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Commencement

“The Instrument of Your Fate”

5.22.19

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Joe Brett—veteran and Harvard Kennedy School alumnus—addresses Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War. He writes, “I gave them a pin of my old unit, 24th Corps, which happens to be a blue heart on a white shield…or in this case a symbol for peace. We all wept when I gave this out with the words that it was up to us to all work for peace, now that we have met each other as brothers at this memorial…One former Soviet colonel hugged me and, with tears in his eyes, said that all soldiers should be veterans.”

Photograph courtesy of Joe Brett


At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Joe Brett—veteran and Harvard Kennedy School alumnus—addresses Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War. He writes, “I gave them a pin of my old unit, 24th Corps, which happens to be a blue heart on a white shield…or in this case a symbol for peace. We all wept when I gave this out with the words that it was up to us to all work for peace, now that we have met each other as brothers at this memorial…One former Soviet colonel hugged me and, with tears in his eyes, said that all soldiers should be veterans.”

Photograph courtesy of Joe Brett

The life lesson that grasped my soul was born amid the throes of war: If one does not manage the instrument of his fate, it will manage him. 

Wars have always produced wounds and soldiers have always suffered depression, and even committed suicide, as a result. These deep, often fatal, wounds are not always physical. Mental and emotional trauma—referred to as moral wounds—have emerged as a separate category of serious wartime injury. More than 7,000 veteran suicides a year speak to this truth, yet we have not fully embraced the reality.

I am surprised to find myself a typical case study for veterans with moral wounds, not because I am unique but because I am no different than any other veteran who had to face a moment of complete moral and spiritual collapse. My future was set in motion in Vietnam on July 30, 1970.

I was an aerial artillery observer/forward air controller—everyday hunters who killed our enemy by directing artillery, bombs, and napalm on them. Our job was to also count the kills, as that was Defense Secretary Robert McNamara‘s matrix for winning the war, and the basis of promotions for career officers.Pulitzer Prize-winning author and war correspondent David Wood tells us that if a soldier kills another soldier in combat, he or she has a 40 percent higher risk of suffering a moral wound. (If a civilian is killed, the percentage is even higher.)

That July, I was a few weeks from heading home. I felt my assigned pilot was too much of a daredevil for my “old guy,” cautionary status, so I casually switched flights with a nice, newer lieutenant, Forrest Hollifield. The benefit to Forrest was that I took the dawn patrol. He got to sleep later, and I got the pilot I preferred. The completely unexpected happened when his pilot killed them both doing a stunt on takeoff. When my pilot and I landed, I saw the body bags being zipped up. My only thought was that it should have been me.

 

That event shaped the rest of my life. I was ready to be killed or wounded, but totally unprepared for this type of blow to my soul. Once home I was dogged by two nightmares. One was being alive but unable to communicate as I was being zipped into a body bag. Another dream was waking up to the enemy soldiers I had missed in my killing efforts. My moral wound was starting to show itself.

Alexandre Dumas describes this injury so accurately in The Count of Monte Cristo: “Moral wounds have this peculiarity; they may be hidden but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.” From Dumas one gets the truth that moral wounds are archetypal and ancient. 

The instrument of my fate managed me for 18 years, at first driving me to the pleasures of drinking, bonding with brothers in Vietnam, and partying when I got home. From the outside I showed success as a teacher who rose to appointed positions in New York State Government but on the inside I was living the bravado of my flying days that had enabled me to fight and survive my tour of combat, still raging in my dreams. I had convinced myself that I was “normal” and so was able to rationalize my slow roll into addiction. This led to addiction, despair and unbearable feelings of worthlessness when I hit bottom. Inside I felt that I was less of a man for not being able to control my drinking and for lying to myself in the process. 

To love and be loved is a goal in life. I had lost the ability to love myself and therefore was incapable of accepting love from another.  That is the core of a moral wound. 

 

With the support of dear friends I began to fight back in 1987. Undertaking the journey of sobriety, I adopted a more spiritual life. Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings led me to think differently about myself. I also began reading and internalizing the teachings of Joseph Campbell, particularly those in The Power of Myth and the Hero’s Journey.  

I am certainly no hero but have learned that the veteran’s story is always archetypal in that we have to face and defeat the challenges put before us, whether that means killing our enemies or facing a moral injury when we get home. Myths often depict these challenges as fearsome dragons. Enlightenment is the most powerful weapon for slaying such dragons.

