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Review: Michael Orban: Souled Out: A Memoir of War and Inner Peace

By Remy Benoit

Souled Out: A Memoir of War and Inner Peace. by Michael S. Orban

Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome is a concomitant of war for both combat soldiers and the civilian populations who suffer through it.

At different times we have called it Soldiers’ Heart, Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue. When the staff at Dr. Ed Tick’s, Soldier's Heart.recommended Michael Orban’s book, Souled Out: A Memoir of War and Inner Peace, I knew, just from the title, that this was a man who had been there, who knew the truth of PTSS. As a long-time Veteran Advocate, I looked forward to reading what he had to tell us all. Not only did Mr. Orban meet my expectations, indeed, he quite surpassed them.

We know it is there, the PTSS, if we care to know; but, for a long, long time, through all the centuries, we weren’t sure what it was. We ignored it; treated it with electrical shock; treated it with derision; told those suffering with it to just get over it and get on with life.

Now we know that it is real—a dilemma of nightmarish proportions that, if not properly diagnosed and treated, can destroy lives, destroy families, even injure communities.

When our soldiers came home from Vietnam, PTSS was not properly diagnosed, nor treated, just as in previous wars. Decades passed before it was given its proper name, its proper recognition. Today we know that of Veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, approximately more than 30% (some estimates go as high as 50%) suffer from PTSS. In so very many cases, it is still difficult for them to get treatment, a situation that as a nation we should find intolerable.

Michael Orban’s, Souled Out: A Memoir of War and Inner Peace, is a beautiful story of the impact of PTSS on one soldier’s life, and the vision he subsequently developed.

Coming home doesn’t seem to “fit right” for Michael. He is now an outsider in a world that was once his; his marriage doesn’t fit; his life doesn’t fit; the material world around him seems superficial and meaningless. Things fall apart for Michael, as they do for thousands of others. But, unlike many others, Michael is blessed with a family, who although they do not understand what he is going through, is, and still are, there for him.

Not fitting into his own world, Michael takes his PTSS back to the jungle; not to the jungle of the “green,” but to a small village, surrounded by jungle in Africa. Life here is at peace with the environment, although aware of its always present dangers.

He finds a community of people who care about each other, from birth to death. Modern medicine, for the most part, is not part of their lives, resulting in the deaths, for instance of very young children who could have been saved by such a simple thing as hydration when it is desperately needed. They live in a world apart from the “modern world;” they do not know that medical science could help them, but they do know the ways of community.

There are no old age homes for the old people, who are tended to by the village and are respected for their age and wisdom. Yet, despite the generations old ability to live cut off from almost all the rest of the world, in general peace with their environment, they know that sometimes they must act at a survival level. Michael witnesses an incident when a deadly snake comes into the village compound. Children and women sans shoes, raise the alarm, stamp wildly, bringing attention to the whole village that there is danger present. The snake is forced up a tree, dispatched, and then taken home to be eaten by an old man. The insight comes to Michael, that in a survival situation, we move into a survival mode – that when he was in the green, having to do things to survive that were directly in opposition to his basic belief system, he was in the survival mode, just as was his enemy at the time.

These people also showed Michael how closely they live to the world of the spirit—and how far his own country seems to have moved from that world into the material.

At another place in Africa, where the desert rules, Michael finds himself an outsider, there only to help build things, never welcomed into the native family as he had been in the jungle.

Michael suffers from malaria and from a parasitic invasion that forces him to have to consult with many doctors until one discovers what the invader is and is able to treat it. He comes to know that the places where he lived to try to help improve life were both beautiful and treacherous.

Michael helps to build a school; learns that in a place where round homes are the norm, that the animist population who believe that negative spirits can lurk in the corners of a rectangular building will not enter them, no matter how modernly functional. Michael learns that in trying to help, sometimes, perhaps, often, negating our good intentions in the long run, we take our own ways with us. This is a lesson not yet learned by nations, rulers, nor, indeed, by the general populations of nations. This, so far, generally unlearned lesson is often a cause of war, perhaps one that could have been prevented by cross cultural understanding.

Michael comes home, again, still not finding it home— finds himself welcomed by family members—finds himself drinking heavily—working only when cash is needed, and while years and relationships go by.

