Hoboken hosted two events last week to honor local servicemen and servicewomen for Veterans Day, once known as Armistice Day to remember the end of World War I.
Dubbed by Woodrow Wilson the “War To End All Wars,” World War I ended in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. Unfortunately, WWI did not end all wars.
On Wednesday, Nov. 11, local veterans and other city officials gathered at Pier A Park to remember fallen soldiers and pay tribute to others who served.
At 11 a.m., they observed a moment of silence and rang a bell 11 times in memory of Armistice Day.
“When I came home, what I did, I cannot tell you those things, but God was with me.” – Orlando Addeo
Mayor Dawn Zimmer attended the forum and asked all veterans in the audience to stand before the forum began so that everyone could show appreciation for their service.
Dealing with death
The play, Flashback, is adapted from a book penned by Penny Coleman, whose husband took his own life after returning from Vietnam.
Coleman, a photojournalist and former stringer for the New York Times, interviewed 14 women across the country who also had lost husbands, fathers, or sons to post-war suicide. Coleman derived the play with co-creators and friends Elana Michelson and Patricia Lee Stotter.
All three women attended the forum and actress Anne O’Sullivan performed four parts from the play on stage.
Michelson said the play, which is usually performed by several actors, came from years of pent-up emotion in Coleman.
The play contained some disturbing monologues that detailed the mental anguish and subsequent death of four former soldiers, as recalled by their wives.
In one scene, one of the wives, Debby, sitting on the couch at home, turned around to find her husband pointing his gun at her.
“I’ve killed better men than you,” he said just as the phone rang. To his friend on the phone: “Today must be Debbie’s lucky day. I was ready to blow her head off.”
After his suicide, his wife lamented the care given by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which would only diagnosed her husbands psychosis as “10 percent” Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“The VA discourages people and hopes they’ll give up,” she said. “And he did.”
In another story, a soldier suffering from PTSD took his own life at a rifle range.
His suicide note read, “Please tell the kids I tried to hold on. Tell them that if puppy was sick and hurting all the time, I’d hope they’d put her to sleep.”
The character based on Coleman said she wished she could tell people that her husband was “wounded in the war and died of his wounds,” but that people don’t recognize mental illness the same way they do physical illness.
In the stories, many of the wives blamed themselves for the deaths, and Coleman said during the open discussion that it shouldn’t be that way.
Uniting in support
Filmmaker Donna Bassin showed her film “Leave No Soldier,” a documentary following two veterans’ groups, Rolling Thunder and Veterans for Peace.
She said the title is based on the military oath vowing never to leave a soldier behind, which took on new meaning on the homefront.
According to the film’s website: “Each [group] undertake[s] a highly emotional journey of remembrance, protest, and preparation. In very different ways, each group has set out to redirect their grief and rage into a redemptive advocacy for soldiers at war overseas, and for wounded warriors at home. Occupying both sides of the political spectrum both groups feel betrayed by their government, and vow that never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”
The film showed many stages of suffering that accompany homecoming soldiers and the families who lost loved ones in battle.
One father said, “When my son was killed, I wanted to kill someone. But you have to break that cycle.”
Suffering from PTSD, a former soldier on a march to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina commented on the misunderstood nature of his condition.
“For the first time, a whole city understands what Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is,” he said.
The filmmaker applauded Hoboken’s effort to create a community forum to discuss these issues, calling the forum one of the first in the nation.
Jan Barry, coeditor of “Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans” and a founder of one of the first Vietnam veteran support groups, gave a list of contact information for returning soldiers.
“Those nightmares come in the middle of the night,” he said, “when you least expect it and when you least want it to happen.”
Jose Vasquez, an Iraq War veteran who served in the military from 1992 until 2007, said, “It’s time for the country to reflect on what we ask [our soldiers] to do.”
“The attention that we pay to these folks over there goes up and down, but the burden that we ask them to take never goes away,” Vasquez said.
“Sometimes [coming home] is not an easy transition to make,” he said, noting that in the past veterans did not speak about their travails overseas.
Several people speaking at the forum were critical of the government’s involvement in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and others found major fault with the care and support available for returning veterans, especially those with PTSD.
Vets take umbrage
During the discussion, the philosophical differences between post-Vietnam War veterans and pre-Vietnam War veterans – the surviving servicemen and women who served in the Korean War and World War II – started to become apparent.
After watching the film and hearing from other panelists, a few local servicemen from the pre-Vietnam era took umbrage with the disparaging remarks.
Veteran Jack O’Brien told stories of his underage entrance into the military and some of the horrors of war, but stood by his country.
“Our government does take care of our returning veterans,” he said. “We need a lot of help. The VA is very good.”
“Anyone doubts the patriotism of Hoboken, go up to the memorial [at Sinatra Park],” he said of the 159 casualties from the square-mile town.
He also reminded locals that Hoboken’s Wallace School was named after a group of three local brothers who were lost in the war.
World War II veteran Orlando Addeo seconded O’Brien’s comments and was moved to tears in remembrance of the tough times in American history.
When the U.S. entered into World War II, he signed up and broke the news to his parents. “Pop, I gotta leave in three days,” he recalled saying.
He recounted his departure from the states, when Tommy Dorsey’s band played “Boogie Woogie” right on the ship.
“Here I am on the boat, listening to ‘Boogie Woogie,’ tapping my feet, and watching the shore of America fade away. That was the start of my great days in the Army,” he said. “I was eating regular. I was getting paid. Before you knew it, I was playing football. Then the honeymoon was over.”
“When I came home, what I did, I cannot tell you those things,” he said, “but God was with me.”
He added, “A lot of boys right on my corner [in Hoboken] – four of them – never came back.”
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at email@example.com.