Fighting Memories

by Cork Graham

Forgiveness has always been hard for me, but it's something I've finally learned. I was immediately reminded of this when I read the Sunday paper a few days ago. There was a story about a Vietnam vet who had led a guerrilla unit of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. He now lives in the Mission District and was recently interviewed on "60 Minutes."

Anger arose in me because I, too, am an American who fought in El Salvador. Except I fought on the side opposing the FMLN. And it was an American fighting alongside the FMLN who had killed a good friend of mine. But before that moment, one has to understand the reasons why I, a 20-year-old photojournalist at the time, would become a combatant.

I had gone down to Central America to show the waste of war, and in so doing, hoped to do my part to end it. Everything was going well on my fifth patrol in the hills of Chalatenango. The scene was, as we used to say, "Tranquilo."

Suddenly, an old campesina came running down the dirt trail. "My husband," she screamed, "my husband has no hands!"

We immediately followed the hysterical woman to where her husband sat leaning against the small brick-and-thatch hut that was their home. Even though he had a bandage on the stump, blood gushed from where his right hand used to be.

While the patrol chased after the men responsible for this, I pulled my first-aid equipment from my camera bag and did my best to help. With a drowsy composure, the old man smiled and thanked me by putting his left hand on my shoulder, and then passed out. Shortly after I applied a tourniquet, we carried him on a makeshift stretcher to a bare field. A chopper lifted him out. I never found out if he lived. Considering how much blood he had lost, I doubt it.

After the medevac, the patrol leader and I accepted a glass of lemonade from the man's daughter. I was touched by her embarrassment for not having something better to offer. The lemonade on a hot day was just fine.

She said it had been a group of three FMLN fighters who had mutilated her father. When I asked why, she pointed to a bush and said, "The coffee."

She kept me spell-bound as I sat at her doorstep, and she explained. The guerrillas had come a month earlier to tell her father that the taxes off the coffee he sold in the market would only come back into El Salvador as arms and ammunition to kill the FMLN.

They warned him that if he didn't stop, they'd make him an example. I empathized with the farmer's plight: If he didn't sell the coffee, he starved; if he made money to support his family, he died.

Something changed in me as I sat there, sharing the pain of the daughter. I had already changed the moment I provided medical aid to the farmer. I changed again when I returned to the Camino Real Hotel to submit my story to any of the many press bureaus collected there.

No one believed my story. They found it too grotesque to have occurred at the hands of the FMLN. After all, most of the atrocities that appeared in the press were those committed by the military, and the FMLN's doctrine was that they were "fighting for the people."

Disgusted with the Catch-22 fear in the majority of the press, I walked along the Boulevard of the Heroes. Confused as to what to do next, I stopped and remembered a conversation from a week earlier, a conversation my friend Sam and I had had many times before.

Sam, a Vietnam-era navy SEAL who had found military work very lucrative in Central America, had pestered me for months to join his team. A friend of his working in Nicaragua had been shot in the back by his own men. The Contras then stripped their ex-leader of his equipment and sold it on the black market in Tegucigalpa. Sam wanted someone he could trust watching his back.

I never felt that another country's war was mine. In the days after the mutilation, though, I couldn't help but think of my mother's family in Ecuador, and the fact that what had happened in Vietnam, Cuba and Nicaragua could very easily happen in the rest of the Americas.

Within hours of leaving the Camino Real Hotel, I accepted Sam's offer to be his corpsman. With my childhood aspirations of becoming a doctor or veterinarian, and finally feeling that I was doing some good when I worked on that farmer, becoming a combat medic seemed to be the best option.

My first obstacle was military training. Under the ruse of covering a story, I entered the Salvadoran Navy's special forces school. I became the second American to have completed the course created by the U.S. Navy SEALs. I then faded to black: Sam issued me a new press card under an assumed name.

That card, and wearing civilian clothes under my fatigues, saved Sam's and my life during an operation with him. After escaping an ambush, he and I shucked our equipment and clothes, and buried them. In the cut-off jeans and T-shirts we wore under our tunics, along with one last tourist/journalist touch of a pair of sandals, Sam and I boarded a bus and headed back to the Ilopango airbase.

Many times stick in my mind of when I was laced with fear. The short moment after we boarded the bus is one of them. That was when the bus was stopped by guerrillas, or what I had started calling by the colloquialism used by regular military advisors: "G's."

I prayed that the G, who looked no older than 16, wouldn't suspect anything suspicious, like my shaking, as he ordered us off the bus, lined us up, and asked for our identification. All the men on the bus were asked to show their feet. Removing my sandals, I felt relieved that I wore combat boots sparingly. Most of the time I wore sneakers into combat, or even went barefoot like Sam.

