Michael Orange

Michael Orange: Embracing the Ghosts

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“It’s a good day—nobody’s shooting at me.” That mantra kept Vietnam veteran Michael Orange going for 30 years. But the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caught up with him, as he reflects in his latest book, Embracing the Ghosts: PTSD and the Vietnam Quagmire.

About Michael Orange

Embracing the Ghosts: PTSD and the Vietnam Quagmire by J. Michael Orange

Orange, a West St. Paul resident, has held 34 jobs over his 70-plus years, including 30 years as a city planner for Minneapolis. He enlisted in the Marines in 1968 and served a year fighting in Vietnam. That story is covered in his first book, Fire in the Hole: A Mortarman in Vietnam. Currently, Orange provides part-time environmental consulting services to local
governments with his company, ORANGE Environmental, LLC.

“Difficult times often spawn dangerous times. Rather than turn against one another, turn toward one another.”

Michael Orange

Conversation With Michael Orange

We talked with Michael Orange about his book, current events, therapy, and more.

In the book you talk about the Iraq invasion of 2003 prompting a lot of memories of Vietnam. How did you feel watching the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan and the frequent comparisons to Vietnam? 

Simple answer: Angry on many fronts.

If George W. Bush’s brother, as Governor of Florida, had not purged the Florida voting rolls of 100,000 voters prior to the 2000 Presidential election; and if the conservatives on the Supreme Court had not halted the recount of the Florida votes, Bush would not have been President. He still lost the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes, but after the 9/11 attacks, his popularity rose to 90%. He saw the political value of war and the money that could be made by the military-industrial complex that supported him. Bush’s answer to anyone who disagreed was, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

A small group of terrorist criminals were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. It was not an act of war by a sovereign nation. When the Taliban government of Afghanistan refused after the attack to stop providing safe haven to Bin Laden and Al Qaida, eight days of intense bombing by Bush forced them to change positions. They relented and then offered to turn over Bin Laden to a neutral third country. Instead of seeking justice right then, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz escalated matters into an unjustified war on Afghanistan, and a year later invaded Iraq—a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. These were war crimes no less serious than the lies from the Johnson Administration after the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident that committed the U.S. to a disastrous war in Vietnam; or Richard Nixon’s 1968 “October Surprise” that unnecessarily extended that war by five years; or Reagan’s “October Surprise” that helped his election in 1980 and initiated the CIA’s lethal dirty tricks in Central America.

Our attempts to expand our empire throughout the Middle East has only resulted in needless death and destruction. We have the reverse Midas Touch there. Wherever we go, things turn to crap. Since we never should have invaded Afghanistan (or Iraq), I’m glad we are finally leaving—it’s just 20 years too late.

Our disasters in Vietnam, Central America, the Middle East, and elsewhere have helped fuel the right wing’s politics of fear, hate, and division at home. My rejection of those politics stems to a large degree from my experiences fighting in one of our nation’s imperialistic wars.

I fought for a lost cause in Vietnam. One thing I learned relevant to our withdrawal from Afghanistan—there’s no easy or sanitary way to retreat, or try to cut your losses, or surrender. Our investment of trillions of dollars and the thousands of American lives damaged or destroyed by our invasions and occupations (plus the millions of lives in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, mostly civilians) only postponed the inevitable retaking by the Taliban of their country, and the misery that I’m sure will unfold as they reestablish a harsh medieval theocracy.

What lessons do you think we should have learned from Vietnam? 

There are countless books and academic studies that answer that complex question. A simple answer from me is that we should have learned that there are massive costs and eventually limits to empires and imperialism. Our militarism, invasions, and occupations in the Middle East prove we have not yet learned that lesson, and we won’t learn it as long the military-industrial complex continues to profit from war.

Is the VA doing a better job taking care of veterans today? Are there things we’re still missing and ways we’re not providing for our veterans?

Whenever I visit our VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, I get excellent care. I am so impressed by the professionalism and dedication of virtually every staff member I meet.

Many conservative politicians, especially since the Reagan Era, believe in the privatization of public programs that are dedicated to the common good. Although the Bush/Chaney administration failed to privatize Medicare in a piecemeal manner, there have very successful efforts to carve away parts of the VA system to satisfy private sector greed at the expense of veteran health. Multiple studies have shown the VA medical system is either equal to or outperforms the private medical industry on virtually every relevant measure.

In my experience, our local, state, and federal governments and the numerous veteran-oriented service organizations do a great job providing for the needs of us veterans. I can only say to them, “Thank you for your service.”

