Fond du Lac Reporter, Wisconsin

Posted February 21, 2006 'Voices in Wartime'

Sharon Roznik 

The Reporter 
Voices in wartime are too often silent — the bearer of mute grief passed down from generation to generation.

Bill Zierdt, a Vietnam veteran and professor at Marian College, knows now he passed down his broken coping skills to his daughter. "I don't have a friend because I push people away. I don't have the desire or the skills," he said Saturday morning in a room at the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac filled with about 30 people who came to hear and share personal stories of war.

His daughter, Katrina Bruns of Illinois, cried her heart out. At age 10, while her father was going through his own horror serving in Vietnam, she was caring for her siblings, abandoned each night by an alcoholic mother. "I know you don't even know about this," she said, turning to her father.

The story panel was part of a daylong series of events that focused on the impact of war and the community's response to a Friday night showing of the full-length feature documentary, "Voices in Wartime." Andy Himes, the film's executive producer, flew in from Seattle, Wash., to participate in the local project.

"It takes great courage for a person to expose themselves to the real consequences of war," said facilitator Martin Dronsfield, director of intentional communication for Opening of the Heart. "It's natural to protect ourselves and shy away, but it leaves veterans returning home feeling excluded," he said. "It takes a willingness to feel discomfort and pain." The stories were gut-wrenching and poignant.

As Kristan Gochenauer, a Fond du Lac mother of three, listened to the father and daughter tell their story, she reflected on her own life and how different her experience is. Her husband, Vince Gochenauer, is serving his second tour in Iraq, stationed at Camp Patriot in Kuwait since last October.

After viewing "Voices in Wartime," she said she went home and e-mailed her husband. "I wanted to know if he was scared and if there were things he felt he couldn't share with me," she said. He e-mailed her back a definite "no," but she isn't so convinced.

Marcus Oksa, a veteran of three wars, broke down when he recalled his first encounter in a bar after serving his country during the Persian Gulf War. "I wasn't expecting anything from anyone, but a Vietnam veteran came up to me and criticized me because my war wasn't long enough," he said. Boxes of tissue circled the room several times as he told his story and the way a soldier "walks out the door, leaving his (or her) heart at home." "There is no length of war that makes it better or worse," he said. "The first day there is always the worst because you don't know how long you are going to be there."

Zierdt said he has been “haunted by the demos of war” all of his life because of his Vietnam experience, something he never discussed with his family. He has relived countless times a decision he made in April of 1969, when he sent his troops forward and 17 soldiers died. He was the one who wrote letters home to the next of kin of the dead, including to a three-year-old chaild. “I’m convinced anyone who has experienced combat is haunted the rest of their lives,” he cried.

Zierdt listed some common reactions veterans have in an attempt to kill the pain of coming home from war—homelessness, domestic violence, substance abuse.When Zierdt’s wife told him she didn’t care if he came back from his second tour in Vietnam, he recalls not caring either. “I was mother to 338 soldiers and my real family—my troops—were going with me,” he said.

Gochenauer said she knows that something deep down inside her husband drives him, something she can’t understand but can support. She knows it doesn’t mean he wants to leave his family. “People ask me how I am doing. I tell them what they want to hear—that I’m fine. I have days I break down when I’m alone. I don’t ever let my children see it,” she said.

Oksa turned to her quietly and said, “You can call my wife any time.”

The majority of soldiers said they believe in their heart of hearts that they are doing what they do, not to kill anyone, but to save, he explained. “When you are sent home, as a soldier, you believe you should still be there,” Oksa said. “Back here is where the real problems are.”

Himes said he had learned from his daughter and her boyfriend, a naval pilot returning from Iraq. His daughter had told her partner that she did not want to hear anything about his experiences in the war because she was worried about him and because she was against the war. Then she realized she needed to hear his stories and understand what he had gone through.

“I believe war is the most difficult and painful subject in the world and has the most impact on generations,” Himes said. “For that reason, it’s important we understand it together, not in conflict.”

Dronsfield echoed a statement he came across in a self-help guide published by the Veterans and Families Support Network that, for him, sums up veterans’ homecomings. “It reads: ‘Let’s get it right this time. If we get it right, we might not have to repeat the suffering over and over again,’” he said.

The Fond du Lac event was sponsored by the Fond du Lac school district, the University of Wisconsin/Fond du Lac school of education, and the organization Voices Education Project.

Food for Thought, 3 a.m.

They moved in unison
like dancers in a ballet, 
the spider, twenty inches from my rifle,
the VC, twenty feet farther out, in line,
each slowly sliding a leg forward.
I let the man take one more step
so as not to kill the bug.

David Connolly
57-year-old Vietnam veteran
South Boston, MA