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Nicole Caragiannides:

Malak, January 5, 2002. Vietnam, Navy seaman. Nicole Caragiannides. When were you born?

Robert Malak:

March 12th 1946.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Where?

Robert Malak:

Milwaukee, Wisconsin at Saint Luke's hospital.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Did you grow up in Milwaukee?

Robert Malak:

Yea, I grew up in Milwaukee, most of my, for the better part of my life. And uh, it wasn't until about eight years that I moved to Chicago.

Nicole Caragiannides:

What was your childhood like?

Robert Malak:

I think it was a, 11 kind a think that the people, the kids now if they knew how I lived would envy the lifestyle I had, and by all means it wasn't ugh a well to do, rich, lifestyle. It was easier times, compared to kids born in the seventies, eighties, and nineties and now. Everything was a little slower; we didn't have all of the computer technology, the video games, the video recorders, all the gadgets. My big fun, you know, would be to hop on my bike and ride around instead of being, instead of sitting in front of a television, or a video game. But um, my parents were really nice, they were, I was one of three children and my parents were really hard working. Both my mom and my dad worked.

Um my dad worked as a tool grinder for international harvester, and my mother worked for a, as a piece worked. Do you know what a piece worker is? Where you have to do assemble work you know you get paid by the piece, well she did that at a place called basal incorporated. And the two checks you know barely kept, you know three children with in food and clothing. So they really had to make ends meat.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Did you like school?

Robert Malak:

no,

Nicole Caragiannides:

No?

Robert Malak:

Not at all. 11 was a very shy person, do, do you think I'm shy now?

Nicole Caragiannides:

no

Robert Malak:

no, maybe, maybe I've outgrown it. But to a greater extent I am when I'm around people I like I'm not that shy. Okay. Um but I think it was hard for to really make friends in school. Um I would say they were friendly acquaintances. And maybe one or two good friends, I mostly like the girls all right. I always looked at it this way it was difficult for me to approach girl even though I like them a lot I felt um all the other boys aren't approaching the girls, I'm talking about 1st to 8th grade. Okay and um but but maybe that's not the way it should be, maybe I should of thought used my own common sense and just approach the girls because I liked hanging out with the girls more then I did the guys. Um then in high school I was still shy although I have to admit that in my senior year I had like three girlfriends, can you believe that? So I think I got out of my shyness in my senior year.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Were you good in school academically?

Robert Malak:

I would say I had about a C average. Yea I'm being very honest here.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Did you go to college?

Robert Malak:

Yeah I had, I would say two years of academic training and then I had two years of technical training in photography and film making.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Did you go to college in Milwaukee?

Robert Malak:

Yes

Nicole Caragiannides:

um when did you join the navy?

Robert Malak:

I joined the navy in 1965 I believe, and I was in the navy for no longer then a year.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Why did you join the navy?

Robert Malak:

That wasn't my fist choice, my first choice I believe was the marines, then the army, then the air force then the navy. I'll tell you why I went to all those branches to take the test, and at that point I was failing all the written test and I couldn't understand why that was. You know what I was going through a trauma at that time, my vision, I don't know you know you know what they say about physical problems, like oh, could be a heart problem, could be whatever. Sometimes stress creates a, progresses a particular physical problem. In my case when I graduated from high school, it was the following day I was suppose to enlist in the army. And the previous night, I don't know if you want this on there do you, All right. The previous night I went out with all the people after graduation and we got plastered, okay. And I knew the following morning I had to go to the enlistment office. And I went their half potsed and I said there is something wrong here, how come I can't see straight. Everything seemed cloudy and unusual, and I thought it's probably due to the alcohol, I've got a hang over, but I really wasn't sick. I didn't have a headache or anything. It was that moment in my life where my vision problem started coming in, all right. So, when I took the written exam, I was really good at exams anyway, and it was so simple a monkey could have done it. (laughing) But for some reason I failed it. And ah, and ah, and I was going through like this psychological turmoil at the time wonder how come my vision won't clear up and go back to 20/20 like it was the day before. The day before I had 20/20 the following day everything was cloudy, and and as days progressed You know I got more and more into a very weird situation, I wouldn't talk to anyone I just was cosseted in my bedroom at my parents house. Oh maybe I'll take another exam, the army I'll take there exam and then when I took that exam I realized well there's a problem right there I fail this test. As I get use to vision all right I found subtle ways of moving my eyes a bit so I could see a little bit clearly. When it came to taking the test for the navy, the written exam I passed it. By a narrow margin, and then when it came to taking the physical test, I don't know how they passed me. But I could hardly the third line from that eye chart, but they let me through. And it wasn't until I was in the service for about a year or so that I said oh my vision is really getting bad, maybe they can find some way of having me in the navy, getting me some special doctors. Well when I went to the opitimologist in Balboa, California, Balboa hospital in San Diego the doctor said you macular degeneration, it's not going to get any better, it will get a little worse. But it will stabilize but you will always have legal blindness. I'm legally blind. And ah, will have to let you go from the service. And that's what they did.