Family and faith seemed to have caused or been the root of some of your ghosts, but they also seem to be how you have dealt with those ghosts. Family and faith can be complicated—how do you recommend people deal with those challenges, whether in the past or current?

Head and heart. Combat trauma in Vietnam wounded me psychologically. It took me 33 years before I finally got help through talk therapy. I learned that trauma is cumulative. My therapist also steered me to address earlier childhood wounds that were psychological precursors to my PTSD. I found that dealing with childhood issues was actually more difficult than addressing my combat-induced PTSD. With the expert care of my therapist (who, like me, was a combat Marine in Vietnam), I grew in compassion for my parents and for myself. The most important factor was my wife, Cynthia. As I wrote in my book, she was (and is) “my guiding light during my darkest days. My sanctuary.” I urge readers who are also troubled to seek professional help. Therapy works.

As for the faith aspect of the question, if a religion isn’t helping someone become a better person, a person centered on love and compassion for others, a person willing to embrace doubt and questions, then they may be ready for the next stage of ethical maturity in a different faith (or none at all).

Do you think we’re making progress with mental health and therapy being more commonly discussed and accepted today? Or do we still have a long way to go?

I live in bubble of progressive people, many of whom have been helped by therapy. I certainly believe therapy has become mainstream and generally accepted, at least here in the more progressive Twin Cities. However, people who may contradict that statement include active-duty service men and women and veterans. These are the people I most hope will read and find help in my book.

What advice do you have for people struggling with the challenges of the recent pandemic? 

The pandemic is a domestic battle of sorts. The leaders of the culture war that plagues the nation normally focus on the 5-G wedge issues (guns, gays, God, gynecology, and government). Unfortunately, they have added science and reason to their list and defected to help the enemy, the virus. Trust the science and the medical professionals. They have taken a solemn oath to help people and have sacrificed dearly to honor that oath.

My heart goes out to those who have suffered during this pandemic; those who have lost their job; those who face economic ruin, food insecurity, and homelessness as public aid expires; and to the children whose education has been disrupted and made riskier by anti-maskers and anti-vaxers.

These are difficult times. According to historian, Heather Cox Richardson, “By the end of 2020, more than 83 million Americans were having trouble meeting bills or buying food, and by January 2021, 30 to 40 million Americans were at risk of eviction because they could not make their rent payments. … 39% of low-income households saw job losses early in the pandemic.”

Nobel Laureate economist, Paul Krugman, concluded that the most current trend of severe economic inequality began in the mid-1980s. As of 2013, the top 0.1% of households had as much wealth as the bottom 90%—and the trend no doubt has gotten even worse since then.

Climate change can also serve as a threat multiplier. It intensifies existing risks and creates new ones that can exacerbate conflict.

Difficult times often spawn dangerous times. Rather than turn against one another—which is the hope of the leaders of the culture war—turn toward one another. Build your community through mutual care and assistance.

How are you doing today? What keeps you grounded and focused?

My daily mantra is to focus on body, mind, and spirit. I still exercise regularly (biking, hiking, yoga, and pickleball) and I have regular part-time work since retirement in 2007 via the consulting company I formed, ORANGE Environmental. I love performing songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s at the Minnesota Veterans Home on my 1966, vintage Gibson guitar. Cynthia and I have remained very active in the peace, justice, and environmental movements. But nothing is more important than our marriage (we celebrated our 48th anniversary last summer), our family, and our rich community of family and friends.

What do you love about West St. Paul?

Cynthia grew up in the house her parents built here in 1948. In 1977 we moved our family into that house and plan to age-in-place in it.

The city is evolving toward a better balance on many fronts. I can walk to downtown St. Paul; vehicular access is excellent; housing choices range from the very affordable in the north to well beyond our reach as you go south; and our shopping, educational, cultural, and county-supported social service resources are excellent. Robert Street continues to improve as the city implements its Renaissance Plan. We are becoming a more economically and socially diverse community, which I believe to be very good, but it also comes with challenges that climate change and our culture war are exacerbating. I admire and enthusiastically support the elected officials who represent us—our U.S. Senators, our two state legislators, and our County Commissioner. City government is becoming more progressive and hopefully shucking the old mantra of acceptable mediocrity for new developments: “Good enough for West St. Paul.” I’ll offer a new mantra: “West St. Paul—Daring to be Exceptional.”

Thanks to Michael Orange for taking the time to talk with us. You can check out Michael Orange’s books, Embracing the Ghosts: PTSD and the Vietnam Quagmire and Fire in the Hole: A Mortarman in Vietnam. Orange’s wife Cynthia also has a book that might be helpful for families, Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living With a Loved One’s PTSD.

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