Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Maurice Martin Speaks at First Unitarian-Universalist Church

Homeless Veteran and Activist Tells His Combat Stories … and Their Aftermath


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
[sweet and becoming it is to die for your country].

— Wilfred Owen

It wasn’t Maurice Martin’s idea to join the army. Nor was it the government’s; he was drafted not by Uncle Sam but by his parents. In a presentation about his life and activism at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in San Diego June 11, Martin said that when he was a child, “I was a good kid but I was angry about being adopted, and I took it out on bullies.” According to his own sometimes confusing and self-contradictory account, he had a good time in a childhood that was pure hell; he played school sports and even lettered, but “found it hard to get along with other students.” Expelled from two schools and shot three times, Martin managed to graduate from middle school but got arrested for stealing pecans. “The white kids got probation and I got sent to a reformatory,” he said.

When he got into high school and started getting into more trouble, Martin’s parents decided they had had enough. So, without telling him, they signed him up for the army. “My dad said there would be tests, but it had all been arranged, that I would travel and get job training.” He went in the service in March 1973, carrying with him a glamorous fantasy of war he’d picked up from John Wayne’s movies and the TV shows Combat and The Rat Patrol. “On March 4, 1973, the day after my 17th birthday, I took an oath and a promise was made between me and my government — a promise which on their end would not be kept,” Martin recalled. “The service would try to erase my sense of who I was.”

Martin vividly remembers the only words the sergeant who would be in charge of his basic training said to him when he arrived: “Welcome to the great adventure.” He recalled that his day began with a wake-up call at 4 a.m. and then marching formations and drills, which reminded him of football practice in school. “I was changed from single man to group man, from civilian to fighting man,” he said. After basic he was sent to Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) — where he became an expert in the use of firearms, particularly the M-16 rifle and .38 calibre pistol — and then was sent to “jump school” at Fort Benning, Georgia to learn to be a paratrooper.

Even through all that’s happened to him since — 30 years’ dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mental illness, homelessness and a string of broken relationships — Martin still carries a sense of pride from making it through the paratrooper course. “The experience of that guy putting wings on my chest was the most important experience of my life, along with getting married and having children,” he recalled. “I began to know why I was really there: to learn killing, self-defense and war. The next phase of my training was the mission.”

Martin was surprised at where the army sent him: El Salvador. So were many of the members of his audience, including veterans of the Central American solidarity movements of the 1980’s who remembered staging protests and letter-writing campaigns in opposition to the Reagan administration’s support of Right-wing parties in El Salvador and Nicaragua but hadn’t realized U.S. forces had been involved in combat in El Salvador as early as 1973. (Martin served in El Salvador from April 1974 to September 1975.) “In El Salvador,” Martin said, “I learned that making mistakes would mean the difference between life and death.”

According to Martin, his departure for El Salvador was as big a surprise to him as his enlistment had been, “They ordered us into formation on a plane and didn’t tell us anything,” he recalled. “In the plane, they said, ‘You’re going south.’” Martin thought that meant Fort Hood, Texas, where his unit — Assault Team 2 of Charlie Company, 801st Airborne Division (“I never saw Assault Team 1,” he said) — had previously played and won war games against Marines. Instead the plane flew him and the rest of his team to El Salvador, where on landing they were greeted by a master sergeant who announced, “Welcome to El Salvador. The untrained and careless do not last long here.”

“Our job was to search and retrieve U.S. property and hunt for people and stuff that had been dropped out of planes,” Martin said. “Usually, there were ambushes and people who had our stuff didn’t want to give it back.” Martin said he also worked with the Pathfinders, the ground troops of the U.S. Air Force (didn’t know the Air Force had ground troops? Martin didn’t either until he started serving with them) who were supposed to be training the Salvadoran army. El Salvador’s military situation was very different in the mid-1970’s from what it was in the 1980’s, when the civil war between the Salvadoran military, Right-wing paramilitary “death squads” and Left-wing guerrillas broke out, Martin explained: “When we were there, they were fighting the U.S.”

According to Martin, when he served in El Salvador “the Right-wing paramilitary groups did some very serious damage, but we did most of the killing.” Midway through his tour, he explained, “we stopped working with the Salvadoran military and started going out on our own. We were constantly under attack from Nicaragua and Guatemala. We spent a lot of time fighting both with and against the Salvadoran army. War is crazy. We were swimming in chaos. I found the decisions I made there would change me and cause me a great deal of pain. All a fighter wants to do is come back alive and with all the body parts we left with.”