Nicole Caragiannides:

...did, why did you want to join during that time?

Robert Malak:

11 think it was because all my high school buddies were joining the military. And I didn't have any set goals in life I didn't know what I wanted to do. That was the one thing about high school that was lacking, in high school you have counselors that prepare you for your life or a job or something, I think that I had the worse counselors in the world, they didn't prepare me for anything. As soon as I got out of high school I thought what the hell am I going to do with my life. A lot of my friends were joining the military and I thought well, I'll just go to the military and see what happens.

Nicole Caragiannides:

but did you know about the whole conflict in Vietnam at the time?

Robert Malak:

Yeah, 11 it was just, we were in that conflict as deeply in 1965 as we got on in the course of time.

Nicole Caragiannides:

was there a fear at the time with you or your friends, with joining at the time

Robert Malak:

no, when your young, as you are , no have probably no fear of death. Your basically really healthy and You know no tragedies in your life, I think that's the way it was for me. I think I was invulnerable, as my friends did too. Nothing will happen to us were young and were strong. And um I think that, if I was in a combat situation I think that would change rapidly. If the next bullet that whipped past my head would hit it. But I never got to that point. I never served a board a ship.

Nicole Caragiannides:

what did you do in the navy?

Robert Malak:

um I worked in a legal office all right. They gave me some test and I had a relatively high I.Q. I was a good writer. They figured that would be kind of a job for this gentleman. So I got a job typing up things and doing interviews, of service member that came in under fraudulent circumstances. And trying to get information I would ask them question try to find out why did they enter the military fraudulently. And then write up a report and give it to my commanding officer. That's what I did.

Nicole Caragiannides:

did you like it?

Robert Malak:

you know what I was beginning to like it a lot, they wanted me to do a little more traveling, they said Robby, were going to give you a car so you can do a little more traveling. I didn't know how to drive, and I was 19 years old and they said were going to teach you how to drive. Now my vision is getting bad, I didn't know if I would be able to, I had to make sure I got these glasses. That's when I decided to go to the optimologist (sic.), and get my eyes checked. And when they told me that my vision was so poor that, I probably would never be able to drive a car, let alone serve in the military, that's when they discharged me. And when I left I was enjoying myself.

Nicole Caragiannides:

where there a lot of people entering under fraudulent terms?

Robert Malak:

no, back then if you were a homosexual, and they found out about it you were discharged, or if if they caught on that you had a bad character, you had a you could have been a murderer or rapist, things of that nature they didn't want you in there. They investigate these individuals, and that's what I was beginning to do. Just checking out backgrounds, and finding out why there were entering the service for what reason. The military had to cover themselves, cross all the tee's, dot all the I's, in order to discharge somebody.

Nicole Caragiannides:

did you find a lot of bad kids that slipped through the cracks?

Robert Malak:

I could tell you one story, but I don't know if you want it on here, the worse story I came across, was one were this young kid that lived on a farm, it kind of embarrassing for me, at that point in time, right now in your time your very smart when it comes to sexual matters.

