietnam-era veteran. However, I don’t consider myself a veteran, as my service was cut short. I never saw combat, and any emotional baggage I carry related to war is secondhand. That is not the case with many of my friends and former colleagues. Take Jimmy, for example.
Jimmy was a Vietnam veteran. After surviving Vietnam, he still wanted to serve and decided law enforcement was the way to do it. He and many other veterans became police officers in the 1970s. Most made good officers, but all seemed to have their little quirks. Jimmy’s little quirk became known when I announced I was moving on to greener pastures.
I was Jimmy’s sergeant. I was also commander and training officer for our fledgling tactical team. In law enforcement, the officers with whom you work closely become tight, or the team doesn’t work. With officers who were also veterans, that was doubly true. Our patrol shift and our tactical unit were close.
For reasons I may write about later, I decided I had outgrown our department, and did not like how city management was interfering in department operations. So, I put in my papers and started planning a new career path. That’s when Jimmy and some of his buddies reverted to Vietnam mode.
They and many of their comrades noticed something disturbing while serving in Vietnam. Casualty rates went up as the end of tour dates approached. It was so strange and ingrained in the system even the way those soldiers were handled by command changed.
Soldiers who were due to ship home or to another assignment were rotated back to relatively safe areas for the last 30 days of their deployment. This move was taken because statistics seemed to indicate troops preparing to rotate home or to another country were being injured or killed at an alarming rate during the final month of their time in Vietnam.
That concern came back to Jimmy and the others when I told them I was done. They hovered over me like old mother hens for the rest of my time with the department. If I had to hit the bathroom at a truck stop or a convenience store, I’d come out and find one of the guys checking on me.
If I made a traffic stop, someone pulled up behind me and waited till I was done. If I were called to a crime scene or accident location, they’d camp down the road where they could keep an eye on me. It was funny in some ways, but they were serious about it.1
Thankfully, their fears went unrealized. I finished my last tour, cleaned my desk, and took some time off. Then I started the next stage of my career in a neighboring department, where I eventually became the chief. Jimmy was not so lucky.
One afternoon, I was sitting at my desk, working through the paperwork accompanying a command-level job in a police department. Then, my secretary stuck her head in the door and said an officer from my old department wanted to see me.
It was Jimmy, and he did not look happy. At first, I thought he might be in trouble of some sort. In a way, that was the case, but not what I would have expected. Jimmy wanted me to know he was leaving law enforcement and wanted me to hear why before I heard the inevitable rumors.
He and another officer were part of the tactical unit responding to a burglary in progress call that turned into a possible barricaded suspect. Upon the team’s arrival, no one knew if the suspect was still in the house or had fled as the original officers arrived.
The situation did not go well. Jimmy and his partner were assigned to scout the location to see if there was any sign the suspect was still there. As it turned out, he was. Not only was he still there, but he was also armed, firing at the two officers as they approached the window used to enter the property. Jimmy said he felt the bullet go over his head.
Neither officer was injured, but they felt they barely escaped severe injury or worse. The good news, besides the fact the shooter missed, was they had reason to use equipment that would force the suspect to surrender. A flashbang and a tear gas canister will quickly get a crook’s attention.
Jimmy2 put in his letter of resignation the next day. He was embarrassed to admit it, but the incident took him back to Vietnam. He froze and almost allowed the shooter to take him or his partner out. He could not face that possibility again and wanted me to know what had happened. The second officer resigned a short time later.
So on this Veterans Day, 2022, and any days beyond, remember this little story. Veterans and others, such as first responders who face life-threatening or extremely stressful situations, handle the repercussions of such incidents in different ways.
If you say something you feel is supportive, encouraging, or thankful to a veteran, police officer, firefighter, or emergency medical person, and their response is not what you expected, don’t feel slighted. At some level, they appreciate it, but we all handle our baggage differently.
Maybe someday, I’ll share how I handled mine.
1 If you click on the link emotional baggage above or click on it now and read “Run Silent, Run Deep: Revisited,” you’ll read that my brother was killed in action in Vietnam. He was within a few days of shipping home to start a new phase of his life. Jimmy and the crew may have been right to worry about someone ending a tour of duty.
2 In case you are wondering, Jimmy, is a pseudonym. He died a year ago, and I did not feel it was appropriate to use his name without his permission.
© oneoldcop.com 2022
I live with a Vietnam Veteran Seabee (1967-1968). He was also prior Fleet Navy and was part of the Cuban Blockade. He went on to be a city cop/deputy/state law enforcement for 30 years, working for four different departments. He has physical scars & emotional ones. He drinks & smokes, heavily. He will be 80 March 1.
Sounds a lot like my dad, except he screwed up after he came home from WWII and could not get a job in law enforcement. He only made it to 67 due to the long-term effects of his war injuries, lifestyle choices, especially the cigarettes, and a serious accident. Between him, and three decades in law enforcement, I am living proof that people can survive second-hand smoke. Take Care.