Boots and humidity left marks on the feet that were very recognizable. One of the Salvadoran men on the bus had these marks. He was summarily taken into the woods by a G while his team members directed us back onto the bus, and ordered the driver to continue on. I thought I heard a single shot as the bus lurched forward.

The other passengers all remained quiet as we rode, almost as quiet as the Salvadoran who might not have even been a soldier. Silence has always been the loudest and most terrifying sound I've ever heard in war. Silence is the time before an ambush or attack. Silence was what filled the night Sam died.

What was uncanny about that night was that it had been our team who had launched the attack. Our attack seemed just too easy as our LAW rockets and small-arms fire found their mark and the encampment scattered.

After the scattering, and during the lull that followed, I walked alone among the dead and wounded, helping those I could and deadening my hearing to those I couldn't.

Suddenly, Sam, only a few yards away, held his chest and fell to the ground. The sniper had stopped Sam with one shot through both lungs. I caught a blur of the sniper's blond hair as she jumped from a tree.

She almost didn't escape because of the amount of fire I launched from my CAR-15, and from the rest of our two squads. Two of her comrades helped her away just in time.

Her comrades came in full force then. Our other squad leader, Rico, a Cuban, helped me carry Sam away, while the rest of the team covered our withdrawal.

If the choppers had come immediately, Sam might have had a chance. I did as I was trained, applying the Vaseline, a sheet of plastic, a wrap, and finally an injection of morphine.

What finished him was the night spent in chest-deep water in the mangroves while we all tried to survive a cat-and-mouse game. While I tried to keep him from drowning in the brackish water, he drowned on his own blood.

The memory of Sam's lifeless blue eyes that had almost dried by the time the choppers lifted us out haunted me all the way home.

Within a year after I returned from Central America, I was lost in an unhealthy relationship and unable to concentrate on my studies as a pre-med student at San Francisco State University. Post-traumatic stress, and the symptom of guilt I felt, because some of my friends were still fighting back there, kept returning me to Central America in my dazed thoughts.

The day I got a call from my old Cuban teammate, Rico, my heart stopped. He was at SFO, en route to another war. He waited at a bar table, gray-haired as I remembered, and still in great shape.

As we shared drinks and I repeatedly turned away his offers to become his corpsman, I learned that the woman who had shot Sam was American. I had known that Americans had fought on the other side, I had even known about this American on "60 Minutes," whose nombre de guerra was Zelaya. Still, I was in shock.

At that moment, I felt an urge to fight again. Words collected in my mouth as I prepared to accept Rico's offer. The call to board came and I walked him to the gate, but said, "Goodbye." Just before boarding, he flashed me the extra ticket he was so sure that I would take.

Shaken and confused because of how close he had come to being correct, and how suicidal the act of my accepting the ticket would have been, I left the airport. In the mad dash of my mind to find out what to do, I thought of my girlfriend, and how she had read my diary from the time I spent in Central America. She had repeated the sentence I had written so many times: "I'm going to Alaska and grow my hair long."

If it hadn't been for my heading north within months and the healing attributes of being alone in Alaska, surrounded by the beauty and serenity, I might not have survived to see my 25th birthday.

In Alaska, I experienced solitude, which afforded me the opportunity of introspection. Added to this was the understanding I gained from my meeting there with a Tlingit woman and an Apache man who taught me about balance.

Through the Tlingit, I integrated the "yin," the feminine side so misunderstood and feared by the overtly masculine and angry. The Apache, who had four years with the Green Berets in Vietnam, a master's degree in psychology, and the spiritual teachings of his tribe, helped me to comprehend my masculine. Added to this was the acceptance and understanding of my innate human qualities of light and dark by way of subsistence hunting and fishing.

When I returned to California, I used these abilities to help others like me who had been touched by the anger of trauma. Those I helped were like those at the Friendship House Association of American Indians, a drug and alcohol treatment facility on Julian Street in San Francisco, where I counseled for a year.

Most of the clients had received their post-traumatic stress through spousal, child or sexual abuse. The first obstacle was to get beyond the anger, the first wall of defense of one dealing with post-traumatic stress.

I wonder about Zelaya, the American FMLN leader on "60 Minutes," and if he had undergone healing and learned forgiveness and understanding, of others and himself. The Sunday paper said he is now an artist in the Mission. I hope his art is to him what writing has become for me.

Published in Prism 1995

"Surf's up!"

UH-1B at rest near Puente de Oro
Cork growing his hair long and following the "Red Path" in Alaska.