You have sex education in school, back then in my day every thing was a little bit puritanical, if the guy kissed the girl on the first date that was a big deal, well I had to interview this guy, and I didn't know about the admirations of life and this guy told me, he lived on the farm and he would have relations with the farm animals, and I found this astonishing. People do that, this was one of the weird cases, this is probably something you don't want on tape. These were some of the weird circumstances I had to deal with.

It made me more aware of the human condition, the outward appearance of someone, their meekness, as mild as they could be, and you know they hide a darker side.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Where were you first stationed?

Robert Malak:

San Diego, California.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Did you see all your friends go overseas

Robert Malak:

Um, not really, I mostly you know, I was in the service for around a year, and during that time there were a lot of people who left, and went off aboard ships. Nobody that really effected me when they left.

People were there one day and gone the next. Sometimes they didn't even say bye bob.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Living in California did you see any protesting?

Robert Malak:

None.

Nicole Caragiannides:

None?

Robert Malak:

No, because in San Diego, they have a big military base there and their economy depended on their good relationships with the navy, plus you have the pacific ocean there all the ships and all the seamen getting off the ships, boasting their economy by going into town. So no I doubt very much that there would be protesting in a military town. In a town that wasn't a military town I'm sure there was.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Did you have any opinions on that, when you say or heard of the protest?

Robert Malak:

Some guys would say I was spit upon when I walked into my home town, right. I didn't see any of that, I'm sure those things happened. Just before entering the service I did a protest. It wasn't a protest against the war as much as a peace rally. I remember in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, walking down the street with a American flag. Um, with hundreds of people walking down Milwaukee avenue, there was a monument with some general on a horse, a big statue in the middle of the street, everyone just standing around rallying for peace. During that period of time in 1964 or so weren't that involved in the Vietnam conflict and we thought we could get out of the situation. We didn't till years later how long we would be there, and how devastating it would be. 55,000 lost service men and women.

Nicole Caragiannides:

So were you for or against the war?

Robert Malak:

I wasn't for it or against it, I don't think I had an opinion. I was in the military, I don't think I had an opinion. I don't know if it sounds indifferent of me, I don't know maybe I was indifferent at that time. Even after I get out of the service, after serving I was still indifferent. I would watch the news on T. V. and they would always show all the battles and stuff, in Vietnam, and I would watch it with great interest. Even when I was in the military, they would have a T.V on and I would watch the news, the Vietnam conflict and for some reason I would feel indifferent about it. I was away from it I wasn't on a ship shelling the enemy, or on the ground doing hand to hand combat with anybody.

I was indifferent maybe I should have had a view point.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Did a lot of the boats that went to Vietnam, did they leave from San Diego.

Robert Malak:

Oh yeah, sure . and a lot of other places too.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Did you see a lot of soldiers pass through?

Robert Malak:

probably not, during the Vietnam era, a lot of the soldiers were transported by plane, not by boat.

So they would land in Saigon, that was the thing back then a solider would be in his home town at the local bar or malt shop day 1 having a good time with all his friends, laughing and joking, making love what ever day 1. Day 2 he would be aboard a plane, and landing in Saigon. Day 3 he would be fighting the enemy, shooting at them. They didn't have any time to adjust.

Nicole Caragiannides:

was your family scared when you said you were going to enlist in a time were there was a risk of war?

Robert Malak:

no as a matter of fact, they took me the air field in Milwaukee and waved good bye to me.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Do you think that is because it was early on and not a few years later?

Robert Malak:

I think so I think your right. And I don't think my mom was that involved in the news at that time. She was just trying to make ends meat. Trying to help my other siblings, working her job and helping the family. Um so she really didn't know much about Vietnam, she wasn't a great national news watcher. She was more interested in the local news and what happened in Milwaukee.

Nicole Caragiannides:

was it weird being on a naval base and being able to watch the war on television.