More years go, until one day he truly recognizes, truly knows that the mask he wears, and has worn for decades for the public, is not him, is not working, is not real. Then he finally decides to turn around, to face the dark that is closing in behind, around, and through him. Psychiatrists become a part of his life until finally someone actually hears and asks the question that needs confronting—could having been in combat have something to do with his traumatized condition? By then, PTSS is just beginning to be recognized.

Join Michael in an incredible journey to jungle Africa, to desert Africa, to the rare privilege of being invited into a Pygmy village. Souled Out: A Memoir of War and Inner Peace is a book about war and about the trauma caused by war, yet it is also a beautiful book about hope; about tearing off the mask combat soldiers show the civilian public; the mask worn to protect themselves from those who refuse to acknowledge what they have sent their own to know.

But Souled Out is more that that—it is a book that examines reasons for war as told to the public and realities of war as faced by combat soldiers. Souled Out is about war trauma; about survival instincts, and about coming home, finally coming home by turning toward and walking through a long dark tunnel into light.

Michael’s is a personal journey, but it is a journey shared in so many ways with generations of soldiers—most of whom never spoke of it— all of whom from now on should. Their views, their experiences, Michael’s experiences, demand of us all that we take a closer look at the realities of war and at the realities of what we ask of those we send to fight it. It is a basic necessity that the civilian population turn around and walk through the dark tunnel they refuse to even acknowledge exists, to a place where they can, somewhat, begin to understand what war is and what combat does to those who engage in it. It is our responsibility to those we send to serve. It is our responsibility to come to a place where we can say:

Our soldiers are not them; they are US and we have a responsibility to care for them and to not make Veterans when we truly don’t need to: without thought, without study, without caring.

Souled Out: A Memoir of War and Inner Peace takes us on a soul searching journey to a place where the realization is made that we are part of something huge, vast, and inner-connected. When we learn, as Michael has, as Dr. Albert Schweitzer tried to tell us all, that we can use our pain, use our skills, and hearts not only in healing ourselves, but in sharing ourselves with that much more vast Creation and help to heal it too.

Thank you, Michael, for so openly sharing so much for the healing of others and the planet itself.


