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"Why I Wrote Home to War"

by Gerald Nicosia

I wrote Home to War out of my love and admiration for Vietnam veterans, almost all of whom were acting out of their own conscience in going to the war in Vietnam, just as I was acting out of my conscience in refusing to go. Whether to save a democratic nation, to do right by their parents or church or community, or just because agreeing to serve made them feel at one with their own country, they all went with a heartfelt belief that they were doing the right thing. Often what they encountered in Vietnam in the first few days or weeks changed their mind, made them see that the war was an awful mistake, and a tragedy for both our nations. But the greatness of these people is that they did not give up, despair, or spend the rest of their life in angry cynicism over such betrayal, and the very real loss of human life and sometimes devastating loss to their own body—like Ron Kovic, who could never feel anything again from his mid-chest down, never walk again, make love or father children.

These people, the veterans, men and women, turned hurt around in the most noble way I have ever seen it transformed. They made it into their constant companion, not as a burden or an inner voice prophesying doom, but as a star of enlightenment, guidance, and perennial compassion, which they could rely upon to never forsake them in the remainder of their life’s journey, and which brought them as close to true peace as any guru on a mountaintop. That is a remarkable thing that I never tire of reminding myself of, when my own life seems lost and overburdened. And that, truly, is the irreplaceable gift that the veterans gave to me.

I remember Jack McCloskey, that short, feisty fireplug of a man, in the summer of 1995, when his heart was giving out, after a heart attack, a pacemaker, and his refusal to give up Philly cheese steaks, cigarettes, and beer. Like so many Vietnam vets, he had learned to be glad just to get through one day at a time, and he couldn’t forsake those precious props that helped him get through and function—even though he knew they might be shortening his life overall. But mainly he wanted to be able to serve, to keep serving. He asked me who I knew who needed help, and I told him about my friend Jan Kerouac, Jack Kerouac’s daughter, who was dying of kidney failure at that time, and who couldn’t do even the simplest daily chores any more—like going through the day’s mail and messages or shopping for groceries and medicines.

Jack, who didn’t have a car, offered to ride the bus up to her house in San Anselmo from San Francisco—about 25 miles—once a week to assist her. I was worried about the toll that would take on his own health, but he said, “If I’m not helping people, I don’t feel like life is worth living.” This man, as a medic in Vietnam, had seen some of the worst horrors imaginable. “Giving to others,” he told me, “is what has kept me alive this long,”

In Home to War, I hope to pass along the wisdom of such people to new generations.