Robert Malak:

you know what know that I reflect it was, because here I was sitting in an office, they were times at night were I would have to put on a white helmet and do SP shore patrol, and I would have to walk around The building where I worked, the legal office and make sure not one entered and I had to carry a night stick to clobber some one over the head with. But during that time we had a lot of time to just watch television and I would have my feet propped up and be watching the 5:30 news and watch the conflict on television. And then I thought to myself, I glad I'm not out there, I remember that one time. I'm glad I'm not there but otherwise I was general indifferent to it.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Was it weird for others that were state side to watch it on television

Robert Malak:

you know what I bet you very few sailors that were state side in San Diego, we were all living on the naval training base, I don't think anyone ever really gave us an opinion on how they felt on Vietnam. It was just something we saw on the TV, it was remote. We didn't have any thing to do with it, we weren't on a ship lobbing shells at the enemy. We were sitting comfortable in a legal office.

Nicole Caragiannides:

do you have any feeling of guilt that you got to stay state side?

Robert Malak:

No guilt on my part, as I reflect on it now I 'm thankful that I wasn't in Vietnam.

Because so many people, like my friend over here in purple heart. They came back different people. He saw a lot of people dying around him, how does do for somebody psychologically when they leave the service and come back in a civilian level it changes them forever. They have nightmares in my friends case he would go into his apartment close doors close the curtain and sit in the chair with a gun thinking that the enemy was going to come into his house, and this was many years after service. Those memories just stay with you, they some how never leave, I hear so many of the Vietnam veterans, say they had ptsd.

Nicole Caragiannides:

What's that?

Robert Malak:

RMI: PTSD post traumatic stress disorder. It something, when an individual is in a traumatic situation, in a combat situation were they are seeing a lot of friends getting killed, limbs blown off or what ever the case. It's a horrible thing to talk about, but lets be honest that's what happens in war when they see this happen it cause psychological problems and a lot of these guy, were evaluated by the V.A here as having PTSD. And a they can get compensation for it. Some guys I know can't work for a living, just being around people makes them nervous. They hyperventilate and get anxiety attacks. The VA gives them money to live on if it's 100% service connected they can get $2000 or more a month. I don't know how many cases are justified or not there are certain criteria they consider for a person to have PTSD. And a lot of it deals with flashbacks, if you have flashbacks all the time. Do you feel like when your home or walking down the street that your looking for the enemy. PTSD. I'm glad I don't have that. If I was in the military I might Have gotten it. I think actually now that I known for so long , that actually all this Time I was legally blind.

Nicole Caragiannides:

What brought you here today?

Robert Malak:

I work here, at the center, it started with helping out I'm pretty good at, you know, at composing a letter and and maybe I can do the minutes of your Meeting., and things of that nature. So I joined and I became a secretary in Wisconsin and I was there for about five years doing that kind of work. I was a volunteer now, not not a paid employee. And the national office in Washington D.C. got wind that I was doing pretty good work, I would put together news letters And and do the minutes and compose letters for them. They looked at all the work I did and maybe he can do this kind of work I'm doing here, helping veterans on a On a paying basis. And in fact at that point in my life I said you know I can help More veterans and get paid for it too and this work I'm doing with wedding videos I was doing wedding videos at the time. Okay, how long can I do this, before my Vision starts going down hill. I might not be able to take that important shot of The bride and groom and I think I'll take it see how it turns out. So I took this job, and so happens Blinded Veterans exclusively.

And been here six years now I think it'll be seven years in June. Yea, seven years in June.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Did a most of the people you have they lost their sight in combat?

Robert Malak:

No. On the contrary the minority of the veterans within our organization lost Their sight due to combat. Most of their visual problems are age related macular Degeneration or something like retinitis pigmentosis and these things occur later on In life. In most of our veterans, you know, its just the age 65 and older. These particular eye diseases, but the, and that's the vast majority, I'd say 85 to 90% of Our veterans have age related eye diseases. The people that were in combat lost Their vision, they're a minority of course they're service connected for this, their Eye problem.

Nicole Caragiannides:

What are your feelings when you help these men wounded in combat?

Robert Malak:

Like I told you before the main reason for me wanting to help the veterans Because I only served a year in the military. I felt if I gave it my time to helping Vets, it would be like serving a little military time. Because they need the help.

