Tom Barber begins his powerful new book with a telling epigraph:
“Stories help satisfy our hunger for understanding by allowing us to see ourselves in the lives of others. They show us that this hunger is universal. Stories show us that we are not alone.”
The story that Tom tells centers around Eric, a Purple-Heart, Bronze-Star veteran returned from an unnamed desert war to the streets of Boston. Even after years back home, Eric still feels himself “a stranger in my own country … Scared. Desperate. Hopeless. And losing ground fast.”
But in this story, Eric is not alone. Enter Mitchell, a grizzled, empathetic Vietnam vet with a metal hook for a left hand. Mitchell has fought off post-combat demons of his own and now keeps a simple storefront hangout, a “safe place where veterans – any war, any age, men and women – can hang out, talk, and support each other.”
Eric’s path back to sobriety and serenity, to “true healing,” is a tortuous one, with many setbacks and many dashed hopes along the way. And Tom’s blunt, almost impressionistic prose is unrelenting in channeling directly into the reader’s heart the pain that Eric is suffering:
“Moral injury. A wound to the soul. An assault on the heart waged by grief, guilt, shame, and anger – normal human reactions when our basic understanding of right and wrong has been blown away by war.”
Mitchell, along with Tiffany, Jerry, Jim, Bill, Shaggy, and Ravi, provide unwavering and unjudgmental support for Eric throughout his struggle back. General Douglas MacArthur, Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, the Buddha, General George S. Patton, Christ, Ernie Pyle, Dr. Paul Brunton, and Plato provide challenging, relevant, and often disturbing insights into the human condition.
But in the end it’s Eric, alone, despairing, and hopeless, who finds “a choice rooted deep in my soul” to turn irrevocably away from his addiction, his grief, guilt, shame, and anger. “I was filled with a new sense of hope. From a place deep inside, a whole new feeling of freedom. Free at last, I thought. Out of restraints and free at last.”
This book’s unwavering honesty makes it a tough read. And a very important one. As it says on the book’s back cover, the story may be fiction, but the pain is real.
The Help is Real
The help available to veterans is real as well … and that’s one very important motivation that sustained Tom through the wrenching process of writing this semi-autobiographical book.
“Getting help is more than important,” Tom says, “because once you’ve given your new life a kick-start, you never know when you may turn around and find yourself able to help a fellow vet do the same … or help anyone do the same.”
Sadly, the obvious sources of help – the Veterans Administration and other vet organizations – have received a lot of negative press over the years. So at one point in the story, Eric expresses doubt about whether help is really available for veterans in his own deeply troubled condition. But Mitchell reassures him:
“Sure, the system has problems. What system doesn’t? But there are islands of hope in every storm. There are always people that know the ropes, are good at what they do, and can really help.
“Take the Vet Centers, for example. They were founded by Vietnam veterans because they needed help fast. Ended up puttin’ the centers out in the neighborhood, closer to the ‘front lines.’ Easier connections and less hassle. They even get separate money from Congress, so they’ve got a life of their own.”
(There are three Vet Centers within reach of Andover: see the end of this article for their phone numbers.)
Writing from Experience
The story is fiction, but it’s fiction that comes from experience … Tom’s experience. “About the Author” at the end of the book sums up the relevant bits:
“Tom Barber was a Vietnam-era army medic unable to imagine the trauma of combat. Trying to help those physically and emotionally crippled by the chaos of war brought to life feelings of survival guilt and helplessness that would haunt him for years. Alcohol killed that pain. Then alcohol addiction almost killed him.
“After his discharge in 1971, he became an award-winning illustrator of science fiction and fantasy paperback book jackets … for a while. Then personal and business turmoil sent him fleeing to the mountains of Arizona. There he landed in the ghost town of Jerome, where he eventually slammed headlong into the world of sobriety. Big change. The result is this story.”
Area vets looking for help without hassle can contact a Vet Center at 752-2571 (Berlin), 668-7060 (Manchester), or 802 295-2908 (White River Junction, Vermont). For more immediate help, veterans or concerned family or friends can call 800-273-8255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net.