Manhattan Project #21 Berman and the vet

Chapter Nine (in which Berman is offered a diary kept by a veteran who came home from war and killed his family)

As I settled in here in Maine, I quickly realized the people and the professional journalists were a lot like the folks I’d worked with elsewhere. Basically good people, with bills to pay, families to take care of, and jobs to do. And they were mostly every bit as patriotic as the Midwestern communities I’d been around for so long.

It turns out that Maine has always been pretty heavily involved with the military side of the country. Mainers signed up to fight in the Revolutionary War—although in those days Maine was still part of Massachusetts. And Maine was majorly involved in the Civil War. Based on population, this state sent proportionately far more troops to fight on the Union side than any other state. A Mainer, General Joshua Chamberlain, was an important commander at the Battle of Gettysburg. And it continued after that.

At one time there were military installations in Limestone, Bangor and Brunswick. That dropped off a bit when the military started downsizing. Limestone is closed and so is the Brunswick Naval Air Station. But things are still booming at the National Guard post in Bangor. It’s a departure point for lots of troops as they deploy to yet another hot spot around the world. And the local citizens have gained some celebrity by organizing greeters to welcome the soldiers and shower them with hospitality as they pass through the city. A guy even made a documentary about them.

Even though the big picture is a little smaller these days as far as military presence is concerned, it was pretty clear to me as soon as I got here that Mainers are still very willing to fight for the country, and like those Midwesterners who cheered along the parade route during Desert Storm, most people’s hearts are still committed to our troops, no matter where they come from. So I needed to tread carefully here just like I did out west.

Covering the troop deployments was one of the first assignments Fred gave me when I got here. He knew I’d done a lot of it at our old station, and he thought it would be a good way to let the audience know I was an upstanding addition to Maine journalism. But he also had me do stories on the damaged soldiers who came home, like those doughboys I’d seen in that book back in elementary school, with limbs missing, hearing gone, eyes blown out, and, in lots of cases, worse damage inside their heads from simply carrying out their duty to kill whoever they were ordered to kill. You may have read or heard all the stories about how modern soldiers are developing Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in record numbers. And the way they act out their mental illness creates lots of stories for journalists.

I remember one soldier who came home sick but hid it pretty well until he finally flipped out and shot his wife and three kids before he killed himself. Sadly enough, the violence and the suicides happen so often these days that we have to debate how much coverage to give them. But this particular story was different, because the guy had kept a journal every day, starting when he joined up and faithfully recording his thoughts and experiences right up to the tragic, violent end.

It’s possible other soldiers keep journals, but we usually don’t find out about them. In this case, the guy’s parents called me at the station—they’d seen me doing so many stories about soldiers they figured that was my beat—and said they wanted to do something to redeem their son’s memory and let people see what the whole war thing had done to him. I wasn’t sure whether Fred would want to spend any more time on it. We’d done all the hard stories about what happened and shown pictures of the guy’s wife and his three beautiful kids. And we’d included the regular statement from his commander about what a tragedy it was and how his sympathies were with their families and the community.

So what his parents were asking for sounded like old news; we’d already done this one. I hated to disappoint them knowing the incredible pain they were in, but I hesitated when they asked me directly if I’d do a story on their son. It was during my brief silence that his mother offered up the diary.

She said it in a very small, broken voice. “My son kept a diary, Mr. Berman. My son was a very thoughtful person, a good person, who loved everybody and his country. I’d like people to know that. If you had time to read his diary, I think you’d want to share some of my son’s thoughts with your audience. I am willing to let you have it for as long as you like, if you’ll consider doing a story about my son.”

As I said, we didn’t usually have access to things like that. I reacted to the offer on a professional and a personal level. In news terms, it might provide some really thought provoking information for people about how soldiers—patriots—think. But personally, I thought it might be a window into the big questions I’d always struggled with. Maybe this guy would tell us why he was willing to carry out what is, no matter how you dress it up with computer screens and video games, the bottom line purpose of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines—to kill, in large enough numbers to crush an enemy or gain control over a plot of land.

I asked the parents if I could check with my news director and call them back. They said that would be fine, but they really wanted someone to do this story and if I didn’t get back to them pretty soon, they would offer the diary to one of the other stations. I assured them I would call back soon and headed to Fred’s office. I thought when he heard about the journal he’d go for it immediately, instead he seemed a little suspicious of the idea.

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