And I heard the stories, they tell me stories, about their wartime era. I think a Lot of older veterans especially the ones I know, who have been in World War I I Or Korea look with pride on how they served and look back on their companionship with other military people and these were relationships that were Forged in steel and blood sometimes all right. When your fighting along side Another person you build a real great bond. So a lot of these stories from Veterans deal with bonding. Unlike me who only served in the military, I can't Remember anybody I served in the military with in San Diego. But these guys Can remember like 50 years ago during World War II and and remember the Names of their buddies that were in a fox hole with them or things of that nature.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Now that you have had years to look back, what are your feelings about Vietnam?

Robert Malak:

Right now? Hah. You know what? I would say that it was too bad that we Got involved ah , and we got some Vietnam people, and of course I would Never say to any of them anything discouraging about, you know, you served In a war that really was not classified as a legal war. What was it called. They Called it a police action, back then.

Alright It really wasn't a declared war. I would have to say now that I'm glad that I never Got involved in it knowing how, knowing what I know now and how we got into That war. How Johnson got us into it with the Gulf of Ton kin resolution and what Not. Because, ah, it's taking of a waste of human life on both sides, nothing was Ever resolved and a, it just left a bitter taste in everybody's mouth. The civilians and the military people. Guys now are still suffering the consequences of being In that conflict. With the PTFC, the nightmares, and things like that they have to You know, relive thinking of old times. But yes, its always with 20/20 hindsight, You can look back and say to yourself I would never have attended that war, I would have been a draft dodger, I was down in Canada. I don't think I would have done that. Like I told you before I was indifferent when the war was going on. If they'd sent me I would have gone. If I would have been shot, you know, that Would have been it. But I just felt indifferent at that time. Now, I don't think that, I think that I'm glad that I wasn't involved, and I think that the war was just a Fruitless effort, a fruitless effort against communism.

Nicole Caragiannides:

At the time do you think the media accurately portrayed what went on in Vietnam Politically?

Robert Malak:

Did the media show the war to as strongly as strongly as they should have you Think? I think they didn't show it bloody enough. They didn't show the pain, the Anguish, the torn limbs, the psychological problems all of that, they didn't show it bloody enough. It was too sanitized on TV I thought. All right. Because if they had shown it, shown it the way it should be portrayed, I think the war would have Ended a lot sooner. When you show something too sanitized, you don't, you don't People don't get involved. They can't identify with something. You got to show it bloody, that way people can make an opinion on how they feel about the war. It A civilian, the American populace, the soldiers, you know, in missing limbs, you know, we have to stop this war. It has done too much to destroy human life and The fabric of our country. What I saw on TV was just a bunch of guys moving Around on the ground being fired at. Rarely did they show anybody dead.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Did the media give any idea as to why we were there? What the conflict Was all about?

Robert Malak:

You know what, it wasn't until years later that people really began to understand how we got involved in the Vietnam mess, the Vietnam War. We wanted to get involved in that war in order to get a foothold into Vietnam and Southeast Asia. And I think there were certain individuals in the Executive Branch That wanted this to happen. I'm almost forgetting that there was a certain ship that was being fired at in the Gulf of Ton kin it was an American ship, and they blamed it on the Vietnamese forces. That's what promoted Johnson, President Johnson, into Getting more people involved in that war.

Nicole Caragiannides:

When you first enlisted in the Navy you went to boot camp. Did they mention anything about Vietnam?

Robert Malak:

During that one period that I was in the military for that year, nobody ever mentioned Vietnam. The only thing I saw was on the 5:30 news. Helicopters landing in a rice paddy somewhere, soldiers jumping out of the helicopters, and maybe the cameramen would show soldiers shooting at the enemy. Rarely did they Show what I mentioned, the violence of war, the cruelty of war. Maybe that's why I was indifferent, maybe that why a lot of people were indifferent to the war. We had nothing really said, oh my gosh, look at, how many soldiers are dying over there. We've got to end this war as soon as possible. What are we getting out of this conflict, nothing. We're not getting anything.

