We were putting dog tags in a sack and betting money. Five of us. I didn’t recognize any of the faces but somehow I knew them all very well. What was the bet? See who would survive running over a certain bridge …the only way out. It was surrounded by enemy gun positions and we knew we wouldn’t all make it. But we’d become so crass in our disregard for human life that we’d resorted to betting on our own survival. At the end of the run, somehow, I ended up with the bag and the money. But now I was alone and in enemy territory. THAT revelation frightened me so much that it shook me out of my nightmare and back to a bus bunk in Mets, West Virginia. I was fifteen …
These Vietnam nightmares recurred with me all through my high school years. I don’t know why. But it sent me on this strange quest to learn about that era and that war. I read a bunch of books about the conflict and watched some pretty bad movies (not counting the Deer Hunter – THAT one was haunting.) Then, in 1986, Platoon came out. And it was the first time I’d seen, on the big screen, something close to what I’d been dreaming about for years. Then Full Metal Jacket came out. Then Hamburger Hill. Then an onslaught of depictions that allowed us as a nation to finally talk about that war and face some things we’d been avoiding for years.
I’m old enough to remember watching Vietnam on the evening news.
I remember hearing prayer requests at church for young men, who might be getting their “number called.” We prayed for my cousin’s number to never come up. And it didn’t. I suppose that’s an answer to prayer. My own father had flat feet, children and was a minister. I suppose those things kept him stateside. To this day he occasionally regrets not volunteering to go as a chaplain.
I work with veterans, now. I’m part of a program that does songwriting therapy with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) patients. One of the things I can tell you from my own experience is that the current generation of veterans is as fine a group of people as this country has ever produced. They’re not uneducated hayseeds who had no other options, as some would have us believe. The men and women I’ve worked with all knew exactly what they were signing up for and did it with pride and purpose. They all legitimately wanted to help. My own brother volunteered six months before he would’ve aged out. And he did it because he wanted to serve. We have a lot of good people in this country. And we’ve asked an awful lot of them.
PTSD is a serious issue that we’re just now getting a handle on as humans. In my opinion, it’s the next existential conversation to be had among the human race. If you’ve been through any trauma, you probably have it on some level. Many special needs parents have it. I’m pretty sure my wife and I have it. Car accident victims can have it. Police officers definitely deal with it. And of course, combat veterans are at the front lines of this perplexing disorder (no pun intended). Music (in particular, songwriting) seems to soothe the rough edges a little. It helps put certain things associated with the trauma in a “place.” I’m very honored to be a part of this.
But of all the vets I work with, the ones who seem to have the most unanswered questions and unresolved issues are the Vietnam vets. These men not only faced horrors on the battlefield but then came home to ridicule and protest and anger directed toward them. I’ve heard stories of them being spit on in airports, having entire restaurants get up and leave en masse, upon them being seated, and even violence directed at them.
These guys didn’t get parades or people clapping for them spontaneously in public. Many of them were drafted, but they showed up and did what their country asked of them. They put their lives on the line. And they were greeted by their nation with disgust and disregard. And of the ones I work with, THAT is as much a part of their PTSD as the bullets they dodged in God forsaken jungles.
We will be debating Vietnam for decades to come. Why were we there? What was accomplished? My own view is that all wars are reactions to previous wars. And Korea and Vietnam were attempts to head off having to fight another world war in one century. We are STILL on the 38th parallel in South Korea …and we SHOULD be. The South Koreans are glad we’re there and we’re probably the only thing keeping them from being overrun by that fat little piece of crap to their north. When we pulled out of Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge slaughtered one million people. ONE. MILLION.
Had that war not become a political football I wonder how many people would be alive today.
And now we watch as children are being suffocated with chemical weapons, in Syria. No one seems to be asking where Syria got these weapons. I would like to know. But I’ll bet they came from Iraq. Just a hunch. In true American tradition, instead of protesting Saddam Hussain back then, we protested ourselves.
It was reported that Saddam Hussain watched the protests on CNN and thought the world was on his side. Shame on us for sending such a mixed signal on the world stage, simply because we didn’t like a presidential policy. The truth is the emboldening of that despot might’ve cost innocent lives.
Being an American requires that you work through and come to terms with certain things. If you were born in this country, you have to make peace with the fact that you were born into more privilege than 99% of the rest of the world (99% of all the people in the history of the planet, for that matter). That’s an awesome responsibility. You also have to make a daily decision: do you have the stomach for war or do you have the stomach for global atrocity. Because without American intervention, there are going to be a lot of babies being slaughtered at the hands of third world dictators. There always have been.
Some leaders are content to allow that. Some are not. I have a feeling our own current president is about to have to make a decision in regards to Syria and that region. We cannot simply re-locate the entire country of Syria to Montana or somewhere. It won’t work. If you lead in the world, you either become the world’s police or the world’s fire department …or the world’s paramedics. We’re about to have to decide which one we’re going to be …again.
What I know about American soldiers is that they have a moral compass. None of them sign up to kill women and children and blow things up indiscriminantly. All of the ones I’ve worked with wanted to do a job that preserved freedom and helped the world. It didn’t always work out that way. War is an inexact science and NO ONE gets out of one unscathed. But American soldiers don’t volunteer for service so they can rape and pillage and destroy for fun.
For my part, I believe in the American soldier more than I believe in the people who give them orders. And our Vietnam vets slogged through the worst of this country’s history. Because when they got home they had to slog through an America that was so holier-than-thou and certain of its properly placed indignation. But all it caused was more physiological trauma for men who didn’t deserve it.
If we’re headed for another military conflict I hope we take a minute before we protest and rage and spit and curse …just because we can’t stand a certain president.
Loving the troops but hating the mission isn’t quite that simple.