i am a vietnam veteran. each year, amid the cataclysm of lucrative store sales and general foolishness to which american commerce is prone, i tend to withdraw into reflection, and sorrow, and cynicism over the prospects for the human species. you probably wouldn't notice these thoughts on my face if you met me. by and large, vietnam vets learned a long time ago to stuff their feelings, a result of being treated like monsters rather than honorable citizen-soldiers. the word "hero" wasn't broadly applied to everyone in uniform, as it is today. but that's another issue, already addressed in a prior entry to this journal.
no, we who survived the jungle war in vietnam, contrary to the movie myth of the deranged PTSD homicidal lunatic, tend toward quietness. we carry unhealed wounds for years, sometimes lifetimes. ours is a private history, shared with fellow survivors in the language that we alone understand. each war creates its own culture among its veterans, it seems to me. WWII vets, korean vets, vietnam vets, gulf war vets, iraq/afghanistan vets each have their shared slang, shared fears, shared music, shared struggles. the patina overlaying these differences, the commonality which binds us into a larger group with a mutual language, is that of war. visit any cemetery or war memorial and you will see the light of recognition light in the eyes of military veterans as they regard their ancient foe -- war itself. no one who hasn't been through it can hope to understand the feelings, any more than i as a male can understand the amazing complex of joy and pain that a woman experiences during childbirth. i can try, i can imagine, i can even empathize. but i'll never know what it's really like.
which is why vets so often become isolated, especially vietnam vets. unlike those who returned from WWII, or those who are returning from iraq, we had no decompression, no psychological check-in, no chance to sort through our raging confusion. one day in march, 1969, i was in vietnam. twenty-four hours later i was discharged and set loose in san francisco. culture shock to the nth degree.
but i adapted, i blended in, i found ways to pass as a member of the counterculture. the monumental disconnect between my exterior life and my wartime past didn't hit for about fifteen years. in the interim, starting ten years after my return to the states, i'd been reading hungrily about the experiences of others who'd been there. i'd seen the smattering of (mostly terrible and non-representative) movies about vietnam. it all came together like a 2 X 4 between the eyes, one fourth of july evening. my partner at the time and the three kids in our blended family had gathered with others to view a huge fireworks display at the base of "A" mountain in tucson. with the arrival of darkness, a powerful combination of stimuli coalesced as they never had since the war. suddenly i realized that i was back in country, parachute flares slowly falling, lighting up the landscape in red, explosions going off, the wop-wop-wop of choppers overhead. i found myself drowning in the first full-fledged panic attack of my life. i made certain that my son was safe with my partner, then literally ran for my life into the darkness of the nearby desert, finally finding a shadowy corner behind an adobe building in which to crouch, my senses in disarray, my heart racing.
i eventually pulled myself together, of course, and life went on. but to this day i cannot be around fourth of july fireworks. the sound of strings of firecrackers going off sounds eerily like M16s in a firefight. the flashes, the darkness, the disembodied voices, the threat -- all are still there. the beast continues to prowl the earth, and it is hungry.
and isn't it odd (we humans are such a contrary, paradoxical, glorious and strange species) that i've never lost my interest in guns, so long as they are in my hands. someone else with a gun has my full attention, even if it's holstered on a cop's belt. kids with guns give me the heebie-jeebies.
so, we each find ways to manage our neuroses. my PTSD isn't nearly as debilitating as that of many vets, who saw and did more horrific things that i. but it's real enough. i don't think about it much, and i don't think that it rules my life. but on days of remembrance like today, i allow myself to be swept back to those other times, to remember the heat and the humidity and the gigantic insects and the landscape populated by folks who came up only to my shoulder, speaking a language that could be piercing and musical all at once. and i remember the faces. the voices. the laughter. the anger. the sweat. the boredom. the exhaustion of working twelve hours a day, seven days a week. the nervousness, never knowing whether the next incoming mortar round or rocket or sniper round might have your name on it. the friendships, forged in those inhuman conditions.
and the deaths. men i'd known for weeks, or a few days, or not at all, amid confusion and explosions and blood and missing limbs and spilling brains and screams and gunfire and yes, those thumping chopper rotor blades.
understand: these are sacred memories. sacred to my life history, sacred to the nation which sent us all into such an abysmally useless war, sacred to the families of those who never came back, or who came back missing pieces of themselves. i wouldn't wish the experience on anyone, nor would i care to live through it again myself. but it was a cauldron i survived, a harrowing passage which helped shape the man i was to become -- partner, father, seeker, role model, dreamer, world citizen.
as are we all, though we sometimes forget.
one last thing: each time you learn that someone is a military veteran, on any day of the year, please, please say "thank you". the sentiment has nothing to do with political beliefs, or patriotism, or sentimentality. it has to do with allowing that person, man or woman, to pause, look up, and feel recognized for their sacrifice. they will be humbled, and grateful. finally.