An American pilot shot down over Vietnam – his aircraft embeds itself into the jungle – sparking a race between North Vietnamese and US troops, hacking through dense foliage with machetes, hoping to reach the technology inside the plane first.
“What kind of army is this?”, Ernie LaPointe asks himself, “that cares more about a machine than a human being?”
As he swings his blade, moving closer to the prize, the first thing he notices is the smell of the pilot’s corpse. Body fluids stain the interior of the cockpit, a zoo of parasites feast on flesh – sights and odors that LaPointe can still vividly sense as he sits at his dining room table.
“I can still hear the music from the radios, feel the heat in the air, recall the faces with exact detail. I wonder about them (his friends) constantly.”
“War is worse than hell”, LaPointe reflects. “No amount of training can prepare you”.
The four phases of the circle of life, interrupted by a rocket that obliterates the body. He was a walking-talking person, our friend, barely more than a teenager, and now the blood that coursed in his veins drips from the leaves that frame his shell.
My eyes can see this. My mind understands cause and effect. My heart will grieve. But my spirit cannot understand. My spirit cannot accept this cutting short of life, this meaningless suffering. Because I did not protect my spirit, it has been wounded, and I will carry this curse for the remainder of my life.
Ernie LaPointe is the great-grandson of Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, known to most as Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux leader associated by historians with the fall of Custer at Little Big Horn. As a child, LaPointe was instructed to keep his ancestry a secret. The federal government continued to persecute Native religions and lifestyles well into the 1980’s, and it would not have been in keeping with Sitting Bull’s legacy of humility for his progeny to boast of their genetic inheritance.
As a young child, LaPointe saw the homes of his friends invaded by the feds, families forced into Christianity and children shoved into boarding schools – efforts designed to annihilate and assimilate an ancient culture. LaPointe’s father refused to allow him to be taken away, and he subsequently received a public school education in Rapid City.
Both of LaPointe’s parents passed away by the time he was 17-years old. He joined the army as soon as he was able, and spent time in Korea, Turkey, Germany, and then Vietnam from 1970-1971. In combat, native soldiers were treated as lucky charms or machine gun fodder –sent into battle without ceremony and honor – far removed from the traditions of their people.
As a youth, a Lakota is shown the colors that will protect his spirit throughout life. He wears these colors, mistakenly called “war-paint”, any time he leaves the protection of his home. Their purpose is to allow his spirit to remain whole, no matter what might happen to his body (or what he observes happen to another). LaPointe advises that explaining the matter much further in English is impossible, as many concepts do not survive translation from the Lakota language.
Today, some native soldiers involved in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan apply these colors under their arms. LaPointe believes that a failure to do this in past wars has led to an disproportionate number of PTSD cases in native veterans. The process makes sense (whether one believes it or not) – experiencing or witnessing trauma creates a fracture in the psyche – it interrupts an individual’s sense of wholeness, of a meaningful existence. Call it spirit, call it psyche, call it subconscious – we might be all talking about the same thing.
In addition, LaPointe points out that the Lakota are not an inherently violent people. He bristles at the false representation of his people as “noble savages”, and all the other stereotypical degradations they have suffered throughout time. The lowest honor a Lakota can receive relates to actually killing another human being, which means a family loses a son, a brother, a husband, or a father. The highest honor involves simply touching the adversary, and living to tell the tale (counting coup).
Sitting Bull, who was drawn as something of an Osama Bin Laden by the media following the fall of Custer, won his position among his people through the example of his character alone. LaPointe uses the word humility above all others when extolling his great-grandfather, and then goes on to words like compassion, courage, and generosity – terms that suggest a sense of personal sacrifice, and of wisdom.
Amidst the pointless violence and morbidity of Vietnam, LaPointe found himself completely removed from any true sense of who he was, where he came from. For lack of a better option in his life, he joined the same army that committed genocide to clear the path for the Iphone and the Chicken McNugget – his brain was tattooed with gore and suffering, and then they shipped him back home, utterly unprepared for the mental anguish he and his fellow soldiers were about to experience.