Review written by Bernie Weisz, Historian, Vietnam War July 9th, 2011 Pembroke Pines, Florida U.S.A. Contact: Title of Review: "Why Would Anyone Expect An 18 Year Old To Go To Vietnam, Witness People Being Napalmed or Blown Up, Then Coming Home Normal?" Michael Orban was born in Wisconsin in 1950, the fourth oldest of ten children in a Catholic middle class family. Growing up as a happy, healthy child, pictures in National Geographic fascinated him, particularly the remote people and cultures of Africa. With the simple joys of reaching his teenage years, Orban had dreams typical of an American youth growing up in America: a new car, money, a new stereo, going to the movies, sporting events, and girls. Unfortunately for Orban, the Cold War would conspire against him, conscripting him as a participant in a war where no one believed any longer that if Communism was not stopped in Asia, it would appear in California and spread throughout the Americas like a forest fire out of control. After President Kennedy was assassination in Dallas, the problem of how to proceed in Vietnam fell squarely into the lap of his vice president, Lyndon Johnson. Not even ten months later, Orban turned fourteen and the "Gulf of Tonkin Incident" occurred. Supposedly, on On August 2, 1964 North Vietnamese PT boats fired torpedoes at the USS Maddox, a destroyer located in the international waters of the Tonkin Gulf, some thirty miles off the coast of North Vietnam. A second, even more highly disputed attack, allegedly took place two days later. An event that would impact Orban for the rest of his life happened next; The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was approved by Congress authorizing L.B.J. a free hand to wage all out hostilities against North Vietnam without ever securing a formal Declaration of War from Congress. The draft machinery went into high gear, battles were fought, and airplanes full of casualties came back. With half a million Americans in Vietnam in January of 1968, the Communists caught the US military off guard during the Vietnamese "Tet" holiday, sweeping down upon key cities and provinces throughout South Vietnam. Even though American forces turned back the onslaught and recaptured most areas, the "Tet Offensive" was a huge political and psychological victory for North Vietnam. The US military's assessment of the war was questioned and the "end of tunnel" seemed very far off. All of a sudden recent conscripts wondered if they would be the last to die in a war America had given up on. Massive anti war demonstrations in 1968 were seen throughout the United States, with youths burning their draft cards, fleeing to Canada, and the popular chant "hell no, we won't go" was heard from coast to coast. America's view of the war continued to sour after the Tet Offensive when On March 16, the angry and frustrated men of Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, Americal Division entered the village of My Lai. A short time later the killing began. When news of the atrocities surfaced, it sent shock waves through the U.S. political establishment, the military's chain of command, and an already divided American public. Before the year was out, L.B.J. announced he would not run for reelection, the "Paris Peace Talks" began, Kennedy's younger brother Robert was assassinated, and America watched mesmerized with the violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. In 1969, Richard Nixon was elected. While he promised to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam, he ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia, conducted without the knowledge of Congress or the American public. Responding to charges that he was not moving fast enough to end the war, he announced his policy of "Vietnamization." This was his method of diminishing the role of the U.S. military in Vietnam and onto the South Vietnamese Army. This was a goal to make this an Asian war fought solely by Asians. It was in this light that Michael Orban would find himself drafted, spending the next eleven months, seventeen days and eighteen hours in a war he would emerge with deep hatred, guilt, shame and anger. He would, as the title implies, come home "Souled Out." The human soul is defined as the principle of life, feeling, thought, and action in humans. It is regarded as a distinct entity separate from the body, and commonly held to be separable from it. The soul of humans is distinct from the physical part, where spirituality and morality exist, surviving mortality and subject to happiness or misery in a reincarnated state. War, killing and senseless death subjects this part of the human psyche to psychological wounds as serious as physical ones, scooping out one's soul with permanent effects. This memoir relates both how and why Michael Orban lost his soul, the issues that were involved, as well as his ultimate final triumph over adversity. "Souled Out" details Michael Orban's journey to reclaim his soul and inner peace by his use of alcohol, relationships, geographical cures via two trips to Africa, and therapy. He embodies the concept of "you can't keep what you have unless you give it away" by this book, publicly speaking, and developing graphic models for use in helping those afflicted with P.T.S.D. think about readjustment after war. Finally, Orban unequivocally conveys a poignant message of the impact of war, the irrational expectations of society on a solder placed back into civilian life, and the healing of the warrior's soul. He makes it clear that Americans do not understand the war experience. As proof, he cites America's assumption of expecting an 18 year old fresh out of high school to go to an unpopular war, see graphic death and violent carnage, and then come home unaffected as preposterous. Orban convincingly portrays the insanity a combat soldier faced in Vietnam, with a very realistic paradigm. Likening it to a game, Orban includes the arbitrary drafting of an 18 year old to go to Vietnam for 365 days flown to a land he never heard of before. There he is unable to recognize friend or foe and watches rampant death, while stifled by perplexing rules of engagement: "Imagine you are given a mandatory sentence of 12 months for having committed no offense, and are sent to live on a large