Two weeks ago, when The Bee invited Vietnam War veterans to share their experiences in Southeast Asia, we knew we’d get some compelling responses and moving stories.
We have. None, though, may be more moving and compelling than this one:
Four years ago, Army vet Ronn Cossey of Turlock was invited to ride in the parade and speak at the annual Veterans Car Show at Pismo Beach. The event raises money to aid veterans.
There he met Zeb Lane of Ohio, who had served in the Marines’ Lima Company in Iraq. Lane’s unit lost 23 men — 14 in a single explosion — in 2005. Lane was among the 40 survivors wounded in the fighting around Haditha. He had come to Pismo Beach to auction artwork to benefit the Lima Company Memorial to be built in Columbus.
These men, who fought in different wars in different decades, spent hours talking that weekend. They compared battle notes and what has happened to them since leaving the military. They became friends. They formed a bond.
In Lane, the 63-year-old Cossey saw a younger version of himself — a veteran who experienced the horrors of war and will deal with them for the rest of his life. In Cossey, the 30-year-old Lane found someone who understands combat, fought the internal war that followed, and who can help him navigate the emotional no-man’s land of post-traumatic stress disorder.
War does horrible things to good people, and many simply cannot turn in their demons when they muster out and return to civilian life.
“One night, I had bad flashbacks of PTSD,” Lane said. “I called Ronn. We talked for hours and hours.”
Cossey wanted to help Lane. Lane wants to help those who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. So they began writing letters back and forth. Cossey would tell Lane a story about Vietnam, his time in a tank battalion and life in Southeast Asia. War stories.
Lane would write back, telling Cossey about dealing with insurgents, improvised explosive devices and life in the Persian Gulf. War stories. This went on for months, letter after letter that became chapter after chapter.
Similar wars and stories
They discovered their wars were very similar. Vietnam became the war Americans said they never wanted to repeat. Iraq became the war, these veterans concluded, that repeated it.
In both wars, distinguishing between ally and enemy posed problems. And while Cossey described the perils of jungle warfare and never knowing where the snipers hid; Lane matched it with depictions of going house to house in Iraqi towns and cities, building to building, searching out and snuffing out insurgents.
Both men lost more friends and comrades than they could bear. War, they concluded, is universally awful.
They’ve compiled their letters into a book they’ve titled “NamRaq.” Like the group of veterans in Stanislaus County writing a book about their Vietnam experiences, Cossey and Lane find writing therapeutic and traumatic. Therapeutic because it helps them sort out their issues. Traumatic because they have to relive those life-altering moments to do so.
They hold back nothing. They tell of moments that affected them deeply and still do. There’s no political correctness, no caving to revisionist histories.
They were there. They know what it was like.
Cossey is sick and tired of hearing that the United States lost the Vietnam War. President John F. Kennedy’s edict, he said, was to stop the spread of communism in the Pacific Rim.
“We did that,” Cossey said. “The only place that is communist now that wasn’t when we got there is South Vietnam.”