The cemetery outside of Preston, population 5200, overlooks a portion of the Cache Valley in the southeast corner of Idaho. On the day we visited, the nearby peaks were shrouded in cold, grey clouds.
There, at our feet, was a flat, standard military gravestone commemorating the remains of Robert Howard Macdonald, a World War II vet, and the father of my wife, Barbara. He was the first in his family to attend college, until the war came and he left to serve. After the war he moved west to Arizona, where he spent his adult life. He had never been to Preston before coming to visit us, his newly-married daughter and son-in-law in 1976. While in our home he suddenly became gravely ill, and died. Having limited financial means, he was buried there in Preston at the expense of the Veterans Administration, for which we were profoundly grateful.
It’s a source of gentle humor to us that this man, who lived for several decades in the searing heat of southern Arizona now rests in a town that averages 60 inches of snow each year.
I didn’t know him long, or very well. He tended towards silence, but without effort he projected a sense of strong competence. He had a fine science mind, and the instincts of a true outdoorsman. If you were stuck in the mountains with nothing but the shirt on your back, he was the guy who’d get you out in one piece.
As a young girl, my wife remembers asking him what he did during the war. No matter how many times she asked, she got the same answer: “Oh, mostly I just sat around and played poker.”
It was not until after his death that she was able to obtain his military records, which told a different story. Bob’s scientific mind was put to use developing chemical weapons. In those days that meant things like nerve gas and other agents that rendered a certain and painful death. It was secret work, and upon his return he never spoke about it to anyone. Certainly not to his tender young daughter.
Today we talk openly about the psychological trauma that can stow away like an invisible parasite in a soldiers’ mind upon returning home. We know all about PTSD. We’ve read about the suicide rates of veterans. We understand that not all who die in war do so on the battlefield.
But back then, returning WWII soldiers were basically told to just get on with it. And many, perhaps most, did.
But Bob was one of the silent vets who, upon returning home, simply traded an old enemy for a new one. A scientist with the instincts of a mountain man, he nevertheless struggled as a single parent through decades of agriculture-based jobs that never allowed him to reach anything close to his full potential, while chased without relief by demons he could never exorcise.
Meanwhile, he was told, as they all were back then, that no one wants to hear about the traumas of your war. You did your job, and a grateful nation is willing to pay for your schooling when you return, and even help you finance a starter home, but as for the night sweats and the panic attacks and the sounds of the dying that never die—well, real men don’t talk about that stuff. Real men are tough. Tough, and silent.
In the absence of the kinds of treatment we now take for granted, Bob Macdonald was one of the many vets who could only turn off the past by forcing his mind’s eye to close, by whatever means necessary. And so he died in our home, a few years short of 60, but already an old man, a wounded warrior who could never find his footing in a world that had no use or solution for his pain.
We, all of us, owe all the Bobs out there more than we realize. At least today we’re more likely to recognize and understand their scars—seen and unseen. But it wasn’t that long ago that society turned largely deaf ears to silent cries for help.
Oh well. At least back then the VA paid for my father-in-law’s gravestone. That was something.
Chris Huston is an author and award-winning columnist living in the Magic Valley. Connect with Chris on Facebook and Instagram at Chris Huston-Finding My Way and at chrishustonauthor.com.
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