Remembering our aging warriors
When I was growing up and even in early adulthood, World War II veterans were the elder of the veterans that we knew and honored. Now, as the decades roll along, Vietnam veterans are moving into their place.
My seventh-grade social studies teacher was a Vietnam veteran. Sometimes he would turn off the fluorescent lights so only the sun through the window illuminated the room. He would narrate a memory from the jungles of Vietnam. He called the VietCong “Charlie.” As his thoughts moved into the past, the class would get very quiet. We could sense he was no longer with us but somewhere far away. As an adolescent, I simply thought he was a powerful storyteller, but as I think back on it, I now see it was emotion and wounds that propelled his words and made his stories so captivating.
I don’t have any Vietnam veterans in my immediate family or everyday circle, but recently I had a conversation with two older friends I didn’t realize were veterans. These are two men I’ve known for several years and talk to regularly.
One of these individuals was wearing a Vietnam Veteran ball cap. This was my first indicator that he fought in Vietnam. When I asked him about it, he said he’d been a college student majoring in aerospace engineering when he was drafted. During his time in the military, he flew helicopters and when he returned home, he got married to the girlfriend who had waited for him. They had children and he opened a business flying helicopters. He never re-enrolled in a secondary institution.
The other gentleman had been running track at a junior college when he was drafted. He talked of receiving a letter from the U.S. government that said something along the lines of “Greetings! You’ve been selected to serve…”
These two conversations got me thinking about all of the other Vietnam veterans who are walking around with these deep stories, memories and emotions connected to this tumultuous time in American history. Unless we know these gentlemen personally or they’re wearing a hat or shirt, it would be impossible to know who they are. Just imagine how many stories are left untold.
I also started thinking about the letter from Uncle Sam. I became curious about its contents so I searched on the internet and found a number of examples.
At the top, these letters said, “ORDER TO REPORT FOR INDUCTION” then they go on to indicate the location, date and time the individual must report and to also describe what to do if the man was married, employed or unfit for service due to mental or physical impairments.
During the Vietnam War, about two-thirds of American troops volunteered, the rest were selected for military service through the draft and therefore received one of these letters. As the mom of two boys, I can’t imagine what these young men or their parents felt when they received a letter such as this, knowing their dreams, goals and life plans would be thwarted. Upon return from combat, many servicemen were forever changed and did not go back to the life they had before their time in Vietnam.
Some of these men had never left their hometowns and were now traveling across the world to a foreign country to fight for an elusive cause. Lasting almost two decades, the Vietnam War was a costly and divisive conflict that pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. The conflict was further intensified by the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
On Jan. 27, 1973, with the Paris Peace Accords signed and our country’s involvement in the Vietnam War over, Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird announced the end of the military draft after 25 uninterrupted years.
Numerous studies have shown the devastating effects the Vietnam War had on individual psyches as well as America’s collective consciousness. Many soldiers and other military personnel, such as medics and nurses, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and continue to battle those mental wounds to this day. PTSD is defined as having flashbacks, upsetting memories and anxiety following a traumatic event and was only defined as a mental health condition in 1980. It’s no wonder so many people have gone untreated.
It’s the week before Memorial Day, so it felt like the right time to write this column. With that being said, I want all veterans and active servicemen and servicewomen to know they are always appreciated, even if they don’t hear it enough. There is a heartbreaking poem called “River of Tears” written in 2000 by Vietnam veteran Mike Birdwell. I’ve included the first two stanzas below. The full poem and other Vietnam era poems can be found at vietvet.org/poetcrnr.htm :
It has been 25 years
and a river of tears
since the last Gold Star mom
lost her son in Vietnam.
But the memories still last,
most won’t talk when asked
about the war we lost
at far too great a cost.
—Mike Birdwell, Vietnam Veteran
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Thank you, from all of us.