War doesn’t just happen in the here and now. The effects ripple through time, causing untold havoc. Or if we’re lucky, some people tell their stories hopefully as some sort of catharsis. I’ve read some memoirs already from veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These stories seemed almost too fresh, as if they needed to age, look back, and reconsider it all over again. We don’t know what the impact will be on today’s veterans in 20 or 30 years. Comparisons have been made to Vietnam and if these wars are at all alike, we’re in for a lot of trouble. Last week, I read Danielle Trussoni’s memoir Falling Throught the Earth and wondered if I would be reading a similar story in 30 years. In her book she weaves together three stories: first, her early years as part of a dysfunctional family and then living with her hard-drinking father; second, her father’s experiences in Vietnam; and finally, her solo trip to Vietnam at age 24 to to try and understand her father’s experience.
Trussoni’s father arrived in Vietnam in 1968, during the Tet offensive. He immediately volunteered for a suicide mission that brings him hazardous duty pay—he becomes a tunnel rat. Returning from the war, forever changed, the trauma he endured takes its toll on him and his family. As the eldest of three kids, Danielle feels an special affinity with her father. She even creates a Dad code: “I told them that Dad’s annoyance meant he loved us more than words could express; his drinking meant he suffered more acutely than other people; his coldness was cover for intense feeling. I apologized for Dad and forgave him in advance. I interpreted Dad and spoke for Dad. I convinced myself that I was capable of this. And sometimes I was.” When her parents divorce, she goes to live with her father, while her two younger siblings go with her mother. Now she gives him an honest accounting. He comes across as a gruff, hard-nosed man, itching to fight, but occasionally you get a glimpse of the wounded man behind the tough exterior. He clearly was not ready to take care of a young daughter. She found herself spending lots of time on a bar stool at Roscoe’s, the local watering hole, listening to her father tell stories about Vietnam while getting drunk. A procession of women, many from the bar, move through the house, most for just one night. As a teenager, she has a revelation. “The similarities between Dad and me were striking. Dad’s personality had grown into me the way a strip of barbed wire grows into the bark of a tree…For the first time I realized I needed to untangle myself from him.” Soon, she moves back in with her mother.
By visiting Vietnam at 24, Danielle hopes to exorcise some of the demons left from her childhood, and perhaps some of her father’s as well. It’s as if she believes she can take on her father’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder so her father doesn’t have to. It took 30 years for the official diagnosis and only happened when her father needed to qualify for medical benefits. Reading this article in today’s NYT about the rage and grief the soldiers experience, I wondered again, will it take 30 years for some of these soldiers PSTD to be diagnosed and treated? Or have learned any lessons from Vietnam. Danielle and her family suffered their own version of Post Traumatic Stress. Again, the effects of war rippling outward. Perhaps with this spare, intense memoir, she can finally leave behind some of her father’s memories.