“One Stinking, Terrifying Hell”—When Soldiers and Butterflies Go to War

A desert butterfly perched on my leg as I rode through dusty terrain on the back end of a truck, bumping out into the desert to perform maintenance work on bombs waiting to be loaded on their jets. It looked like one of those butterflies that perched on cauliflower in my mom’s garden when I was a kid. I had never paid them much attention. They were common. Ordinary. But here in the Iraq desert, it was so beautiful. Peaceful and magical with its white flitting wings. I observed it like I used to watch the sparrows in basic training: envious of their freedom to come and go as they pleased, unthreatened by their surroundings. Go far away from here, I urged the butterfly silently.

William O’Herrin, who served with the 22nd Marine Regiment on Eniwetok, Guadalcanal, and Guam, attends a 6th Marine Division reunion. Courtesy of Elizabeth O’Herrin

While I was deployed to Iraq, I wrote updates for friends and family, but also for myself. After writing about the butterfly’s visit, I received a note from my grandfather. I saw those butterflies too, he said. They were so beautiful. Not the same ones. Different. But the same. It had taken him a long time to write about his butterflies.

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Before dawn on Dec. 7, 1984, he awoke in a sweat despite the frigid Wisconsin winter. This wasn’t unusual for him, even so many years after he’d returned from the Pacific. But on this Pearl Harbor anniversary, he’d finally had enough. He roused himself, made black coffee, pulled off the typewriter’s cover, and began pecking. When he finished, he made four copies—one for each of his children—licked the stamps and envelopes, and dropped them in the mail.

The letter was largely one single sentence. Seven hundred and seventeen words long, in fact; I counted. Tumbling thoughts twisted and turned. The stream-of-consciousness run-on sentence full of haunting memories concluded with a final paragraph: “War is one stinking, terrifying hell. There are no heroes in war. There are only the survivors, the dying, and the dead.”

He wrote that he wouldn’t speak of it again, but that at least now we knew his story. Implied: Don’t ask me any questions. I was less than a year old when my parents received the letter.

The author, Elizabeth O’Herrin, and her sister Colleen with her grandfather and grandmother in Wisconsin. Courtesy of Elizabeth O’Herrin

My uncle Bill managed to persuade my grandfather to keep writing, gently offering that World War II veterans were a vanishing breed and that family records would be incomplete without it. My grandfather finally conceded and began typing again. Rather than simply purging like he had that night in December, he researched history of the atolls he landed on, detailed descriptions of dehydration and jungle rot, copied and pasted crude pictures of elephantiasis of arms, legs, even testicles. He wrote about Chamorro culture that he witnessed on Guam, where he fought to liberate the island from the Japanese. He resurrected buried memories of friends named Tommy and Jimmy, who were mowed down by machine gun fire. Some stories would never make it to paper, he admitted. Weren’t meant to be told.

Another 15 years passed before my grandfather finished. After I read his completed memoir, I wrote him an email. I didn’t ask him any questions. I was a young teenager and his story moved me to tears, and I wanted him to know it had profoundly impacted his granddaughter. I couldn’t begin to imagine what he had been through, I told him, but I was eternally grateful he chose to trust us. It touched him enough that he printed off my email and included it in the sparse copies of his memoir that he ran off at a print shop and gave away to family and a few old war buddies who were still alive. I didn’t understand why he included my email, but I found comfort knowing that it had resonated with him.

I’ve returned to his memoir over the years, studying the pages back and forth, memorizing sentences and even a few paragraphs. Although the memoir indicated a willingness to share his history, I never brought it up after that email. I feared prying and making him dig into abscesses that he didn’t want to revisit. It never felt right: Holiday gatherings were loud and full of dark beer; early bird Friday suppers were lighthearted; and Packer and Badger games demanded our full attention.

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My enlistment date into the National Guard fell on Sept. 13, 2001, two days after the planes hit. I hadn’t intended to join the military in the wake of an attack on American soil, like my grandfather had after Pearl Harbor, but my path began to resemble his. Only I wasn’t called up right away, so I continued on with college, serving one weekend a month. But when I would visit my grandparents for lunch between classes, constantly wondering if and when I would be deployed, we mostly skipped over the wars. Instead we talked about the books we were reading, avoiding the elephant in the room that dredged up painful memories for him and stirred deep anxieties in me. If we neared the topic, he shook his head and waved off, and we went back to our lunches. I could tell how much he hated that I would be involved in the war.

When I eventually deployed, I found it difficult to speak about my experiences, but it was easier to write. And I was inspired by my grandfather’s willingness, although initially resistant, to do the same. Whenever I posted an update, or sent an email or letter home, I’d get little notes in return from my grandfather. Sometimes a quick email, sometimes a short letter: Keep your head down. Stay safe. We’re thinking of you. We want you home. That was about the extent of it. No questions, even after I returned home from each of my three deployments. Perhaps he didn’t want to ruin our tuna salad sandwiches.

The author, Elizabeth O’Herrin, demonstrates a new toy for her grandfather at their home in Wisconsin, in the summer of 1991. Courtesy of Elizabeth O’Herrin

Despite writing while I was deployed, in the months after returning home I clammed up, unable to make much sense of my experiences. My father encouraged me to keep writing, just as my uncle had encouraged my grandfather decades earlier. Dad told me that after my grandfather wrote the pre-dawn letter, he had stopped having night terrors. He had kept things bottled inside for four decades, not wanting to uncork them. He hadn’t known putting words to paper would be so therapeutic. For me, I found that my thoughts slowly began to feel less like a lottery ball machine, and when they started to settle they wiggled back out onto paper.

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My grandfather passed not long after I returned from my last deployment, nearly a decade ago now. I would trade just about anything to sit down with him to talk. Maybe not even about our wars—just about writing them. I wonder if he felt lighter after he wrote things down. I wonder if he pulled the pages out when he finished typing for the day and felt resolution. I wonder if he felt like vomiting while writing, like I sometimes do. Every once in awhile, I find memorized phrases from his memoir drifting through my mind when I read the news. War is one stinking, terrifying hell. But I also remember that I saw the butterflies, and it brings me some peace that I know he saw them too.

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Liz O'Herrin Lee

Liz O’Herrin Lee served with the WI ANG from 2001-2008, assembling and transporting conventional weapons for F-16s. She received her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her M.A. from Johns Hopkins University. She resides in Denver with her husband, Mike, and she is a Tillman Scholar.

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