11 November 2010


This day is celebrated as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in some countries -- marking the formal end of major hostilities of World War I on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. In the U.S. we call it Veterans Day, honoring all military veterans. Throughout my life, my personal tradition has been to take Veterans Day off from work, and spend the time in remembrance and reflection as my thoughts turn to my time in Vietnam -- the friends made, the carnage witnessed, the tropical beauty of a war-torn nation and its people.

My generation of veterans returned home not to welcome, but to rejection and abuse. The U.S. was struggling with its collective conscience over the morality of an unjust war, and in spite of our service, we became the embodiment of our government's duplicity -- so much so that the stereotype of the mentally unstable Vietnam veteran (later understood to be suffering from PTSD) became a caricature in movies and books. It was only after we vets began to stand up for ourselves, and band together in groups like Vietnam Veterans of America to protest both the war and the nation's treatment of us, that we began to earn (grudgingly) a place of honor. Too little, too late for many damaged souls. For others, recognition is never too late. Here is an account of the heroes' welcome given to Vietnam vets recently at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Forty years late, but still appreciated.

In the interim, like survivors of other sources of PTSD (e.g., being a victim of rape, domestic violence, or surviving the death of a loved one), Vietnam vets found that their best source of solace and understanding was each other. In their wonderful novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (set in the German-occupied Channel Islands during World War II), Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows describe the connection with insight and compassion, with reference to survivors of the Holocaust. Remy, one such survivor, writes in a letter -- "No one in France -- not friends, not family -- wants to know anything about your life in the camps, and they think that the sooner you put it out of your mind -- and out of their hearing -- the happier you'll be .... In the face of this institutional amnesia, the only help is talking with fellow survivors. They know what life in the camps was. You speak, and they can speak back. They talk, they rail, they cry, they tell one story after another -- some tragic, some absurd. Sometimes they can even laugh together. The relief is enormous."

Veterans of the Gulf War, the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan have been the beneficiaries of the consciousness-raising which we Vietnam vets forced the nation to go through. Now every soldier, sailor, Marine and airman is treated with respect, and the word "hero" has been applied so thoroughly as to become a cliche. Nevertheless, I extend to all veterans, young and old, my respect and gratitude.

Gratitude. Does everyone understand how important it is, when you see a man or woman in military uniform, to approach them to say "Thank you for your service"? Many more people do so now, than during my war. I can count on three fingers the number of times someone has thanked me without prompting -- and one of those was an anonymous note place under the windshield wiper of my SUV (which sported a Vietnam Veteran sticker on the back window). Please, for all the large and small freedoms which we enjoy, go out of your way to thank a vet. He or she will always remember it.

Gratitude extends to taking responsibility for thinking about the deadly places to which we send our young men and women, and why we send them. The nine year war in Afghanistan is a case in point. The parallels to Vietnam are too numerous to ignore. It needs to end. I'm not the only one who thinks so. Here is a brief, heartfelt message from other veterans, created for today's remembrance -- Honor the Consciences of Our Veterans. While we as citizens rely on our political and military leaders to conduct diplomatic and military affairs honorably, we cannot take it for granted. Ultimately WE are responsible for the lives lost, the families destroyed, the futures obliterated -- on both sides of the conflict.

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