When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again: A Moment with Bill Reflection
Sing Along with Me
From the song “When Johnny Come Marching Home Again.”
When Johnny comes marching home again,
We'll give him a hearty welcome then
The men will cheer and the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
And we'll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home.
Kind of makes you all warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it?
Of course, as you might suspect, I have a little different slant on that song.
The Ugly Reality
So young they are when we say goodbye for the first time. Pimple-faced, glowing cheeks, and the smile we have known since they were wee little bundles of energy. They are off to serve their country, and for one brief moment, our fear for their safety is overpowered by the pride we feel, for our baby boy, or girl, is grown up and about to do their duty.
They march off with squared-shoulders and determination in their stride. There is purpose….to serve their country….there is idealism….to serve with pride….and there is a sense of higher calling. They are, most certainly, naïve, but who among us can blame them, for they know not what they are marching towards.
The future is distant from our thoughts that day. The dangers scamper across our mind, stop only for a second, and then are pushed aside as hugs are exchanged and promises of a visit are made…and then Johnny goes marching off, to basic training at Fort Benning, Foot Hood, Fort Lewis, the names change but the purpose remains the same: to produce the best fighting machine this planet has ever seen.
So toss aside the toys of childhood, Johnny, heft that rucksack to your shoulders, and repeat after me:
(one) All you soldiers
(two) You better do your best
(three) Before you find yourself
(four) In the leaning rest
(one) Hit it
(two) Kick it
(three) Stab it
(four) Kill it
One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four
We like it here
We love it here
We've finally found a home
A home away from home (Hey!)"
Training Is Over
And Johnny comes marching home, two weeks with friends and family, before deployment to lands far away, oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, but thoughts of battle are still in the distance as our boy, or girl, tosses back some cold ones with childhood buddies who are now in college, learning their times tables and getting on with life. They tell stories of panty raids and keggers, and Johnny tells stories of chokeholds and grenade launchers. They discuss their plans after college, of two-car garages and a 401K, and Johnny talks of distant shores with danger lurking and threatening.
Where they sending you, Johnny, and he answers of desert lands, or jungles ripe with malaria and swift bullets, and a hush falls over the room as words are suddenly in short supply, and lumps in throats speak loudly in the silence, these childhood friends, once so close, suddenly find they have little in common with Johnny and most likely never will again.
And just beneath the surface of the jocularity is concern, gut-wrenching, rip your heart out concern, that one of this group will not be seeing old age, and in the distance a haunting voice sings Auld Lang Syne as the buddies offer up a toast for Johnny, and wish him luck, and the evening ends with promises to keep in touch, but they all know, as the last bottle is emptied, that promises can be just as empty.
Hold That Flag High, Johnny
Johnny now has a death grip on that M16 as he stands at the ready. Night sentry duties call in a foreign land, and night duty means shadows, and these are not the gentle shadows of childhood but instead, shadows that kill. The oppressive heat of the day is replaced with bone-chilling cold, and underneath the camouflage is a flak jacket, flimsy mesh designed to deflect steel-jacketed rounds, but all who wear it know it is a myth, so Johnny lights up a cigarette, inhales his fear, and peers into the darkness. Who is the enemy? It is just as likely that child over there with explosives strapped on her small body, and ain’t that the shits, when a child poses a threat and hesitation can mean life or eternal rest?
The winds blow and the dust, the goddamned dust, is everywhere, man, and the goal on this night, and any night, is to make it back to the barracks with two arms and two legs, and collapse in the bunk and offer up a prayer to any god that will answer you. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord…..there ain’t no atheists in a foxhole, and that’s the plain truth, and childhood dreams are cruel now, just taunting memories that are so painful, for out there, in the desert, the good guys don’t ride into the sunset like John Wayne, victorious and gleeful. No, not here, not now, maybe not ever.
And then it happens, gunfire in the distance, and all hell breaks loose in an orchestrated symphony of bullets and explosions, and the great director moves the players across the stage, and cries of pain echo in the night as the wind dies down and dust settles on the fallen comrades. This is war. War is discharged bowels and guts being held inside by a pressing hand. The moans of the wounded can now be heard, moans Johnny will hear until he is an old man, and visions of that firefight will visit him in his sleep until the day he finally closes his eyes for the last time.
And Johnny Comes Marching Home
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then, and pat him on the back and ask him how he’s doing, and he’ll smile, and say all the right things, but that smile will be a few watts short of what it once was, and the light will have faded from Johnny’s eyes and he lifts up his beer and tries to rejoin “normal life,” whatever the hell that means.
And the parades end, and Johnny is left with his nightmares as he enters a society so far removed from his last two years of mangled limbs and shattered dreams, and the cheers of joy die down, and the promises of a government are shuffled by the clerks, and delays occur and needed therapy and medical treatment is delayed, and Johnny is suddenly a fish flopping on shore, desperately trying to find air for his lungs. Jobs are few for a man with his training. Opportunities are practically nonexistent, and those he protected can no longer find the time to extend a helping hand to their protector.
And Johnny’s mom and dad, well, they know the light is gone. Their baby boy has the thousand-yard stare, and all he sees are shadows, and yes, shadows kill, even in peacetime, even along the idyllic streets of Main Street, America, and that baby boy may be standing in front of them, but the cold, hard truth is he never came home from foreign lands and Johnny may never come marching home, again.
No soldier left behind is, sadly, a myth.
A note from the author: I have the utmost respect for our military. I think the way they have been treated upon their return Stateside is shameful and must be rectified immediately. We count on them to protect us and yet allow them to be ignored when they come home. A veteran should never be homeless. A veteran should never experience delays in getting treatment. A veteran should never be unemployed.
2015 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)