The best and the worst moments of Marc Waszkiewicz's life involve the same thing: remembering.
Worst came first, after he dropped out of college at 18, joined the Marines and served three tours in Vietnam, with all the blood, gore and horror that mark that territory.
The best have come just in the past few years, through a collaboration with a perhaps unlikely friend, Lea Jones. With Jones' help, Waszkiewicz, 67, finally has beaten back his wartime demons by confronting them through creation of original songs, a short documentary film and a 326-page book of photos, captions and excerpts from his memoir.
The Register-Guard first did a story about Waszkiewicz (pronounced WAHS-keh-witz) nearly two years ago, when he and Jones - both are longtime professional musicians - were scheduled to make an appearance at Tsunami Books to sing some of the songs from their CD, "Warspeak," and present the first iteration of their book, "1000 Yard Stare," based on thousands of photographs Waszkiewicz took in Vietnam after he won a camera in a poker game.
It was 50 years to the week since Congress had passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave then-President Lyndon Johnson the power to wage conventional warfare in Southeast Asia without congressional authorization.
Only two U.S. senators - one of them Oregon's Wayne Morse, who called it "a historical mistake" - voted against the resolution, which opened the country to a decadelong war in which 2.7 million young American soldiers served in Vietnam. Of the 58,000 who did not come back, more than half were 21 years old or younger.
Waszkiewicz didn't show up for the Tsunami appearance, and Jones had to do the show by himself. Jones wasn't surprised - they'd already known each other for 23 years, and falling apart and even disappearing because of post-traumatic stress disorder had been part of Waszkiewicz's behavior pattern for decades.
But since then, as the four-part project they call "Viet Nam: An Inner View" has progressed, so has Waszkiewicz.
After self-publishing their 220-page softcover version of "1000 Yard Stare" two years ago, they kept on working, adding more photos and several new chapters and appendices.
Now, with the acceptance of the expanded, 326-page version of "1000 Yard Stare" by a publisher and a film clip from the documentary, "Tripwire!", on the docket for the 25th annual Woods Hole Film Festival in Cape Cod, Mass., this summer, "I can actually see fruition," Waszkiewicz said.
"I've had many 'timeouts' in the process, some as long as six months to a year, but working on this project has been the most healing thing I've ever done for myself," Waszkiewicz said. "I feel better than I ever have since 'Nam."
Progress and setbacks
As long ago as 1991, Waszkiewicz seemed to have an inkling that his mental salvation might lie in words, music and images.
He'd come back from Vietnam in 1970 with at least 4,000 photographs that remained for years packed away in boxes as he "just tried to live my life."
"I was excited to get back to the world so I could share my photographs and my stories, but when I finally made it home, very few people were interested; it was clear the subject made them uneasy," he wrote in the preface to his book. "Life moved on and Vietnam was soon history."
Without realizing what he was doing, Waszkiewicz turned to "drugs, alcohol and sex to mask the pain," and he was involved in rock 'n' roll tours, he said. "I was living a crazy lifestyle."
Even so, somewhere along the line he went back to college and completed a master's degree in composition and arranging at the Dick Grove School of Music in Studio City, Calif.
"I wasn't a singer or songwriter, but I do have an Emmy for composing PBS documentaries," he said.
After the movie "Platoon" came out in 1986, Waszkiewicz felt compelled to catalog his own boxes of photographs, and he also had 232 letters he had written to his mother during his three years in Vietnam.
"She saved them because she expected every one would be the last," he said. "They were all in order, all numbered."
He also started interviewing fellow veterans about their Vietnam experiences. The combination of all those experiences "really reopened doors to the past, some good, some really troubling," Waszkiewicz said.
He'd taken at least a two rolls of film and sent two letters home each week, so he lined up all the letters and the pictures chronologically and started going through them.
"I got to one letter that said, 'Dear Mom, Today I met the coolest guy ...' and suddenly it was like I was right back in 'Nam, and I was reliving a few days after I wrote that letter when I witnessed his demise," Waszkiewicz said. "The juxtaposition of those moments - the end of that story - messed my mind up for about a year. It opened up a (mental) sore that had abscessed deep inside but that I thought had healed - but when it was reopened, there was all that pus, which was PTSD."
