There were times when I was racked with survivor’s guilt, left wondering “Why him and not me?” The first two years or so filled with violent, physical nightmares; the kind that hurt me and hurt others, too.
After they settled into the background, (more or less), came the counseling…long, long hours of counseling.
When I could no longer afford the counseling, I walked away. Not by choice. The subject of Viet Nam was always in the background though, lurking in the shadows, just past my field of vision…most of the time anyway. There was no one else around who knew…really knew, except my best friend.
I was never able to share any of my experiences with my father, a World War II vet (who never left stateside, but still…). I did try to tell my boys about some of the things I encountered.
Then, much later, after helping my wife raise two young men into responsible, and then married, adults came the advertisement that would change it all; “Coming this week-end! A traveling scale model of the Viet Nam Memorial wall!”
Let me tell you, that loosed the dogs of war! They started major hostilities inside my head! Some days, the “Good Guys” would win the struggle; other days, the bad guys would hold the high ground. It took days of inner turmoil, but I finally decided that I needed to compartmentalize a few things and move on.
It was set up in the front land area of a Christian Church in the outskirts of Grass Valley, CA; a gorgeous, tranquil setting nestled amongst the pine trees in the foothills of the Sierra. When you first arrive, you are directed to a parking lot close to the entrance. There are booths and displays set up by several support groups from the VFW to Viet Nam Vets Harley Owners Group. In the church itself, free food, coffee and haircuts were being offered along with prayers and guidance.
At about two decibels lower than a carnival midway, I began to wonder if we had done the right thing! We’d asked my son and daughter-in-law if they wanted to go along with us. They readily agreed. In hindsight, I’m not sure if they knew what they were getting into. We walked along the marked path towards a group of tents. Inside, there was artwork and Viet Nam memorabilia for sale. We walked through the tents and past the artwork, anxious to get to the wall.
What a sight! It started at ground level and built up towards the center, like the waves of war; each section was bigger than the previous one. And the names! The incredible number of names! 57,662 young men and women who gave their all for America! The enormity of the sight brought both my wife and I to tears! She looked at me and said, “An entire generation, wiped out…gone!” We were so overwhelmed!
She made her way back to the tents because there was a desk with a computer manned by volunteers. If you knew the name of someone who was killed in Viet Nam, they could tell you the panel number and line number where the person would be located. Sadly, she knew two young men. A short search and her friends were located; you can’t help yourself, really, you’re compelled to reach out and softly touch their names. Our daughter-in-law accompanied her through this journey and my son kept a respectful distance just off to my left and behind a little ways.
I set off on my own journey. I was just staring at the wall, trying to make some sense of it all in when a volunteer quietly approached me and asked, “Excuse me, sir. Were you there? Were you in Viet Nam?” When I said that I was, he said, “Thank you, sir. Thank you for your service.” He then said, “May I give you a hug, sir?” I said, “Sure, why not?” and we hugged. After a brief moment he said, “Thank you again, sir” and, just as quietly moved off.
As I was trying to understand the feelings that were churning around me, my son came up and asked if I was all right. I just nodded because I didn’t trust myself to speak at that moment. No one had ever thanked me for my service before! A short time later, another volunteer came up and asked the same question; “Were you there, sir?” When I again replied that I was, he said, “May I pray with you?” Again, I just nodded and he took my hands and he said a short little prayer thanking God for my safe return and asking that He watch over me and my family. Again, he thanked me and quietly moved off.
After a while, I realized that something was happening inside me; the dogs of war being muzzled; they are still there, but much quieter. The weight of my shame had been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer hung my head. When I walked back to the car that day, it was as a totally different person who walked out through that tent. For the first time in my life, I said to myself and later said it aloud, “Yes…I am a Viet Nam Vet!”
And I now I say it proudly! “I am a Viet Nam Vet!”
I still do not understand why we were there. This was a politicians war; no more, no less. I learned a lot since that visit to the wall. I may not necessarily support the war, but I will ALWAYS support the Warrior.