Martin’s point was that much of the cruelty of war — including many actions considered war crimes under international law — stem simply from that basic drive of self-preservation: to finish your tour alive and with all the body parts you had when it started. “Any opposition we came in touch with had no chance to get old,” he said with a chilling matter-of-factness that hammered home his point. “For us, there was no other way. We had had bad experiences when compassion had been detrimental to us. After one of the firefights we were stacking the dead when one of the ‘dead’ awoke and stabbed a team member.” Needless to say, the “dead” man who dared stab a U.S. servicemember quickly ended up dead for real.

“We came upon a village where the enemy had cut off all the young boys’ private parts,” Martin recalled. “They were lying there on the ground, like sausages. I can almost hear the voices crying now. It took us two days to catch them, and the things we did to them were just as bad. War breeds frustration and revenge.” He added that, unable to keep enemy prisoners in custody, members of his unit simply tossed them out of helicopters. Ostensibly this was an interrogation technique to get them to talk, but, Martin said, “Sometimes we did it before questions were even asked, or when we asked the questions and they answered correctly. Sometimes they’d clutch at the helicopter doorway and we’d have to pry off their fingers.”

Those weren’t the only atrocities — on both sides — Martin shared with his shocked listeners at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church. “One time I found our man literally boiled to death,” he said. “At another point we were asking questions of captives and I stood up and walked over to one, bent the person’s head back, pushed a stick into his nose and felt his eye pop out. I tapped the stick in with the butt of my rifle. War is a bad place. I don’t claim what I did was right, but to those waiting for me it was right. I learned that war is not like [it’s depicted on] TV, and you don’t know who you are until you can act with complete abandon. War is, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘a poor chisel with which to carve peace.’ For me, war meant losing my mind. It was a life-changing experience for me.”

Martin’s account of his life since he was mustered out of the service and arrived back in the U.S. — in Chicago, to be exact — on September 21, 1975 was a tale of accomplishments and relationships laboriously built and then undone by the lingering traumas of his combat experience. For a decade after he left the service he lived in Chicago doing stunt work for movies, building and running a security business and later creating a thriving business supporting musicians. Then he was traumatized all over again — this time by the AIDS epidemic, which killed off a lot of his friends and clients.

“Then the nightmares — they call them ‘flashbacks’ — started,” Martin recalled. “It took me 10 years to get sick. I destroyed my marriage to a woman I’d started going out with in the fifth grade. I spent all my time burning every bridge I could so I could die in peace. My ex-wife and two ex-girlfriends would go into drug houses and jails to get me out. It took me 10 years to get sick and another six years to get to the Veterans’ Administration [VA], and the last straw was when I found myself hiding in the bushes in the park, naked, with a knife, ready to jump on people and stab them the way I had done in the service.”

Though he was rejected for treatment the first time he sought it at the VA, Martin ultimately got help and stabilized somewhat — but he still can’t keep a home or a normal job. “My condition is episodic,” he said. “Sometimes I stand in front of the trolley, thinking about throwing myself under it. … I can’t go back. I can’t get my ex-wife and my children back, but that’s my story and the story of 3,000 homeless veterans. I drank and turned to drugs — cocaine, acid, anything I could get my hands on — and it was another struggle to get off of that. The suffering gets very confused. My life is very confused.”

What’s kept him going, Martin said, and led him to become an activist working on helping homeless veterans, is the lesson he learned in the service: not to leave any comrades behind. “Many veterans feel they deserve to be out in the streets, suffering” he explained. “That may be me next week — drinking, shooting up, smoking crack. … [But] I’m here because people loved me and forgave me. I have a long way to go.” His journey has taken him to a homeless service group called the CARE Campaign, a prison ministry that does outreach to the Donovan state prison and Bailey county jail in San Diego County, a place on the Re-Entry Round Table sponsored by the San Diego County sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices to help released prisoners make a successful transition to law-abiding life outside, and perhaps his most important activist credential: Veterans for Peace.

“I see a lot of my brothers and sisters from Veterans for Peace here,” Martin said. “I’ve been fortunate to work with Veterans for Peace and especially with homeless populations. In San Diego it’s estimated that we have between 7,800 to 10,000 homeless people. There are an estimated 680,000 homeless veterans in the U.S., of whom 3,000 are here. Veterans for Peace have begun to take on this problem and also to work to stop the deportations of non-citizens who have served this country in its military. We cannot expect people to serve this country for three or four years and then, once they make a mistake, get rid of them and their families. To me it’s a promise made and not kept.”

After holding his audience shocked and spellbound for an hour and a half, Martin croaked out a final goodbye and said, “People are too tired to have questions.” Most everybody in the room realized what that meant: that Martin himself was too tired to take questions.