I am eternally grateful that my quest for wisdom led me to the Kennedy School. The open-minded atmosphere gave me permission to explore the new ideas and insights I was thirsting for, and the tools to pursue answers. I enrolled in the M.P.A. program with a focus on international development. Reading Joseph Campbell inspired a passion for being a citizen of the world.  I felt that an education and degree from Harvard along with experience in economic development would give me a life of international travel and adventure. Maybe as an escape, or maybe to find answers that I couldn’t see in familiar surroundings. Or just for the thrill of it.

I was drawn to the brilliant minds of both the faculty and my fellow students, and thrilled to engage with them. I was fortunate to exchange ideas about Vietnam and national security issues with Kurt Campbell, Marvin Kalb, Neil Sheehan, Richard Neustadt, and Richard Haas. 

Early on, I met fellow student-veteran and U.S. Marine war hero, Tom Vallely, who contributed so much to the Ken Burns series on Vietnam. He recommended an international economics course taught by Professor Glenn Jenkins, who hired me as a project assistant for his Harvard Institute for International Development project in Jakarta, enabling me to pursue my quest for overseas experience. This led to my 1992 appointment as project manager for public administration programs in the former Soviet Union, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. While traveling in Ukraine, I met with Soviet veterans of their lost war in Afghanistan. Their songs, demeanor, and humor were just like those of American veterans lamenting theirlost war in Vietnam, reinforcing the archetypal soldiers’ journey. 

 

My journey eventually led to Arizona in 1994 and meeting my future wife, Cori, a freelance golf and travel writer, in 2002. One round of golf, with me throwing clubs across the fairway and cursing at missed shots forced her to think that I had an “overlay” of some sort.  She suggested a checkup with a counselor, to see if it could be related to Vietnam.

 I insisted there was no way this could be possible: I had quit drinking years ago and had done nothing in Vietnam to warrant any type of overlay; I did not serve in the infantry, where much braver men had it much worse than I did. She persisted and had an ally in my AA sponsor and friend, an infantry veteran of the Korean War.  

I walked into a vet center in Prescott, Arizona, and met counselor Al Hoster, a former “Dustoff” (medevac) pilot in Vietnam.  I told him about Cori and that there was nothing wrong with me, but if he could not help me break 80 I would kill him. He chuckled and then took me through a series of questions that eventually led right to July 29, 1970, and the instrument of my fate, which I had buried deep and never completely discussed with to anyone. When I asked what he thought, he replied, “You’re a classic.” Ouch.

Al conducted a month of counseling. On the final day, he put me in a deep relaxed state in which I had a conversation with Forrest Hollifield and asked him to forgive me and let me get on with my life. Forrest said yes, I was forgiven. I stood there, crying and hugging Al, and left his office feeling completely drained. I slept for 14 hours. 

As corny as it may sound, the next day I felt as if I had been born again. On Christmas Eve 2004 I was able to ask Cori to marry me. We married on October 1, 2005, with friends and family celebrating our new lives together. We call Al Hoster each anniversary to say thank you.

 

In 2014, with Cori’s love and understanding, and support from Al , I visited Forrest Hollifield’s old Sigma Chi fraternity house at Wake Forest University. His parents had bequeathed a scholarship, in the name of their only child, for fraternity brothers who needed a little help. I brought a rubbing of his name from the Vietnam Memorial and a shadow box displaying duplicates of his medals and insignia, which I had had made for the occasion, and spoke of how Forrest was loved and respected by his other brothers in Vietnam. We were all brothers as we touched the rubbing of his name. I also spoke of my role in his death and wept as I finished. I felt such relief that my mission had been completed. I had finally embraced the instrument of my fate and have Forrest to thank for the adventure of reaching this moment in my life.  

When I left, I wondered why it had taken me so long. Suddenly I flashed back to our little officers’ club in Vietnam and heard Forrest and our mates giving me a hard time: “Brett, you may just be a slow learner. Go out and tell our story, so others will embrace their fates much sooner upon their return from their wars, and get on with their lives much sooner than you, old man.”  That is the printable version. 

I continue to participate in helping others; that is how we morally wounded heal. I lecture on the topic of moral injuries in hopes of raising new awareness of an old wound, and just maybe reaching those contemplating suicide—to let them know they are not alone and that their journey is far from over. The task before us, as I see it, is to create a program that draws on experiences like mine, so that the morally injured today needn’t wait so many years for recovery. Forrest Hollifield and I are flying this mission together to help and heal others. Only veterans who know the randomness of death in combat can truly appreciate the old adage that life is a gift. That is why it is called the present. 

 

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