05.26.13

‘Something Happened to My Head. I Couldn’t Get Focused.’

Many World War II veterans felt lost after returning home. They dropped out of school and couldn’t focus on their postwar lives. Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Dale Maharidge explores what happened to them in his new book, Bringing Mulligan Home.

Steve Maharidge had no use for hillbillies. Jim Laughridge disliked Yankees. About the only thing they had in common was being in the same U.S. Marine unit during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II. Yet starting in early 1946, my father and Jim came home to parallel lives. Both spent several years drunk out of their minds.

They shared something else—they suffered blast concussions that may have caused traumatic brain injury, or TBI. It's the same thing found in some soldiers from today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only back then it was called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue.”

After my father died in 2000, I spent 12 years locating surviving men from his Marine unit. I found 29 of them. From them and their military records, I learned Dad suffered at least two blast concussions. TBI can permanently alter connections between brain cells. One symptom can be occasional explosive rage.

Dad’s temper made ours a house of turmoil. But our family never tied his condition to the war. Not only was TBI an unknown affliction in midcentury America, we pretended that the war was in the distant past. It wasn’t discussed.

This changed as the men from dad's unit neared their ’80s. They were suddenly talking. One told me I was the first person he talked to about the war.

In my new book, I look at how the war affected the rest of their lives. Many never got over it. This is something that we should think about on Memorial Day weekend. Knowing their trauma helps us understand what today’s soldiers and their children face in the coming years.

Jim Laughridge’s life is emblematic of the difficulty some faced. I reached him about two years before he died. We talked by phone, but Jim was hard of hearing. I had to shout. Finally I just drove to see him in Georgia on two different occasions.

I didn’t have to ask many questions. His story poured out. There was a bad blast concussion. He was shot by a Japanese machine gunner. He spoke over a span of hours about dark things: collecting gold teeth from Japanese cadavers, shooting enemy soldiers in the stomach so they’d have painful deaths.

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“Bringing Mulligan Home: The Other Side of the Good War.” By Dale Maharidge. $27; PublicAffairs; 336 pages. ()

“That was my frame of mind,” Jim, who'd suffered four heart attacks and was in precarious health, told me. “When you live like a goddam animal, you gonna act like a damn animal.”

He was sorry for what he’d done. And he was trying to figure out why his post-war life never seemed to get back to where he was before the war when he was excelling in military school.

“Right after I got out of the Marine Corps, from ’47 to ’49, I was at North Carolina State. I’d been an honors student in that military school. Hell, I could just read anything and pick it right up. But, uh, I couldn’t settle down for some reason or other. I did a lot of drinking. I had a C average … Then I was asked to leave.”

He moved back home and remained drunk.

“Finally, my daddy said, ‘Boy, you gotta go.’

“‘Go where?’

“He said, ‘I don’t know—just go.’”

He went to Atlanta and tried college there. Again he got kicked out.

I asked, “Was it the war?”

“I don’t know what it was. All I was interested in was something to drink and pussy.”

He married and started working at General Motors. Like my father, he hated the factory job.

In 1959 “I took on—I believe it was six Atlanta policemen. I had drank so much liquor. Fight just got started. The man I worked over ... I broke his damn jaw, popped his eye out, broke his ribs, his shoulder, cracked his head. And the other guy, I threw him through a plate-glass door.”

He repeatedly wondered aloud about what had gone wrong.

One of the cops “took that damn billy club and put it across my neck. He worked me over goin’ down to the police station. Woke up the next mornin’, my head felt like a sack o’ doorknobs. You should have seen my apartment. Goddammit, it looked like World War II hit it. Blood all over the fuckin’ walls.”

In 1965, even though he had two small children, he tried to reenlist in the Marines to go to Vietnam. But they wouldn’t take him back. In 1977 his wife used his .45 pistol to kill herself. His son later committed suicide.

Jim told his story without emotion and he didn't ask for pity. He repeatedly wondered aloud about what had gone wrong.

“Something happened to my head. I couldn’t get focused.”

My father also tried to go to school but dropped out. My mother admonished him for his lack of drive. But it was blast concussion, or PTSD, or a little bit of both. I realized that by talking with Jim.

“The older I get—and I’m not a philosopher or nothing—but you look back, and the whole damn thing was kind of stupid,” Jim said of the war. “It happened 20 years before—World War I. And it’s been going on since World War II. What’s the point in all of this? I don’t know why people want to, as a country, just kill every damn body. It don’t make sense.”

“Was World War II worth fighting?” I asked.

“At the time it was, yeah. But we got a lot of propaganda about what the world was going to be like afterward. Somebody up there must be looking after us, if there is somebody up there.”

“How do you figure that?” I could never ask my dad about these things. But at least I had Jim.

“Because we’ve made so many friggin’ mistakes. One right after another, one war after another. We just don’t learn. Somebody wrote a book that asked, ‘What if they held a war, and nobody came?’ Hell, I think it’s all about money, misguided beliefs, ego. Whole lot of other bullshit. Somebody told me right after World War II, ‘You can take that Purple Heart and 50 cents and buy a beer in just about any joint in town.’ And that’s really about the way it was.”