island, which you cannot leave the confines of that island. Now, let's put in two teams of opposition, say of five guys each. One team of five is dressed in military dress and the other team dressed as typical islanders. You have four people with you on your team, the objective is to kill those other five men, and you must search them out as they search you out to kill you with whatever weapons or booby traps they choose. Now add an unknown number of native islanders who go about their normal activities, but you are not sure which are legitimate workers or which are out to kill you! You cannot be sure if the legitimate islanders are not suspect of helping the other side. You know only that you have to spend twelve months trying to find the other team and kill them before they kill you! The aforementioned describes every single Vietnam War memoir, with individual variation, I have ever read. It is hard to imagine a youth come out of that scenario completely unaffected and it is unreasonable to have that expectation. However, Orban played it to the end, which ultimately resulted in the loss of his soul: "You have weapons and ammunition, food and a bed roll; you must sleep on the ground and you can strike at or be struck at any time of the day or night by the other side; you can be killed any second, and you wonder why you have been given this insane sentence. Why you and what for? You cannot communicate with family or friends except by mail and you realize there is a strong possibility you will never see your wife, kids, husband or friends again." While told as a theoretical game, this is exactly what the author witnessed as a 19 year old in an infantry division patrolling the Central Highlands of Vietnam, a bitterly contested war zone. Based on the ordeal Orban experienced, it is a rare individual who could come out unscathed. Within a week of arriving as a "FNG," he was told by other soldiers that the life expectancy of an infantry soldier was less than one week. With a mandatory one year of active duty, Orban called his tour an "incomprehensible eternity" and built a protective mental shield, a facade, which did the following: "It made me cold and hard, but did its job to hold back the tears, heartbreak, fear and anger." Events conspired to erode that shield, as well as his very essence, i.e. his soul. During Vietnam's monsoon season, Orban was at a fire support base, which was an encampment that was designed to provide indirect artillery fire support to infantry that was operating in areas that were beyond the normal range of direct fire support from their own base camps. Hearing a loud explosion, he thought his position was under enemy attack. He later learned it was a "fragging," an explosive claymore mine intentionally set by an American soldier to kill another soldier in the same bunker. Learning this, Orban wrote that it sickened his soul, elaborating: "I lost much respect for the military that night, and the truth of war not written in history books." The reason for fraggings varied, but usually involved the murder of a commanding officer viewed as unpopular, harsh, inept or overzealous. As the war became more objectionable, especially in 1969 when Orban was there, soldiers became less keen to go into harm's way and preferred leaders with a similar sense of self-preservation. If a C.O. was incompetent, fragging him was considered a means to the end of self-preservation for the men serving under him. Next, Orban saw while serving as an assistant machine gunner another comrade during a firefight freeze up in a catatonic state. Orban commented: "His fear hit home with me." Two close PTSD inducing calls followed. First he was hit by enemy fire, the round narrowly being deflected by his favorite C-ration can. The second time was during a firefight when a Viet Cong soldier raced in front of both Orban and his machine gunner, firing his AK-47 wildly. The rounds harmlessly hit a felled tree. Orban wrote: "Each bullet came through that log exposing the fresh clean meat of its inside. For an instant I remember thinking how much like a movie it looked, but immediately the feverish fear of reality returned." The next day, Orban was assigned to count Viet Cong that were killed in action. Since the goal of the U.S. in this war was not to conquer North Vietnam but rather to ensure the survival of the South Vietnamese government, measuring progress was difficult.The contested territory, South Vietnam, was "held" already. Instead, the U.S. Army used body counts to show that the U.S. was winning the war. The Army's theory was that eventually, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army would lose due to attrition. In completing his assignment, he reflected: "We neared a corpse, face down, on the jungle floor and the soldier with me tried to turn the body over with his foot. But the body had been shot up so badly that the soldier's foot only sank into the chest as if it were mush. My heart felt sick with the sight of the dead and the wounded. I knew it could and might be my body someday. What sickness was this war? Just sickness pretending to have a higher purpose." Next, the defining moment of Orban's Vietnam experience occurred. As he turned away from the mutilated corpse and walked back to his position, he described the following: "Something left me. Something structural. My arms and shoulders drooped, my heart sank, and my spine curled forward. What had left, though not physical, had seemed to support my entire physical bearing. I would later realize that it was my soul, my spirituality that had shattered and left me. By the time it came for me to go home, my soul would be empty, barren, and seemingly destroyed." This feeling has been documented by other Vietnam Veterans. Author Terry Rizzuti wrote about his "1000 Yard Stare" in his fictional memoir of Vietnam entitled "The Second Tour." Other incidents happened. Orban lost more of his soul when he witnessed an old man and his son, i.e. two peasants searching for firewood accidentally gunned down. As he stood over the slaughtered old man, Orban mused: "What are we doing? No rational mind would ever put God's name on this insanity. More of my soul left that moment, and my posture sank further." Next, Orban and 11 other soldiers were carried