Originally published in Leatherneck Magazine, April, 2014
I was contacted recently by the Marine son of a Marine Vietnam veteran with whom I had served. The son had recently lost his father, and he was trying to understand more of what had shaped his father’s life and personality. This young man, a veteran of the Gulf War and Somalia, was wondering what his father could have experienced in Vietnam that was so horrible as to cause the withdrawn person with few friends and several of the other problems (drink, divorce, etc.) of the stereotypical Vietnam veteran. It prompted me to put some painful feelings into words:
Your letter sounds so familiar, I wonder how many of our sons and daughters feel as you do? I’ll use a collective “we” here, knowing that not all things happened to all people, and not all things affect everyone the same, but you may see some connection to your dad.
“We” were young; we volunteered to serve our country, not all for the same reasons, but mostly because we thought it was the “right” thing to do. We were abused in a system designed by well-intentioned, but misled leaders that rotated men into and out of units with no thought to unit integrity, or the bonds of men placed in harsh circumstances. You can fill in many reasons, including drawdowns, cutbacks and good intentions.
So, we were new guys with no friends. Acceptance had to be earned. If we lived, learned and were accepted, we bonded with those who befriended us and then watched them die or get maimed and no one cared because “It don’t mean nothin’,” which was the mindset we earned by bleeding and dying for unnamed hills and paddies and giving them back the next day. We did not bond again; it hurt too much. So, we read the papers, we heard the news, our politicians held peace talks, the public demonstrated against us, we waded paddies, sweated and bled in the rain and tried to understand how it all seemed to be so wrong.
We felt betrayed by our government, and we were betrayed by those we thought to be our friends back home. So we decided not to have friends, and we decided not to trust. We came home to women whom we had married in what seemed to be a previous life and found we were unable to trust even them. We became loners, as we were separated from anyone who had served with us; we could not talk as our fathers did when they returned home victorious.
As we returned by ourselves to our interrupted lives, we heard that we were not the best and brightest, that we were somehow not honorable, that our sacrifice was not worthwhile. We could not share our stories, bond, or make friends. Oh, we could make acquaintances. We might find a new wife, but we had trouble sharing, trusting, committing. We built an invisible wall between our inner person and the one we shared with others. Society taunted, tormented, ridiculed with print and picture, totaled our sacrifices with glee, granted amnesty to those who ran, and finally just ignored us.
So we learned to ignore society. We learned to ignore a media which valued a dollar more than our lives or the lives of our children—a media whose cartoons cause hurt instead of smiles, who will plant a camera at a known improvised explosive device site to capture your sacrifice to sell. We saw it (the media) for what it is—a business which generates controversy to sell its wares, nothing more. So we became even more reclusive and bitter.
“We” have one more fight which we must win for you. We must stay informed and be vigilant in our choices of leaders to ensure that if and when our sons and daughters are called to serve, that once called, no politician be forgiven if he or she abuses our children’s service for political gain or to ensure reelection.
No, I don’t believe that what your father endured in Vietnam did the damage. You have served and I know you are proud. Your dad was proud also until he came home. Please join a veterans group, talk to your fellow veterans, know that we care.
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