Friday, June 5, 2009

Slipped Back Into The World

Found this in this week's newsletter from Sgt Grit. Spoke to me, but then, like the bumper sticker in the rear of my truck: "Its a vet thing; if you weren't there you won't understand.

Vietnam. The word brings different images to different people, often with some sort of negative connotation of a quagmire of a war fought as much in the political arena as on the battlefield, although the stakes were much higher for those on the battlefield. Most people I think would even have trouble finding Vietnam on a map, if they could do it at all.

When I think of Vietnam, I think of "Joe". Joe can find Vietnam without a map. He usually finds it in the middle of the night when he wakes up in a cold sweat and shaking because he just realized that he's still alive... again. He's been finding it every night for 40 years, but he probably won't tell you about it because the first time he tried to tell someone he got burned. The last time, nobody cared anymore.

Joe isn't one person of course, he's 3 million American's who went to Vietnam for no other reason than their country asked them to and then shamed them for going. 58 thousand of them came home in boxes; 155 thousand came home in pieces and the rest wake up at night shaking. That's Joe.

My Joe is a smaller group of people, maybe half a dozen that have I been honored to know and have blended together to try and tell a bit of their story. Joe decided to join the service in 1967 because at 18, he thought he could make a difference in the world. He went to his local recruiter and proudly announced that he was there to join the war effort to go stop communists in Vietnam. After an interview and a couple of weeks of meetings and evaluations, it was decided that he would he would leave for boot camp in 6 weeks. Several days later at the dinner table of his parents' home, he received a phone call letting him know that a slot had become available immediately and that he could leave for boot camp the following morning.

Unfortunately, he had neglected to tell his parents anything about his plans yet. Why should he have? He still had six more weeks, and that is a LONG time... well, it is if your 18, isn't it? "Mom, Dad, I have something I need to talk to you about. I've been thinking about it and, well, I've joined the military and I'm going to serve in Vietnam. I know what you're thinking, but I've already made up my mind and I signed all the papers earlier today." Silence. "Mom... Dad?" Finally, dad mustered up a few words. "When do you leave?" "Tomorrow morning. I go to boot camp for 13 weeks and then probably straight to Vietnam. I don't know when I'll be home again after tonight."

His mother now lost what remaining vestige of calm she had left and fled the room in tears. Dad was able to keep control of himself in rapt silence, but Joe found out later that he had a nervous breakdown not long after he left for the war and Mom ended up being the glue that held the family together.

Boot Camp is where you lose your identity and then get a new one back. You are stripped of any sense of self, and you learn a humility that is beyond imagination to most of us. I'm not just talking about sleeping in a bunkhouse with 100 other people or changing your clothes in public. I'm talking about 10 toilets in a room with no walls or doors. Variations on the word "I" will be used only under pain of a million pushups, and replaced with "this recruit". The closest you will come to even being acknowledged by your peers is when you are screamed at by a drill instructor at 3 o'clock in the morning because there is a bug on your bunk, because you have no peers.

You are a recruit, and that is the worst scum on the earth. Even the other recruits aren't your peers, because they are you. All sense of identity is lost here. What comes out at the other end however, is a sight to behold. Boys come out men and girls come out women with a whole new identity. They are the most polite, cleanest, responsible, and well behaved group of young people you ever will meet. They are also your worst nightmare if they need to be.

Joe actually liked boot camp. Sure, he would write letters home complaining about the food, or more specifically the lack of it, or about the drill instructors and the physical demands, but he felt like he was starting to fit in. He was learning to trust himself, and to trust the person on his left and the one on his right. And as much of a jerk as that drill instructor seemed to be, Joe was coming to realize that this was a person he would never forget. To this day, he has not.

On graduation day, Joe and his fellow recruits were marched onto the parade grounds to perform a very elaborate ceremony that would be witnessed by a handful of officers and noncoms but an otherwise empty grandstand. Joe's parents were not there, but he expected that, no one's parents were there. To the outside observer, it must have seemed a very lonely and sad day, but Joe had never felt like he belonged anywhere more than he belonged here at this exact moment. These were his people now.

For the next three years, Joe's story mostly disappears for those of us who stayed home. To be sure we have movies and books and newsreels, but for the most part we don't hear the stories from the people who lived them and I'm not sure we ever will. I'm not sure we ever want to.

For something to be so horrible that close to 3 million men and women hold it inside for nearly 40 years, it cannot be easy to bear. What we do hear is the stories of friendship and the bonds that were created between them, which is where my Joe comes back into the telling. His best friend was kneeling over him holding his hand and trying to reassure him that he was going to be all right.

Joe was bleeding badly and his unit was in the middle of an intense firefight but he could hear the helicopters finally coming in to get him and the other wounded out. He had no idea how badly he had been hit, but he knew that he couldn't move his arm and that he was starting to lose consciousness. His friend had patched him up as best as he could and helped get him on the waiting helicopter, which then sped out of the jungle without time for a goodbye. They would not see each other again for 40 years, not even knowing if the other was still alive but when they finally did meet again, it was as if two brothers long ago separated had found each other. They had both cheated death together, and they knew it.

His next memory is of being in a bunk on board a naval hospital ship in pain and without enough room in his bunk even to roll over, let alone get comfortable. He had just about decided that his life was as bad as it possibly could get when he turned to look at a young man in the bunk below him who was driving him nuts with all of his moaning and whining. The young man was in a similar bunk, but he was confined to his back not because of the cramped space, but because he no longer had arms or legs. It was at that moment that Joe decided never to feel sorry for himself again; to my knowledge, he never has.

Eighteen months later, the war now over for him and his wounds as much healed as they were ever likely to get, Joe came home on a commercial flight and landed at his hometown airport. There was no pomp or fanfare or cheering throngs with welcome home signs. He was one of the lucky ones, left alone that night. No protesters were there to meet him because it was too late in the evening to be bothered with going out to spit on another soldier or call him a baby killer and so he quietly grabbed his bags, walked out of the terminal and slipped back into the world as alone as he was the day before boot camp. The country he had given so much of himself to didn't even know he was home, and sometimes didn't care.

Today, Joe is an executive, and a truck driver, and a teacher, and a police officer, and a friend. Sadly, he or she may have gotten too lost to get back and is no longer with us, but more often he is right among us still hanging onto an anonymity that protects him from any more hurt. More and more though, he is starting to emerge as America finally starts to understand that he is still here and deserving of our respect. He organizes crowds at the airport to make sure that our newest generation of fighting men and women come home to the sort of welcome that he should have had. He volunteers to pack care packages for our troops overseas even after working ten hours and driving 90 minutes to get there, and he gives his dog tags to a young Marine heading into battle.

As a society, we need to make sure that he keeps coming out; that he knows that we are a grateful nation and understand that without his sacrifice, not even protests would have been possible, let alone prosperity and freedom. If you know a veteran, tell him thank you; it might just be the first time anyone ever has. Write a letter and take it to the Veteran's Affairs office. Do something to let these men and women know that they don't need to hide anymore, that we're proud of them, and that we get it at last. And if you see someone wearing a yellow bar tipped on the ends in green with three vertical red stripes through the middle, that's Joe. Shake his hand and tell him that you know who he is, and that you appreciate what he did. Remember, he's been to h≪ he'd go again if we asked him to, and he might go there tonight before he wakes up shaking.

Thanks Joe... and Roger... and Mike... and Lloyd... and Jim...

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