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Warrior writings

Report From Nome, Alaska, July 2007


Larry Winters, Viet Nam Veteran, Psychotherapist, Author, The Making and Unmaking of a Marine
Tom Punguk is a native Alaskan Viet Nam Army veteran who was in country from 1967 to 1968. I met him during a trip I made to Nome Alaska in July of 2007. I am a psychotherapist working at Four Winds Hospital in Kantona NY. I was in Nome to teach Native Alaskan mental health workers group psychotherapy skills. I am also a Viet Nam vet who served in the Marines from 1969 to 1970.
When I finished teaching the four day workshop my friend Greg, a Social Work administrator for Norton Sound Health Corporation, and the man who'd invited me to come to teach in Nome said he'd take me to Golovin to meet Tom. Golovin was a village of one hundred and fifty people a few hundred miles south of Nome. The twelve seat prop plane took off from Nome airport flying south over a vast tundra of lowing lying shrub. We did not begin to see real trees until we neared Golivin.
Tom's house sat on the side of a hill. Several set of antlers were nailed to fading red siding of the house. A four wheeler sat just in front of the side door. Tools, skins, and all kinds of unidentifiable things were nailed up to the outside walls of the house. It looked more like the walls of a workshop than a house. As we entered I noticed a high caliber rifle leaning against the wall to the entrance way.
Tom invited us to sit in his living room. I sat on a couch, Greg sat in a chair and Tom pulled out a small wooden stool placing it right in front of us. I told Tom that I was a Viet Nam vet and wanted to speak with him about his experiences in the War. He agreed, nodding.
I surveyed the room and saw a long silvery pelt hanging on the door jam that led from the living room to the kitchen. I asked what it was, and Tom answered, "It's a lynx. I shot it last winter and I'm going to send it off to my sister. She said she wanted it."
I started asked Tom questions about the war and his time in the Army. He politely answered them but I soon began to feel awkward so I sat back on the couch and let him go where he wanted. For the next hour Tom told us stories.
At the time there seemed to be no Logic to his stories. I struggled to connect their meaning. He'd tell us how every year he'd go up river and into the woods and shoot a moose. He said he'd been doing this his whole life. He described how he'd skin the animal and how he hauled the meat home. With almost no breath in between he'd then tell us a Viet Nam story. "Did I tell you I worked on an island off of Vietnam? Out there we were in charge of the communication tower. I was trained in electronic communications. We handled navigational information concerning the war. It came through our tower. I was just thinking of the number of people's death that I had something to do with at that time, it must be huge. The information coming thorough our tower held the coordinates of where folks were to be bombed, shot, and ambushed."
Another short breath and Tom went on. "When I worked up on the oil lines." After that story he started with, "I fished my whole life, almost always alone."
Not until I got home did I realize that these stories did connect. They came right out of Tom's unconscious and into ours. The death, courage, depravation, and knowledge held in these stories were a form of teaching that village elders used. There seemed to be no linier thread holding things together, but I remember each story better than anything I'd been taught in school.
What I have been thinking about after coming home is what Tom told me about when he came home from boot camp. He said he was seen by his village as a brave man. He had been off training to fight for his country. He'd been one of the few villagers to leave and to see the larger world which meant he had new knowledge. As listened I gathered what Tom meant was that he left Golovin a boy and come back a man, and was respected as a man by his village. He then told me when he came home from Viet Nam his role was elevated to war hero. He was known as a man who stood up for his people, who risked his life for his country, a man who was well on his way to becoming an elder in his community, which is what he truly is now. Tom never lost his identity. In fact, the Vietnam War solidified Tom into the role of warrior. He said, "I didn't have the same kind of adjustment problems you guys did down in the lower forty eight. Everyone in the village looked up to me, and they still do."
And so do I, I thought.