In these past years I have met, worked with and been read by thousands of people. Nothing has been more important to me than my attempts to bring the public an awareness and understanding of the need to champion the concerns of our nation’s veterans. On each Veterans’ Day many statesmen/women, journalists and newscasters pay tribute to our heroes far more eloquently than I ever could. So instead of competing with these more experienced orators, I will tell “my” veterans why I came to care so much, and why they can contact me any time they want to talk to someone.
I am not a veteran, but I come from a family of veterans. My father joined the army and fought four years in WW II. He received a purple heart, and rumors within the family hint at other medals. Attempts to retrieve my father’s records were unsuccessful, as the family was told they were destroyed in a fire.
Dad never talked about the war. The only thing my mom ever said about it was the “incident” that time she and Dad went to a friend’s house to play cards shortly after he arrived home from the war. They were gathering around the card table, chatting as friends do. It was a warm summer evening in their small town, and all the windows of the house were open, and the doors swung wide to admit the cooling night air. A bit of fresh air wafted into the living room, bringing with it a smell of newly mown grass. As the group began to place their hands on the chair and pull them out, a neighbor in an old car was driving slowly down the street out front. At just the exact point that the car and neighbor were parallel with the open door, the engine spasmed and suddenly backfired (cars often did that back in the 1940s). Heads in the house spun around at the sudden burst of sound, with faces quickly growing into smiles of understanding and relief. As my mother turned back to the card table, she was again startled. “Where’s Shots?” she asked everyone, for my father had completely vanished. Within a few seconds, the answer came with a finger pointing to under the table. My mother followed the direction of the pointing finger, bent down and looked under the table. There, huddled in the farthest corner was my father. When the backfire of the car burst, his combat experienced mind immediately registered “gunfire” and he dove under the table to protect himself. He had not realized what he had done until his mind registered the faces of everyone peering at him. All my mother said of the event was, “I was so embarrassed.”
In the decades that followed the war, Dad retreated more and more into alcohol to numb his memories. No one mentioned “combat fatigue” or “shell shock” out loud. As his dependency on alcohol grew, his isolation from the family increased. I never really got to know my dad, except as a strange, isolated figure who was more interested in retreating than drawing closer to his family.
My youngest brother Dave joined the Iowa National Guard and enjoyed many years stateside as a recruiter. He was long retired when the Iraq War began.
My older brother Wayne joined the Air Force in the mid 1960s and stayed stateside in Idaho for his entire duty.
My oldest brother Bob joined the army’s Officer Candidate School program after college and graduated as a second lieutenant in spring of 1965. In August he received his first orders and came home to prepare for his departure to Vietnam.
While I was growing up, most of my time was spent with Wayne. We certainly had our share of talking, fighting, confiding, laughing, and fighting again… but Wayne had little tolerance for a sister a few years younger than he following him around all the time. So I often looked to Bob for something to do. He was several years older and flattered by the attention, so he tolerated my presence quite easily. When Bob left for the war I was faced with a deep, black hole in my life. My emotional dependence had grown for the brother who was becoming the father figure that my own dad could not provide.
On November 16, 1965, Bob was near fatally wounded in the Ia Drang Valley ambush, of which the book and movie, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young (Moore and Galloway), were based. Had Bob not survived the war, my fragile spirit would have shattered into a million pieces, like glass.
After Bob returned stateside things were never quite stable between us. He was not officially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) until 2002. Over the following few years, Bob began to write and talk of his combat experiences, and gave me a paperback copy of We Were Soldiers… with his personal notes scribbled in the margins.
I began to research PTSD and its effects on the patient and the families. I learned to listen and read about combat without flinching. My concern at this time was still with only one veteran: my wounded brother. I didn’t look beyond him to notice anyone else.
Then came November 2005, and the fortieth anniversary of the Ia Drang Valley Ambush reunion of survivors.
I decided to attend the reunion with Bob, which included a Friday evening reception and a Sunday morning sunrise service at the Vietnam Wall. What I couldn’t know was how the weekend in DC would start me on a path towards a calling to serve those who have served.
The Friday reception was open to the surviving veterans and their families, and would host (Ret.) General Hal Moore and Joe Galloway, who would autograph copies of their book. I purchased a hard copy and took it with me to the reception. Bob had left for dinner when I arrived, so I mingled. A veteran suggested I have others sign my book. If they were mentioned in the book they turned to the exact page and signed their name by the paragraph. I met veterans of all sizes, shapes, colors, and ancestry. I met three Medal of Honor recipients: Joe Marm, “Too Tall” Freeman and Bruce Crandall. It was Bruce who flew my wounded brother out of Ia Drang on the second to last helicopter run. An Honor Guard stayed posted by the wall. (My experience at the Friday night reception is printed in VietNow, (www.viewnow.com, and entitled, “Abandoned Soldiers: A Special Reunion.”)
When I looked into the eyes of these survivors, I recognized within each living veteran, a nobility of stature, a pillar of deep strength, a stream of unending pain, and unlimited courage. I was witnessing greatness in the flesh, and I was profoundly humbled. When I left the group in the wee hours of the morning, I walked carefully and slowly away, as if I were in slow motion. I knew my life was changing.
On Saturday my group visited the magnificent memorials. I said a silent prayer for my father at the newly built WW II memorial. I was silenced by the eerie Korean War memorial that seems to have turned real soldiers into stone. I blinked back tears at Panel 3 East of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, where the names of those killed in Ia Drang are listed. There were so many memorials – too many wars, I thought sadly.
It was the sunrise service at the Wall on Sunday, and the reading of the names that completed my transformation. There, in the early rays of dawn, with the Honor Guard proudly at attention atop Panel 3 East, (Ret.) General Hal Moore and Joe Galloway took turns reading from the list of those who died in the Ia Drang Valley that November of 1965. They breathed life into each person’s name, and I cried for those who not had made it back, as if I knew them. As I looked around at the wounded veterans standing with heads bowed and tears streaming down their faces, I felt as if I knew them, too, and I cried with them. (An article describing my experience is posted on the Memorial Wall’s online Literary Section under my name entitled “For Those Who are Not”.)
I returned home from that reunion in DC with a new passion inflamed in my heart.
I want to ease the burdens of these noble humans who survived that war, and all the wars we have had since. I want to make sure that every parent, spouse or child, fights for the education, finances and health care of its heroes, the ones who made it back. I want to make every politician accountable for their votes on veterans’ issues.
But mostly, I want to help give this country its conscience back. I want our country to vow never to send our troops into any war without cause, or into any war before diplomacy, goodwill, cooperation, and negotiations have failed to attain our nation’s security; to never shortchange our troops on artillery, ammunition, strategy, or sound and efficient military leadership. I want our country to vow that if it has to commit our troops to war, that it commits the dollars to care for them when they return.
It is not enough to thank our veterans one day a year. Our true feelings are expressed by what we do for them the other 364 days.
To all veterans, I give my humble vow to do what I can to champion your well-being as gratitude and respect for your service and sacrifice. I hold you softly in my heart and my prayers. May you know peace of mind and joy of heart in all you do.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.