PENDLETON, Ore. — Skip Nichols walked to the podium, breathed deeply and shared one of his most agonizing life experiences.
Nichols, a Vietnam veteran and retired managing editor of the East Oregonian, had cobbled together the words during a Red Badge Project writing workshop and later agreed to share them with an audience at the Gesa Power House Theatre in Walla Walla.
On Friday night, he joined five other workshop participants, two Red Badge instructors and actor Tom Skerritt, who served in the Air Force. The Emmy-winning actor co-founded the Red Badge Project as a way to help veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder find their voice and reboot their sense of purpose.
At the podium, Nichols morphed back into the 19-year-old Marine he once had been, standing guard with two other soldiers near the perimeter of Camp Carroll, just south of the demilitarized zone. They noticed a boy on a water buffalo heading toward the concertina wire encircling the camp. The sight put the soldiers on edge. The boy, who appeared to be about 12, carried a bamboo cane to prod the water buffalo and had arms and legs that were “little more than sticks.” A brown cloth bag hung from his neck.
“Did it contain rice balls, a satchel charge or hand grenades?” Nichols remembered wondering. “Were we looking into the eyes of the enemy or an innocent boy?”
Nichols, a radio operator and interpreter, radioed his captain for instructions. Hold fire until the water buffalo reaches the wire, the officer said, then shoot. Boy and beast continued forward. Nichols yelled at him in Vietnamese to turn back, but the pair kept going until reaching the perimeter fence.
“Time seemed to stand still,” Nichols read aloud to the audience. “And then, as one, all three of us fired. The boy’s body shuddered. His right arm flew up as if waving good-bye to us.”
The water buffalo charged forward, Nichols said, dragging the boy’s limp body through the concertina wire. The men shot the animal and “puffs of red mist briefly filled the air.” The water buffalo staggered and fell atop the boy.
“Then there was silence. I remember thinking it was the silence of death,” Nichols read. “My hands were shaking.”
Nichols’ next sentence ushered the audience into his own personal gut-wrenching reality by revealing one more incomprehensible truth.
“We later learned the boy had been mentally handicapped since birth,” Nichols said. “He had simply wanted chocolate like the kind we gave out while we were on patrol.”
Nichols left the stage to applause. Many of those clapping looked emotional at this glimpse of wartime experience.
Like many returning warriors, Nichols deals with PTSD. He’s spent time in counseling and even returned to Vietnam as a way to cope. Many, however, never find their way past the flashbacks, nightmares and depression. Many — some reports say as many as 22 veterans per day — commit suicide.
Actor Tom Skerritt, known for leading roles in “Top Gun,” ”A River Runs Through It,” ”Alien” and other films, co-founded the Red Badge Project after having dinner with some Colorado veterans affected by PTSD.
“They were physically and emotionally wrecked,” Skerritt said. “They looked around furtively. They couldn’t engage. That stayed with me.”
The result was the Red Badge Project, a way to tap into imaginations and feelings and slay the beast within through writing.
“You can’t intellectualize this stuff,” Skerritt told the Gesa Power House audience. “You can’t treat it with drugs. You just have to feel.”
He and co-founder Evan Bailey avoided heavy memories at first during the workshops.
“We started with laughter,” Skerritt said. “We passed out joke books to a bunch of angry soldiers.”
The men took turns telling jokes. Later, they progressed to “Yo Mama” insults like “Yo Mama is so old, she was a waitress at the Last Supper.”
“As they laughed, they got better,” Skerritt said.
The men and women wrote about positive parts of their lives and then dared to examine painful memories and write about them, too.
One of the presenters, Bob Park, a retired teacher from Helix, confronted death during the writing workshop. He’d seen plenty of it after being drafted in 1965 at age 21 and serving in Vietnam. He earned a Bronze Star for surviving a helicopter crash and pulling others to safety before the helicopter caught fire. He survived fierce firefights that others did not.
Park, however, wrote not of wartime, but of the deaths that had rocked his boyhood — an aunt who battled cancer, his beloved dog, and his brother who died after being hit by a car while riding his new bike.
“There is no beauty in dying, only in the memories that are left,” Park read to the audience.
Another veteran, Bryce Ely, read an essay in which he recalled dropping to his knees and crawling through a tunnel. Carrying only a .45-caliber pistol, his knife and his flashlight, he inched ahead.
“The air grows stale and heavy with the smell of musty dirt, the smell I knew as a kid hiding in the crawl space under my house during childhood games of hide-and-seek,” he read.
The tunnel narrowed. Sweat stung his eyes. Imaginary spiders crawled on his skin. He fought back panic as he got temporarily wedged before corkscrewing his body from the tunnel’s grip. Finally he saw light and the end of the tunnel. He reached the opening and peeked out into a void, a cliff that went straight down.
“Holy s—,” he said as the closing line.
Another veteran, Lydia Hales, wrote of living with depression and PTSD after suffering a traumatic brain injury. She wrote of her battle to simply do the things others consider normal.
“I want to sleep without dreams, without being haunted by specters of the past,” Hales read.
Joseph Wankelman, a young Army veteran from Colorado who was photographing the event for Red Badge, listened in the back of the theater with a somber expression. Red Badge, he said in a low voice, had saved his life.
“Without it, I’d be strung out on drugs or alcohol,” Wankelman said. “Telling your stories can save you from the well of anger inside you, but only if you are willing to share. You have to invest your heart.”
Red Badge works in concert with military psychiatric programs at Veterans Administration Centers such as the Jonathan Wainwright VA Medical Center in Walla Walla. Veterans wishing to participate should contact their local VA center.
Information from: East Oregonian, http://www.eastoregonian.com