He was formally diagnosed with PTSD in 1988 - and later awarded full disability because of the condition - "and I started therapy, which started to give me tools and the ability to re-engage in my project."
But real life intruded again in 1990, when his oldest son, then 3, was diagnosed with leukemia. "We were basically living at a Ronald McDonald House, and there were children all around with cancer, and I was dealing with death and trauma all over again," Waszkiewicz said. "That was really tough."
The child recovered - he later had a relapse, underwent a second successful round of treatment and remains a healthy adult - and the family was living "in a mobile home at the end of a dirt road" in rural Washington state.
At that point, things had settled down, and Waszkiewicz wanted to get back to his projects, not only the book idea but also a CD about the Vietnam experience, with guitar and vocals.
"I needed a singer-songwriter, preferably someone who was a baritone, to partner with me about all these different songs I had in mind," Waszkiewicz said. "I picked up the local paper and saw an ad that said, 'Tonight - singer-songwriter showcase in Poulsbo (Wash.).' So I went."
That was where he met Lea Jones, who was hosting the event.
"I listened to his performance, and I liked what I heard, so afterward I approached him and told him about my project and what I needed," Waszkiewicz said. "He wrestled with his inner demons," he joked, "and against his better judgment he decided to help me. That was the answer - I knew I could go on from there."
He spent a year "spoonfeeding Lea my entire account of Vietnam, the history, the firsthand account, the stories, the pictures, and after he graduated from Vietnam 101, we went through a year of writing songs.
"It was painful, but we found a synergy that created something that neither of us could have done alone."
Jones remembers the process much the same way.
"I was not enthusiastic at first," he admitted. "We were completely different people - he had served three tours in Vietnam, and I had been an attempted conscientious objector who was told that just saying you don't believe in killing somebody doesn't mean you're a C.O."
Jones said he never came close to serving anyway, because the war was winding down by the time he graduated from high school in 1972.
Waszkiewicz would not have had to go into the military at all either, much less to Vietnam, but he viewed it almost as a given.
"I came from a military family, the product of post-World War II and the 1950s," he said. "I never met my dad - I never even knew his name until I was in high school. My mom turned 17 the week before I was born; she was in 10th grade and had to drop out to have me."
He describes his mother as a "party monster, and it was always guys in uniform. We lived in East Los Angeles when I was a kid, and each night there was a new guy, always in uniform. Even as a little kid, I got so I could tell the service, the rank, everything."
When his mother got pregnant a second time, "her mother said, 'This time you get married,' and my stepfather was career Navy, so I grew up on Navy bases," Waszkiewicz said. "When Vietnam came along, I thought it was my turn to do my bit - I admired John F. Kennedy and his way with words, 'Ask not what your country can do for you' and all that - so I quit school and went down and signed up for the Marines. It was my step into manhood."
Once Waszkiewicz and Jones embarked on their project, their off-and-on collaboration continued, punctuated by personal flare-ups, Waszkiewicz's periodic withdrawals, even presidential politics.
"I was pretty much a leftie, and Marc was a staunch conservative, and that definitely had an effect on our working relationship," Jones said. "We didn't speak to each other for about five years during the late-Clinton, early-Bush years."
Artistically, the two also "wrestled with our different opinions, and our egos were frequently bruised," Waszkiewicz said. "But in the end, we've stuck with it, and we've ended up with stuff that's so much better in terms of detail and authenticity. To me, it's like a Lennon-McCartney thing - I couldn't do this without him, and he couldn't do it without me." VIET NAM: AN INNER VIEW The four-part project by Marc Waszkiewicz and Lea Jones is available by order or preorder online at vietnaminnerview.com CD: "Warspeak," $10; available Softcover book: 220 pages, $49; available Preorder complete set: Includes expanded, 326-page hardcover "1000 Yard Stare;" "Warspeak" CD; "Welcome to the Jungle" memoir; and "Tripwire!" documentary film; $135
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