into the jungle to set up an ensnarement, used as a blocking force against 5000 retreating NVA regular forces withdrawing against the might of an advancing Australian Army. Positioned in the NVA's direct path of retreat, Orban realized his unit was there only as a marker to identify the NVA position so an air strike could be used to annihilate them all. Before this unit could be extracted, the NVA would overrun and slaughter them. Recognizing his unit was expendable bait, he indignantly wrote: "Other human beings had no right to offer our lives for their meaningless goals." Even though the enemy never approached his unit, Orban felt like he was preparing to die for a war he knew had no purpose, no legitimate goal, and his country was in no danger from. His soul continued to vanish when he narrowly missed stepping on a booby trap, as well as discovering that a fellow solder who needed a souvenir had cut off a dead female Viet Cong soldier's breast as a war trophy. Orban wrote: "I felt that unexplainable disgust in the human race, and another part of my soul seemed to leave." Perhaps the most bizarre event of Michael Orban's tour, permanently shattering his belief in organized religion occurred when on Easter Sunday a Catholic Chaplain was choppered out to his position in the jungle to say Mass. In the middle of the sermon the Chaplain announced that 2 soldiers from another battalion had been killed the previous day. Orban wrote that the Chaplain told the group: "I want you to go out and get two of the enemy." Orban's soulless reaction was as follows: "I stared at him in disbelief, wanting to stuff my M-16 in his hands and scream. "If you want two of them killed, go do it yourself." Orban wrote that he felt it was wrong for Catholicism to ally itself with the Army, whose primary purpose was to kill. Testing his belief in God, Orban wrote: How could God allow this thing called war? If he was all powerful, why did He let these horrible things happen and why didn't he soothe my soul? Was there really a God? It no longer felt like it did." By the time Orban was ready to take his "Freedom Bird" to go "Back to the World," he lamented: "Nothing would make sense anymore. Only the accumulation of negativity, evil, disapproval, and hatred was left to haunt the vacant place and make its darkness blacker and blacker." As he left Vietnam he discerned why he even went there with the following rationale: "We went to war to protect those at home from knowing the insanity of warfare. If they do not fully understand, oddly enough, that is part of the goal. I would never wish those at home to experience such atrocities in order to entirely understand." Michael Orban returned from Vietnam, wed, and attended college on the G.I. bill for 2 years. Neither endeavor succeeded. Heavy alcoholism, nightmares, obsessive and intrusive thoughts of Vietnam invaded his presence constantly. His memoir chronicles his two jaunts to Africa as a member of the Peace Corps to try to run from himself, not knowing that a phenomena called "Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome existed." No matter how far he ran, he could not outrun himself. Realizing that he had come home from Vietnam empty, confused and disconnected, Africa represented an attempt to find his way into a new identity. Regardless of whether he drank himself into obliviousness or lived in the deepest part of the African jungle rubbing elbows with the Pygmies and Witch Doctors, all facts he accomplished, Orban could not outrun himself. Realizing he had a choice of either suicide or facing himself, he chose the latter and explains he restored his soul in the process. Comprehending his egocentricity, Orban knew that if he did not contain his emotions he would go insane. Orban points out that more Vietnam Vets have died by suicide then from the war, which currently is at 58,220. Orban recounts the sad tale of his best friend from high school, who as a 21 year old was one of the few Americans to survive when the North Vietnamese overran "Firebase MaryAnn." Deciding that he could not take his "survivor guilt," Orban wrote this about his friend: "He could not reconcile his mind and soul with the experience. He recounted this torment to me; later he put a gun to his head to end this suffering." Similarly, Orban met a former combat medic in charge of 12 other medics in Korea. This man was the only one to come home. This book is a tribute to both of the aforementioned. If anyone has seen the 1989 film "Jacknife," the character of "Dave," embodies men returning from Vietnam with bent minds, alcoholism and loneliness as identifying characteristics. People that rudely said: "I know a Vietnam Vet, and boy is he messed up!" angers Orban the most. As for his motives for penning this book, he elucidates: "I knew I needed to write about this if for no other reason than to honor those who still suffer; to let them know it is okay and normal to have these reactions to war; that these feelings need not be hidden in alcohol, anger, anxiety and lonely walks down dark hallways at night. And as a way to give open support to families, letting them know it is okay to talk about their concerns." Michael Orban was diagnosed with P.T.S.D. in 1992 and has fought a daily battle with it. He has not allowed it to any longer disrupt his functioning, nor its interference with his ability to meet his daily needs and perform his most basic tasks. No longer does Vietnam intrude on his life, as he refuses to relive the life-threatening experiences he suffered in the past. Gone are the visual, auditory and somatic flashbacks, as with proper therapy he has short circuited the process of reacting in his mind and body as though events 40 years ago were still occurring. A member of Mensa, Orban uses his intellect to publicly speak of his toughest battle, vanquishing his demons and reclaiming his soul. Clearly, he has succeeded!

Posted by:, at 2011-07-10 07:53:07

This item is part of historian, author, editor, and educator Remy Benoit's ongoing weblog for Veterans, writers, students, and others who believe in learning from and making history; including thousands of articles and posts and the free writing seminar, Using History for Healing and Writing.

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