When War Is Personal

The Persian Gulf war still defines Venus Hammack. But her mission now is to keep other soldiers from repeating her experience - including her own children

January 14, 2003|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MOUNT JACKSON, Va. - The campaign medals Venus Hammack received after the Persian Gulf war are lost in the clutter, stuck behind a mountain of videotapes in her old house. She threw them there in a fit of rage one afternoon, and there they have stayed, discarded with the rest of her military existence.

The moment those decorations clattered against the foyer wall and dropped out of sight, Hammack entered the messy aftermath of a supposedly tidy war. The years that followed brought the end to her Army career, the collapse of her marriage, the progression of a shadowy gulf war illness that cost her custody of her youngest child.

As Operation Desert Storm marks its 12th anniversary this week, Hammack greets the occasion far more changed by that war than the rest of the country ever seemed to be. Perhaps it's because her wounds are harder to quantify than most.

After all, how do you measure the unraveling of a life?

In the years since the conflict, Hammack has turned from soldier to protester, separating herself from everything that was once hers - her home, her family, her job. She traded it for a new identity as a lobbyist for veterans who, like herself, suffer health problems they attribute to chemical and biological exposures during Desert Storm.

And now all that anger at the last war is assuming a new incarnation, as the retired Army reservist gathers up her rage and redirects it at the prospect of a second U.S. war with Iraq. On Saturday, with the country on the brink of a rematch in the Middle East, Hammack will travel to Washington to protest another gulf war.

But her mission is more complicated this time. Hammack, a 47-year-old self-described "G.I. Jane" who spent more than half her life as a soldier, is fighting military policies to which her own children have sworn allegiance. Over her objections, a son and daughter have joined the Air Force reserves. Both expect to serve in the gulf.

Now, when she rails against the costs of a future war, it's their faces she sees.

The woman named for the goddess of love is branded by battle, too: A tattoo of Athena, the goddess who delivers strength in war, blazes on Venus' left hip, inked there in the presence of good friends and hard liquor when Venus was a young soldier.

But long before that boozy night in a tattoo parlor, she was marked for the Army.

Her father, a World War II veteran, filled their home in Queens, N.Y., with tales of the Red Ball Express - a support operation made up primarily of black soldiers that kept combat troops stocked with supplies in Europe.

Mundane household items - a cup, a can, a scrap of fabric - became instruments of wartime ingenuity in his retelling; they doubled as tools the troops used in the French countryside, or supplies they traded for food in Belgium. The cold at night in an English port town, she learned, was worse than anything New York City could deliver. The best thing about the bullet that kills you, she was told, is you probably won't see it coming.

Though fascinated by the tales, Venus at first tried to resist the path of her father by attending a high school for performing arts in Manhattan. The child - born Venus-Valiery because her mother didn't like "Venus" and her father refused to yield - dreamed of becoming an opera singer.

But when Venus injured her larynx just before graduation, the default plan was clear. Her father's dinner-time dispatches from Gen. George S. Patton's celebrated 3rd Army, with their cinematic plotlines and character lessons, had their effect.

When basic training was about to start, Adrian Weekes took his daughter to the airport.

"My father said, `You finally figured out you need to do something with your life,'" Venus now recalls. "The day I was shipped out was the day I got some approval from him."

An 18-year-old Venus, with wide eyes and a gap between her teeth, had joined the all-female Women's Army Corps. It was 1973, and though the United States was still embroiled in Vietnam, that war felt abstract. Venus learned combat photography but never tested her skill. Instead, she worked odd jobs and hopscotched between U.S. bases.

A year after enlisting, she married an instructor, Sgt. David Hammack, and went from wiry, 110-pound waif to fully fleshed-out Venus. In a photograph, she directs traffic at Fort Dix, N.J., motioning "STOP" imperiously - part crossing guard, part Supremes. Off duty, she wore short shorts and flashed her warrior goddess tattoo.

She and Hammack, a white sergeant she jokingly called "the redneck," had two daughters, Venus-Victoria and Cassandra. But the marriage was brief; Venus blames the stress of military life and the pressure they felt as an interracial couple.

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