Every night he'd sit straight up on his bunk and scream for a minute or two, a piercing cry of horror at something he had seen or something he had done. The rest of us would get up and stand quietly watching as the sweat streamed down his face, knowing that even though his eyes were open he was unaware that we were near. No one ever touched him or called his name because we sensed that doing so would not be the right thing to do. Eventually he would lie back down and sleep silently the rest of the night. In the morning he seemed to have no recollection of the screaming. No one ever mentioned it to him.
He was a big man, six-three or -four, and like the rest of us in that summer of 1945 he had been assigned the job of military policeman protecting an ordnance company. We called him Lou, although I don't know if that was his real name, and he had come from the 82nd Airborne. All of us were from first-line infantry divisions - the 1st, 4th, 9th, 29th or the 82nd. Like Lou, we all had spent many months in combat so there was that special bond that only combat infantrymen feel for each other. I was 19, Lou about 25, the oldest among us 39. No age barrier existed because we all were old beyond our years.
Lou, a South Dakota farmer, never had much to say. He'd sit listening to the stories, nearly all humorous, about crazy events in the military or escapades in civilian life. He'd smile or laugh and when something was especially amusing he'd lightly punch the nearest man on the arm and say, "Aw, you guys!"
When he would tell a story it was in a faltering manner and more often than not he'd get a little lost along the way. We'd all laugh and tell him he was a big dumb ox and things like that. He'd be pleased because he knew he was just one of the boys, just part of a group of men who had built walls and would let no one but their own kind inside.
One day he was called into the commander's office and reprimanded. The commander had received a letter from Lou's mother saying he hadn't written home for two years. He was told to do so but he never did.
Lou was the first to be sent back to the States to be discharged. He didn't want to go. When his duffel bag was packed and everyone had gathered around, his eyes were moist as he stammered. "I . . I'm gonna miss you guys."
We knew that. We knew that never again would he feel the same kinship, the same closeness and acceptance. Family couldn't provide it because they would never be able to penetrate that wall in his mind. They'd never understand him the way we did because they hadn't been there. They'd utter the usual platitudes and cliches, tell him that everything would be great from then on and all the rest of the drivel civilians say to a man who had left some piece of his mind behind on the battlefield. No matter how they wished to get beyond that wall, it could never happen. That privilege was reserved for others who had seen the things he had seen and done the things he had done. When people say it's like some other experience, they are wrong. Nothing is comparable. That's just the way it was, just the way it is.