Nicole Caragiannides:

When the War first started did you think anyone thought that it would last that long?

Robert Malak:

No I don't think anyone knows how long a war lasts. I hope. Look back into history did they ever think that the English and the French would fight for A hundred years? The Hundred Years War.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Do you think that there is any thought that this what we want to happen?

Do you think there were any realistic goals as to what it would take to end the war?

Robert Malak:

Speaking from the vantage point of a military person during the Vietnam Era I couldn't answer that question, because it was all in the hands of the leadership.

It really wasn't until Nixon , you know, visited Vietnam or China, I can't remember Him and Henry Kissinger and they, they ended the war. The average G. I. Joe as I was,

G. I. means government issue, we are at the mercy of our leadership, they tell us where to go, and what to do, and they often tell you that when your in the military the military owns your body. They can put it in harms way. But even if we had an opinion about not wanting to go into combat because we were against the tragedies of war, and we did not see any clear issues as to why we were there fighting. Our words would not be listened to, they would all be up to our military leaders, our generals and our president.

Nicole Caragiannides:

When you went back to Milwaukee did you see draft dodgers and see more protests on television?

Robert Malak:

Not Really. I imagine it was covered to some extent. All right. But I never got involved in that. I think that the main reason is that I was indifferent. I had no opinion about the Vietnam War. It seemed that there was no thing. When I was going to NATC for academic training and my photography and my film making. I Left all that stuff on the 5:30 news. And I didn't get involved. It sounds harsh, right?

At best it probably sounds indifferent, and that's how I was. I was indifferent to what was going on 2000 miles away. I'm not there.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Do you think that when you started to work with the veterans that you started to get some empathy?

Robert Malak:

You know that could well be, because you hear the stories of veterans serving During war and you realize what a sacrifice they made, both physically and mentally for their country. And I never had to do that, and I never had to appreciate that until I heard all the veterans talk about their experiences. I imagine I would be in the same boat had I stayed in the military a few more years and may have gone to Vietnam, who knows. My experiences weren't as deep as those who had suffered during war.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Do you believe there is such a thing as a good war?

Robert Malak:

A good war. I think right now I hope we wipe out every God damned terrorist in this world. And I use that term very strongly. This is a war on terrorism this is a good battle. I don't care who the terrorist is, if it's a home grown Terrorist or a terrorist from a foreign country. I hope we wipe them all off the face of the earth. I mean, you can't incarcerate these people in prison. You can't slap them on the hand and now go off to your country and never do this again. You have to kill them, you actually have to kill them, and if you don't realize that now, it's a terrible thing to say to kill another human being, but we have to put them up in front of a firing squad and shoot these people. Because they'll come back at us again. They'll never change their mindset. They'll kill more people, more so, probably more people than they killed at the Trade Center. The war on terrorism, I think is a just good war.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Do you see any comparisons to Vietnam were they're sending a little more troops, a little more troops how Vietnam started real slowly, it kind of progresses into this huge thing. Do you see any comparisons to that because there is no end in sight you know this is the end.

Robert Malak:

Even if you have to send in more troops, I think the American population, We had a lot of experience in war now. All right. And I think that the American population will say, all right President Bush you've gone too far, we've got too many troops involved. This is going to be an escalation.

Nicole Caragiannides:

Do you think Vietnam helped in that?

Robert Malak:

Yea. Because people became smarter. Why are we sending all of these soldiers to be killed? And what are we going to accomplish from this? What are going to gain? In this particular issue with the terrorists in Afghanistan or where ever they may be, if we need to send troops at this point in time our leadership knows how many to send and how to escalate it. But if the escalation goes to a point where the American populace says this is too much. Too many body bags are coming back with American soldiers in them. Then you'll hear complaints, you'll hear complaints. Maybe it will be justified. In the minds of the American populace that too many Americans are dying. We don't know that yet. We don't know until we get there. At this point in time our fighting with the Northern Alliance and other factions against Ossama Ben Laden is justifiable. I can't think of any other conflict on the map that's justifiable at this time.

 
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