My cousin, Thomas Jenkins, was the first American killed in the Gulf War. VFW post number 9454, in Coulterville, is named in his honor.
The post is typical of what you see in any gathering of veterans: Mostly men, enjoying a brew, experiencing friendship of former soldiers, discussing small talk issues - and for some, trying to forget horrible experiences from the past.
One day, I noticed a gentleman sitting at a corner table alone, nursing a cold Coors. I walked back to join him. This was several years ago, but I believe his name was Darrin. Like many VFW members, Darrin was a Vietnam combat infantryman. We took an instant liking to each other. Instead of small talk like "Who won the game?" or "Ain't the news awful?" memories of the war years were rekindled.
Darrin told me he was a sniper in Special Forces. His secret mission was to enter North Vietnam territory and kill any small-scale communist leaders he could find. After a while, the assassination of human beings had no more meaning for him than skipping a stone across a lake.
Weeks later, Darrin was returning to the South. He had not eaten in four days and was extremely hungry. He came across a North Vietnamese family of eight sitting around a campfire and cooking a bowl of rice. The exhausted soldier took aim with his M-16 rifle and killed the entire family - including women and children. There was no reason for it other than the young sergeant simply wanted their food.
When Darrin's tour of duty ended, he was filled with rage and hate. He had seen many friends die. He especially detested big-time politicians, such as Lyndon Johnson, who had ordered thousands of young Americans into the gates of hell for reasons no one seemed to understand. He despised all of mankind and wanted to get away from civilization as much as possible.
Darrin returned to the United States and headed for the wilderness. He lived in a little dwelling far away from most people. He survived on a small disability pension and by hunting his own food.
On a cold November day, Darrin was searching for white-tailed deer. He spotted a doe and fired. The animal was knocked down but not killed. As he walked toward the flagging creature, he looked into her eyes. The deer seemed to communicate, "How could you do this to me? I'm struggling to survive just like you. What did I ever do to you?"
Suddenly, a dramatic catharsis took place. Years of pain and suffering came to a head. Darrin cried like a baby as he hugged the dying doe for two hours.
As time passed and the deer expired, darkness fell on the landscape. Darrin picked up his Remington 700 and headed for his tiny home, but for the last time. He was at a crossroads. The choice was simple. It was either suicide or to once again join civilization. He chose the more difficult route and returned to his family in California. Darrin entered psychotherapy. He became a productive member of society and earned a living by helping others who had suffered similar trauma. He never killed anything again - no matter how small.
Darrin's story made me take a look at life and realize how it is all connected in one way or another. It made me think about that ill-fated deer, and how its struggle to live was able to do more for this troubled American war veteran than any human endeavor could ever accomplish.
Our beers were no longer cold, but warm to the touch. Perhaps the heat of the day or the sweat from our palms had adversely affected the temperature. Maybe it was just the passing of time. I could not get out of my mind how his eyes reflected the sacrificial scars of his soul. I stood up, shook his hand and expressed gratitude for the moment.
I wished him well, although I knew my words were more mundane than meaningful.
That day, I left the building and have not been able to return since.
Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer and humorist.