Fifty years ago, when I received my honorable discharge from the United States Air Force at the ripe old age of twenty-one, I thought little about being a veteran. After all, I never saw combat even though I served four years during the Vietnam War. Being a veteran meant I would be receiving the G.I. Bill, going to college and purchasing a home.
It took me these fifty years to really understand what the word “veteran” meant to many others. One of my co-workers at a grocery store retired early because he was a victim of Agent Orange. My friend Louis returned from Vietnam shattered as he had escaped a security complex that had just been bombed. He watched it explode as many of his comrades were still there. Louis never fully recovered from this experience. He became one of thousands of the sad stories that ended in suicide.
Thirty years later I taught a book about Vietnam, The Things They Carried, to high school seniors. The stories told about the returning veterans that were just as sad, as stark, and as poignant as the ones told about soldiers in combat. It took me nearly twenty years to feel comfortable about sharing this book with students. Then it became imperative to show them real vignettes about the after-war effects on veterans. The writer, Tim O’Brien, covered war, love, and homecoming.
War approached me only once, in the middle of the night on the extreme northwest coast of Alaska in the summer of 1967. Two Soviet bombers moved swiftly towards the radar station where I worked. The scope showed the two blips until they were one hundred miles from the station. Suddenly, the screen filled with chaff and electronic jamming. We expected that the bombers would be overhead in ten minutes. This seemed like a clean and quick way to end things compared to what was happening to fellow military men in Southeast Asia. However, Air Force interceptors turned the bombers around at the key moment. We survived, but sixty thousand young Americans did not in Vietnam. And countless veterans like my friend who was a victim of Agent Orange and my other friend, Louis, victim of PTSD, and eventually, a suicide victim, did not. These are the veterans that I celebrate and remember every November 11th.
Love also came to many veterans. Some of us received the infamous “Dear John” letters. But my friend, Stu, found a lifetime of love as a young lady from southern California, Mary, joined a group of people who wrote letters to servicemen in Vietnam. As they corresponded, Stu and Mary began to discover a desire to meet when he returned. They did, and they have been married these past several years, and celebrate life with two wonderful children and some grandchildren.
Homecoming was romanticized after World War II in documentaries and Hollywood romances. Ah! To have that special girl run through the crowd and deliver that special embrace. I was there for a homecoming right after the Tet Offensive of 1968. I arrived at one bus station in San Francisco and had to walk the three blocks to the station where I would catch a bus to Marin County. Hundreds, maybe a few thousand demonstrators created a three-block gauntlet. I walked leisurely with Marine combat veterans who had just returned from Vietnam. Their jaws tightened as they looked at the crowd who shouted, “Baby-killers!” Those people threw things at us and spit on us. I knew that I would do whatever these Marines chose to do and thought that might involve physical confrontation. Just at a critical moment, a Marine major called all military men to attention, told us to stand down, and marched us through the obnoxious crowd to the other bus station. Welcome home!
This weekend I will recall my friends who were victims of war, my friends who fell in love because of war, and those unknown comrades who I marched with through a demonstration. I will honor my father, a highly decorated World War II veteran who became a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, who suffered for twenty years after the war and finally ended that suffering tragically as a suicide victim.
I have avoided honoring veterans these past fifty years, I think, because denial is easier than confrontation. But the Vietnam lesson (ironically, I taught about Vietnam in history and English classes but missed the lesson until recently) proves that veterans and active military should be honored regardless of the politics that surrounded the time. Sunday, Nov. 11 let the military music resound from the RP Community Center, which starts at 2 p.m. Honor the veterans as they stand listening to the song that represents their branch of service. Be proud that our city holds these ceremonies and honors the current local members of the military near our library and along the RP Expressway.