11 November 2009


today is veterans day in the u.s., a national holiday dedicated to honoring military veterans. it originally was called armistice day, celebrating the signing of the treaty that ended World War I on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

all my adult life, i have taken this day off from work, spending the time in reflection. i'm a veteran of the vietnam war. i was in-country from march 1968 to march 1969, during the height of u.s. military presence in south vietnam, when 500,000 troops were in the combat zone. the vietnam generation of vets is the only one (to my knowledge) which was vilified and spurned when they returned home. the war itself divided the country, costing LBJ his presidency. it is a national tragedy that at that time, people didn't distinguish between the war and the soldiers in it. my generation of veterans was betrayed by our own country and its citizens. GI benefits were minimal, and verbal and physical abuse were common. we quickly learned to go underground, to sublimate our experiences and feelings. PTSD had years to torment our psyches. vietnam vets sometimes sought each other out for counseling, because we were the only ones who spoke the language of our war and its aftermath. but mostly we became deeply isolated, silently bearing our grief and our anger.

to illustrate -- in over forty years, aside from vets i've counseled with, you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who have asked me what it was like in vietnam. and you can count on precisely two fingers the number of people who have asked to see the photos i took overseas. no matter what the discomfort, such ultimate callousness is inexcusable.

my own catharsis didn't start until ten years after my return from the war. i began to read everything i could get my hands on, fiction or memoir or history. i sought out peer counseling, and ultimately became leader of a men's support group and active in counseling vets. at around this time, the american public was finally ready to face its national psychosis (compounded of guilt, grief, confused patriotism and curiosity), and mainstream movies, books and television shows started to embrace the vietnam years -- our longest war to date, 1963 to 1973. the presentations were usually sloppy and unrealistic, but at least we had dialogue.

for many vets, it was too late. forever scarred, physically and emotionally, a disproportionate number of vietnam vets became lost souls, succumbing to homelessness, failed marriages, drugs, drifting from job to job, or withdrawing from society altogether. i'm one of the lucky ones. my PTSD is real enough, but manageable. my toughest days are the anniversaries of specific events during the war, as well as holidays (memorial day, independence day, and veterans day), when the nation tries to salve its conscience with superficial patriotism (an insult to those of us who were abused and abandoned by our nation), compounded by the crass commercialization of what should be a hallowed remembrance.

am i a patriot? yes, in the original, fundamental sense of one who understands the concepts of liberty and equality expressed in our founding documents, the constitution and the declaration of independence. a resounding no, in the sense that i do not subscribe to the notion of "my country, right or wrong." i do not confuse superficial symbols like the american flag, with the substance of those ideals for which generations have fought and died. further, i recognize that most of the wars this country has fought were not over freedom, but over territory or resources or some other expression of covetousness or greed or power. ours is not a blameless nation. ask all those who are descended from african slaves. ask all those native peoples whose land, way of life, language, whose very identity was stripped from them. ask anyone descended from immigrants who endured prejudice and ostracism. ask anyone who has been to war, and been dehumanized by it.

our patriotism has been too often misplaced -- manipulated by those in power (who rarely are those we elect to office). i am assuredly a cynic, in the original sense of that word, one who believes that we ought to live our lives by the standards of virtue, in harmony with nature -- and one who clearly sees the difference between that ideal and harsh reality.

so, on this day i contemplate those whom i knew, and grieve for those who did not make it back. my thoughts are with those serving in iraq and afghanistan, and with their families. if you meet a veteran, if you KNOW a veteran, please take a moment to say "thank you, and welcome back." it will mean more than you can ever know.

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