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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Veterans Day Thank You ...

Photo courtesy of US Dept. of Veterans Affairs
Growing up, Veterans Day was a day off school ... a day I could sleep late and lay around the house or play with friends. I was born and raised (mostly) in a time of peace for our country. As a very young child, the conflict in Vietnam was raging, but I had no concept of what "Vietnam" was. I didn't know it was the name of a country. All I knew was that Vietnam was a bad place, and people who went there never came home. I was too young to have any desire to watch the news and too innocent to understand it if I had.

Although I come from a long line of veterans, I didn't understand war or the sacrifices of the soldiers, their families, and the public at large. I lived in a world of Barbies and baby dolls, of picnics and bike rides, of cartoons every Saturday morning and big family dinners every night. My world was safe and happy and carefree ... and it never once occurred to me that the freedom and peace I enjoyed came at a price.

As an adult, and particularly as a mother, I now understand the cost of war ... the financial, physical, and emotional costs. And when I think of the cost of war on a soldier who survives, I think of the movie 'Saving Private Ryan'. It's a fictional movie about a family that sends four sons to battle in World War II. After three are killed, eight men are sent to find Private Ryan and bring him home so that his mother does not lose all her children to the war. They are successful in finding Private Ryan, but all eight of them end up losing their lives. One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is when Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, is dying. Captain Miller simply tells Private Ryan ... "Earn it."

The movie ends with Private Ryan, now an old man, standing at Captain Miller's grave, crying as he tells Miller that he's tried to live up to his last request, and that he hopes he proved worthy of the price Miller and his men paid to save him.

I think that is something every American should think about today. Have I earned the right to live in the freedoms paid for by the blood of others? Am I the best person I can be, worthy of their sacrifice?
Still shot from 'Saving Private Ryan'
When our troops came home from the first Gulf War, people lined the highway, cheering and waving as the military vehicles drove by, piled high with returning soldiers. I was honored to be part of the crowd that welcomed our heroes home. People stood shoulder to shoulder for miles, waving flags and banners, clapping, whistling and shouting words of thanks. I looked up and down the road, and wondered how many Vietnam veterans were in the crowd, and how different their homecoming was ... and it sickened me. Regardless of your feelings for our involvement in Vietnam, most of the men and women who served didn't have a choice. They were drafted. Our nation called them to duty and they served ... only to return home to scorn and cruelty. Soldiers returning from Vietnam would change out of their uniforms to avoid being spat upon and attacked, both physically and verbally. According to one website, 58,300 Americans died in Vietnam ... and 150,000 committed suicide after returning home. That tells me we failed these men and women miserably. The American soldiers who served in Vietnam are haunted by the atrocities they witnessed, and with no support from the American public, a staggering number of them have taken their own lives.

Another movie, 'Lone Survivor', is the true story of four Navy Seals sent into verify the location of a Taliban leader. After verifying the target, they are unable to get a satellite signal back to base. They are laying down and waiting for nightfall, when an old man and two teenagers happen upon them. They have three options: do nothing and let them go (which likely means those three would alert the Taliban to their location), tie them up and leave them to certain death, or kill them outright. The three Afghan's are unarmed, but one has a radio ... something poor shepherds do not own. The soldiers know he's affiliated with the Taliban, and that letting them go will be dangerous to them and others ... but killing three unarmed civilians is against the rules of engagement. Ignoring their gut instinct, they allow them to leave. Three of the four die, as well as a helicopter full of soldiers coming to rescue them. Only one of the Seals survives ... barely.

I was thinking about Vietnam when I watched that movie. Our soldiers couldn't tell the difference between the South Vietnamese (our allies), and the North Vietnamese (the enemy). A lot of the South Vietnamese resented the Americans presence and aided the North. Stories emerged of wholesale slaughter of entire villages at the hand of American soldiers, leaving people outraged and indignant that these men could have been so cruel and heartless. 

It was years after the Vietnam conflict ended before I was old enough to understand, or had any desire to learn about it. I now devour books and documentaries about history and war. I remember hearing stories that made me sick to my stomach, and I wondered how those men were able to reconcile what they did to innocent civilians. But when I watched 'Lone Survivor', it occurred to me that maybe the soldiers in Vietnam faced similar decisions ... either kill or be killed. I'm sure we probably killed many that posed no threat to us. I'm sure some were killed out of vengeance, frustration, and anger. but I also can't help but wonder what these soldiers saw or sensed that caused them to kill supposedly innocent, unarmed civilians. Regardless of whether they were right or wrong, I have to believe that they sensed a danger they can't explain. In the heat of battle, in the middle of war, I have a hard time believing they killed indiscriminately for the thrill of it. I know there are soldiers who snap, but I also believe that ... with few exceptions ... American soldiers are some of the bravest, most honorable individuals in the world.

On this Veterans Day, I'd like to thank every veteran and their families for the sacrifices they made. I'd like to offer my sympathies to those who lost loved ones in battle. But most of all, I'd like to tell every Vietnam veteran how much I appreciate their bravery and courage ... and apologize that they were made to feel ashamed for their service to our country. They were heroes, and they were cheated out of the heroes welcome that they deserved. It may not mean much coming from me, but I'm sorry ... and I thank you.
Photo courtesy of US Dept. of Veterans Affairs

1 comment:

  1. A very moving post!
    The Vietnam memorial, however inadequate, at least commemorates each and every person who died for that insane war.
    I had no idea there were that many who took their own lives...what do we do to acknowledge that shameful aftermath.