One moment you’re at war in the jungle, the next you’re being spit on in the United States, given the impossible task of reintegrating into a culture that disdains you. The illusion of security and permanence that we build around ourselves – the fable of the house, car, and wife – means nothing to a veteran of war. For a person who has witnessed the horror of war, death represents the only permanence – everything else is trivia.
LaPointe was overwhelmed by this sense during his first few months back from Vietnam. On an army base in Oklahoma, he found it almost impossible to concern himself with the mundane tasks of stateside military life. Part of him assumed (rightly so) that the people around him would understand that after being in war, he had no time for such foolish distractions. But they didn’t, especially the two-star general he failed to salute, who called him a “disgrace”, and saw to it that LaPointe’s DD-214 indicates “failure to maintain military standards”. He says that approximately 250,000 other soldiers were discharged for the same reason following their return from Vietnam.
So LaPointe received a General Under Honorable Conditions discharge (after a flawless service record), and was jettisoned back into regular society. Amazingly, he was able to function on a fairly high level for over a decade. It was not until his visit to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial that the memories of war achieved their true destructive potential.
He had a job, a house, money in the bank – everything we’re told creates contentment – but when he read the names of his fallen friends on the wall, he was overcome by the subconscious notion that it was all basically a façade. The dormant wounds to his spirit began to fester and inflame, and soon thereafter, LaPointe was homeless.
The great-grandson of Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, resided under 38th Street Bridge in Denver, Colorado, with a band of fellow Vietnam veterans (1986-1989). The descendant of a revered holy man occupied a space society reserves for its sewers and vermin. Why? Because he was more comfortable in that place at that particular moment of his life.
The men set up a camp similar to the ones they inhabited during the war. Sentries stood watch with Mini-14s, medics treated wounds, and substance abuse abounded. The copious intake of alcohol and marijuana was simply a survival mechanism, a method to smother the overbearing nightmares and intrusive thoughts, the paranoia, and the rage.
The rage – perhaps the most destructive element of PTSD is the feeling of alienation, laboring under the idea that you’re the only one who experiences such pain, and that absolutely no one else understands you. And frankly, people don’t understand PTSD. It has only been in relatively recent times that the disorder was yanked out of the realm of mental weakness and shame, and we’re still struggling to emerge from this dark ages.
The rage – against a society that embraces the absurdity of violence as a necessary method of obtaining resources and power – against politicians who make decisions that murder innocent women and children, while they sit with inflated egos thousands of miles away – against a nation that will never comprehend the loss and pain you experienced during a meaningless war.
At some point in 1989, LaPointe was lured to the VA with the promise of donuts and coffee. While he was there, someone suggested the possibility that he might be suffering from PTSD. He was enraged at first, but eventually accepted the diagnosis, a decision that placed him on the path to reclaiming both his sanity and his genetic code.
Following this acceptance, LaPointe began to gravitate back towards the Lakota “spiritual way of life”. During conversation, he often makes the point that his ancestors led a spiritual path, that everything they did throughout the course of their lives was somehow linked to a spiritual process, and there was no distinguishing between a “psychological” disorder and a spiritual problem – the source would be the same – and so would be the method of healing.
LaPointe believes that it is our perception of a separation between ego and psyche (spirit), or perhaps more aptly, the fact that we have cleaved a gap between ego and psyche, that has created the problems of consumerism, materialism, and all the other modern day challenges faced by the spirit.
It was through the process of the Sundance ceremony that LaPointe truly began to regain his spiritual footing. It was during the Sundance that he forged a commitment to never injure another living organism for the remainder of his life – and through this commitment, he believes his existence reestablished a circular path.
Although he believes his spiritual wounds will never be fully healed, LaPointe has recouped a sense of control, or at least developed a wiser approach to the concept of life and destiny. He states that existence is about tomorrow, not yesterday, and that via ancestral guidance, he prepares himself each day to become a better person the next. To him, life is about perfecting the individual, with the aim of better serving the group.