I’d like to ask you a question about trauma and the people it poisons.
I’ll start with a story.
Back in 1945, the USS Massachusetts crossed the Pacific Ocean, sailing home from a war that had recently come to a close. On that ship were two men among thousands—Staff Sergeant Harold Lettner and Lance Corporal Jon Fourquereau. They met once on the deck of the ship, when the Massachusetts sailed through the Puget Sound in Washington, watching side by side as the battleship floated into port. Neither spoke as the wind whipped their hair and whistled through the battlements, each preparing to transition from a world at war to a world without.
Look at Harold Lettner, leaning on the railing to the left. During his two-and-a-half year stay in the Pacific, he killed three members of the Imperial Japanese Army and wounded five others. He was promoted from Private First Class to Staff Sergeant within three years.
All three kills occurred during the assault of New Georgia in the Solomon Islands—two when Allied forces overran the Japanese base of Munda, and the last when taking Bairoko Harbor to the north.
After killing two Imperials in Munda two days earlier, Harold squeezed the trigger of his M1 Carbine, firing a bullet that struck a soldier’s orbital cavity, pushing through brain matter until exiting out through the occipital bone. The Imperialist was dead before gravity could finish dropping him into a twisted heap on the ground. Harold stepped over the body, rifle aimed center until he could confirm the kill.
The eye had liquefied. Blackness rimmed the bullet hole, flesh burnt by friction. Pieces of brain stuck to the dirt and bamboo, overtaken by an expanding pool of blood. The high sun gave Harold a good view into what had made the man tick.
What did he think about at that moment? He thought of the way the sweat-covered uniform stuck to his chest and stung his cuts and bruises, and of the blood spattered on his sleeve. He left the body behind, advancing forward to take cover behind a crumbling wall.
After the war was over and Harold returned home, he found that thinking of the three men he killed was not particularly interesting.
Now look to the right, at Lance Corporal Jon Fourquereau as he watches the bay loom closer, listening to those on the decks below shouting orders. He killed two men while taking the island of Peleliu ten months earlier.
Both casualties occurred seventy-two seconds apart. Jon was entrenched on the island’s south beach when he and those around him were ordered to push inland. As one of few flamethrower operators, Jon carried the M2 model.
Lumbering out of cover, he and other marines stormed the jungle line that hid enemy fire.
Jon found the two men who would change his life hiding together, cowering behind a tree. Jon pulled the firing trigger, and a breath of hell ballooned forward, moving around the trunk and bathing both Imperials. The M2 flamethrower cut off after six seconds.
He circled the tree to confirm the kills.
One lay face-up, the other facedown. The head of the first was covered in cracked and bubbling skin, the fibers of his hat’s remains fused to the side of his head. The shirt stuck to his torso as if wet. The man on his stomach had managed to turn in the last moment, saving his brain from being cooked in his head. The back of his uniform was partially burned, exposing meat seared well done. The first man died instantly. The second remained on the ground for a full minute until unconsciousness conceded to death.
Jon Fourquereau didn’t need time to confirm both kills. However, he paused for twenty-one seconds before moving deeper inland. Two hours later he was evacuated back to the beach after collapsing from heat exhaustion.
Over the next several months, Jon participated in a number of battles. He requested a replacement as flamethrower operator, citing a developing sensitivity to heat-related illness. Given the deaths of other marines in Pacific battles due to dehydration, his commanding officer didn’t ask questions. An M1903 Springfield replaced the M2 flamethrower—a rifle that Jon never fired.
Jon died October 8th, 1953 to a gunshot wound in the head, in Sunset, Colorado. The investigation revealed that no one in Jon’s family had known he’d been suffering from depression, as he had moved away from Idaho three years prior. Jon had previously told his family that he’d moved for a job at a meat processing plant, but further investigation revealed he had quit two weeks into the job, remaining unemployed for the two years up to his death.
Poison killed Jon. A poison that appeared the day he burned two men alive.
What did he experience before the day came when he had to kill himself? You could make up a story and it would be close to the truth. The irritability and anger. The flashbacks and nightmares, forcing him to relive the experience of killing another human being over and over. The rapid breathing, the vomiting, and the coiling of the muscles. The insomnia. That sense of doom—of his time coming to its conclusion. The events of seventy-two seconds stretched him to the point that he needed to destroy himself just to escape. The Jon who pulled the trigger had evolved into a reflection in a mirror house, nothing like the Jon who had left for war.
Harold Lettner died on January 2nd, 1987 to heart disease in Saint Mary’s Hospital, in Rochester, Minnesota. He had two children, one of which was born a year after he came home from the war. Harold had been a registered Republican who once ran for mayor but lost, and participated in the yearly Rochester parade with other local veterans. His children said in his obituary that he lived a very fulfilling life.
Harold’s wife once asked him about the men he’d killed in the war. Harold described the battle on New Georgia in detail, but when that image of the soldier came to mind—of a hole in the center of a man’s face, full of blood draining through the back of his head—Harold paused, trying to sum it up with as little color as possible. When she asked how it had affected him, he was puzzled by the question.
As his children grew up, they often asked him for stories of heroism, but he would shut them up with a wave of his hand, saying the war was too inappropriate. All they wanted were stories that proved their father to be the hero they saw him as.
Harold was able to walk away from that event, immune to its poison. He filed away that scene of the dead soldier with other memories, like sailing home on the USS Massachusetts, or waiting on seized beach fronts and strongholds, waiting for the next set of orders. Right before Harold passed away, he couldn’t even recall the face of the man he had killed, the memory too faded with time. The wedding to his wife in 1946 remained crisp on his death bed, but not the image of the Imperialist forever lost in 1945.
So, you have Jon and Harold as they watch the Massachusetts sail into port, waiting side by side, the rest of their lives yawning before them. One man will die from the poison, and the other will be utterly immune to it.
Now I’d like to ask you a question.
Who was more fucked up?