Veterans Day 2013 is rapidly approaching and I am, as usual, looking forward to it very much. I love veterans and have the greatest respect for the service that they have performed. My father was a veteran of WW II, serving in the Navy and seeing action in the Pacific theater from day one. My brother served during what was peacetime, but which could have flared into nuclear war with the former Soviet Union at any time. Many of my uncles served, but I had little contact with them and so must honor them somewhat in the abstract; they served bravely in Europe and the Pacific but I could not recite for you the details.
My own service took place many decades ago between 1966 and 1969. Like so many boys who graduated from high school in 1966 my participation in the military and Vietnam was virtually guaranteed. I had no interest in college and knew that my call would come soon enough, so one fine day a friend and I boarded the number 5 bus in San Diego and rode to the downtown recruiters’ office. A few days later I was shorn high and tight and dressed in green. For the next three years I was U.S. government property.
Since my days in the service the U.S. military has become all volunteer. There have been four major military actions that I can remember off-hand since the switch in personnel procurement format from draft to volunteer and in the last three of these the military men and women have been celebrated while they were deployed and welcomed home with gratitude and honor upon their the return. In the case of the first, the intervention in Grenada, the country was still trying to figure out what their attitudes towards veterans was and should be. While there were no parades in their honor which I can remember, there were no protests either.
This was not the reception that my comrades and I experienced however. Many a G.I. was spit jupon while traveling from Oakland Armyh terminal to San Francisco Airport in order to fly home and try to reenter civilian life. I was never spit upon, which partly explains my lack of a criminal record and jail time, but I certainly heard the label “baby killer” tossed my way. I was never invited to participate in a parade. On the contrary, on the day that I returned home I changed out of my class A uniform, took a long shower, and after spending some time with my family stepped out onto the sidewalk in my neighborhood in shorts, sandals, a T shirt and a hat to hide the thin layer of fuzz that covered my recently-military head.
Since those strange days the country has learned to respect its veterans, partly I believe as a reaction to the shabby way that the
Vietnam veterans were treated. “Thank you for your service” is a refrain that I have heard from time to time over the last decade or so and have occasionally used myself. I admit that I am happy to see our newer veterans so honored, but while I am in the mood for making admissions I will go on to make another: I do not take any pleasure in having someone thank me for my service.
My return from Vietnam was ugly and many of my comrades’ returns were much worse. We were the people whom everyone wanted to pretend weren’t there, and a tragic number of men obliged an ungrateful nation by dropping under the radar and removing themselves from “polite company”. I mostly confined myself to my immediate neighborhood and friends for a month or so, venturing elsewhere only under a straw hat until my hair grew long enough to introduce doubt as to where I had been for the last few years.
Even after I had grown a full set of camouflage and placed my military service firmly in my rear-view mirror a drumbeat of negative portrayals of military personnel continued to dog my and my comrades’ steps. “M.A.S.H.” (both the movie and the television series) made anyone who chose to serve out of a sense of committment to their country look like an idiot, and anyone who opposed war as a noble intellectual. “Apocalypse Now” made us out to be psychopaths. “Hamburger Hill” turned us into cannon fodder in the hands of cynical and stupid commanders and even into the 1980’s “Born on the Fourth of July” corrupted a true story to present not just a lie but a damned lie concerning U.S. soldiers in the war and afterward. To this day I have little interest in watching a Tom Cruise movie and will not sit in a theater and watch anything produced by Oliver Stone. The list of similar such movies is long and I do not need to reproduce it here. Suffice it to say that I waited a long, long time before I saw anybody portrayed as anything other than a caricature of the people I knew on a movie or television screen.
A person reading this could easily conclude that I am bitter and vengeful, but that would be wrong. I hold no personal animosity towards those who disrespected us when we returned or cynically used us to advance their agenda or careers. All of this happened a long time ago and time really does heal a lot of hurts. I would gladly sit down with Jane Fonda and share a meal, and if I found myself seated in a pub next to an American who fled to Canada I would be happy to lift a pint with him and share stories of our most dissimilar lives. I am fully aware of the fact that good people can have contrary opinions and that people can do thoughtless and hurtful things. None of us is perfect and I am so far from perfect that I have no justification whatever to point accusatory fingers an anyone else. My Vietnam War is over and has been for a long time.
But all the same, I do not really welcome being thanked for my service. America had an opportunity to do that forty four years ago and instead chose to be ashamed of me. I am glad that America has realized its mistake and I add my voice to the chorus that now celebrates our veterans today, but America told me what it thought of me when I was young and searching for direction and an identity. I know that I have to forgive, and I do forgive. I know that I must also understand, and I do that to, to the best of my ability. I know that we are all in this together, and if this nation is to move forward towards a better future we have to give up clinging to our personal hurts and work as one for that future. Still, and with all due respect, I offer any value that my service might have had only to my comrades who shared my experience while we were in Vietnam and when we got home. As for the rest; your thanks are kindly offered and I respect you for offering them, but they are neither solicited nor especially welcome to me.