At Hell’s Gate and My Family

/ posted in: Reading At Hell’s Gate and My FamilyAt Hell's Gate by Claude Anshin Thomas
on 2004
Genres: Biography & Autobiography
Pages: 168
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
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In this raw and moving memoir, Claude Thomas tells the dramatic story of his service in Vietnam, his subsequent emotional collapse, and how he was ultimately able to find healing and peace. Thomas went to Vietnam at the age of eighteen, where he served as a crew chief on assault helicopters. By the end of his tour, he had been awarded numerous medals, including the Purple Heart. He had also killed many people, witnessed horrifying cruelty, and narrowly escaped death on a number of occasions.
When Thomas returned home he found that he continued to live in a state of war. He was overwhelmed by feelings of guilt, fear, anger, and despair, all of which were intensified by the rejection he experienced as a Vietnam veteran. For years, Thomas struggled with post-traumatic stress, drug and alcohol addiction, isolation, and even homelessness.
A turning point came when he attended a meditation retreat for Vietnam veterans led by the renowned Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Here he encountered the Buddhist teachings on meditation and mindfulness, which helped him to stop running from his past and instead confront the pain of his war experiences directly and compassionately. Thomas was eventually ordained as a Zen monk and teacher, and he began making pilgrimages to promote peace and nonviolence in war-scarred places around the world including Bosnia, Auschwitz, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and the Middle East.
At Hell's Gateis Thomas's dramatic coming-of-age story and a spiritual travelogue from the horrors of combat to discovering a spiritual approach to healing violence and ending war from the inside out. In simple and direct language, Thomas shares timeless teachings on healing emotional suffering and offers us practical guidance in using mindfulness and compassion to transform our lives.


Growing up I knew from old family photos that my father’s sister had been married and divorced before I was born.  As an adult this was cause for some annoyance for me because whenever I would drive separately from my husband to a family event my parents would pipe up with, “The last time people drove separately to a family event they ended up divorced.”  This referred to my aunt’s first marriage and was incredibly annoying.  It was also untrue because the “last time” was the last time they said it to me. Then I got divorced and reinforced their beliefs.

Anyway, a few years ago I saw a list on Wikipedia or something about famous people from my hometown.  It is a VERY short list.  One of the people was a famous monk or something and it said he graduated the same year as my parents.  I asked if they knew this person.

My mother:  Disapproving snort “Oh, yeah.  That’s Tommy.  You know, your aunt’s first husband.”

How does that never come up in conversation?  (I can’t believe I even had this thought now after finding out everything never discussed in my family like my grandmother living under a fake name since the age of five and the fact that she had a murdered brother that was never mentioned.)

A few weeks ago I saw another list of famous people from my hometown.  (There were five entries and the first one was a horse.)  It mentioned that Claude Thomas had written an autobiography.  I got it from interlibrary loan.

I didn’t know whether to mention this or not.  The night before I was going to start reading it I told my mother about it.  I wanted confirmation that this was the same guy.  I still wasn’t entirely convinced.

My mother: “Really?  You have to tell me what it says. He didn’t just marry into your father’s family.  He was close to mine too.”

Me:  “The back says that it is mostly about Vietnam and lists a lot of medals he won.  Then it is about peace marches.”

My mother responded with a story about how he took her brother’s car and rolled it and her brother took the blame for it.

Me:  “(the husband) and I were talking about this.  We decided that if (my ex) became President of the United States and single handedly ended fighting in the Middle East and brought about world peace, your first comment would be, ‘The bastard owes my daughter money.'”

My mother: Laughs and then immediately lists five other things she’s mad at my ex about.  “Let him try to run for President.  I have things to say.”

I think my family missed their calling.  They should have been in the Mafia.  They have the Don’t Cross Family thing down cold.


He doesn’t own up to rolling the car in the book.  He glosses over most of his upbringing.  He does mention joy riding in cars from the local dealership but says he never wrecked any of those.  He dismisses my aunt and their marriage in two sentences.

This is the story of a veteran with severe PTSD using Buddhism as a coping mechanism.  It sounds to me like it isn’t working too well.  He mentions still not being able to sleep more than two hours at a time, for example.  I live with a veteran with PTSD so I’m used to some of the behaviors that comes along with it.  I’d recommend medication and maybe counseling to learn coping mechanisms.  I was hoping to read how Buddhism and meditation helped him but he seems to be barely functional.

He lives as a mendicant monk which means that he has no possessions and is homeless.  He leads long walking pilgrimages like Poland to Vietnam or across the U.S.  The participants carry no money and make no plans for housing.  When they get to a town, they ask at local churches for a place to sleep and some food.  I found this part interesting and disturbing.

Most often they are turned away from churches even in blizzards.  So much for Matthew 25:35.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in


He tells stories of being allowed to stay in a church but being told that they have to hide so children don’t see them.  They often have the police called because of “suspicious looking people seen walking down the road”.

He doesn’t refer to any Americans except his son by name in this book.  It seems like most of his anger is still focused on the American people.  He seems capable of accepting Vietnamese people but not Americans.  That may be a new idea for some people but doesn’t seem to be uncommon.  A lot of veterans are incredibly angry at Americans who didn’t serve in wars and many hate nonveterans blithely telling them, “Thank you for your service.”

This is a good book to read to open your eyes to the psychic toll that war can take on soldiers.