ViêtNow Convention 2013
“Over time, the war came to mean less and less, until it meant nothing at all….and meanwhile, the other soldiers came to mean more and more until they came to mean everything.”
– David Finkel, author, “Thank You For Your Service”
My name is Karen St. John. I’m a writer. I’m here not because I have a cause or a contribution to share with you or to tell you about. I am here simply to tell you how much I care about you.
I didn’t always. I never even thought about you. But there was something that happened to me in my life that changed me forever. I want to tell you about that and I want to tell you about what I was like before then and what I am doing about it now.
I am deeply grateful to ViêtNow for all the wonderful opportunities that it has given me as a writer. At the top of my list is being at this convention with you folks. I have never met a kinder, nicer group of people than you, who have welcomed me with open arms. No questions, no expectations. I was here, that’s all that that you needed to know. But of course that didn’t surprise me because you’re veterans…and I’ve come to understand a little bit about you veterans.
I have had enormous pleasure learning about this group: you are very straightforward, very honest; you want people to shoot from the hip, thank you kindly, and you want transparency. So I am going to be real honest with you and I’m going to say there are some things that I do not bring to this podium. But there are some things that I do.
The first thing that I’m going to tell you is what I don’t bring to the podium.
I am not a veteran. I am not an important person. I am not the CEO of a company. I don’t run a media organization and I’m not a legislator, I can’t make laws for you. I have absolutely no fantastic skill that counts. And, I’m average.
Now. Here’s what I do bring to this podium.
I am not a veteran, but I proudly come from a family of veterans. My father served in WW II, and all of my three brothers served in the service. My younger brother Dave served in the National Guard. My older brother Wayne served in the Air Force. He was stationed out in Mountain Home Air Force Base in Boise, Idaho. The first time I rode a train and saw mountains was when I went to see him. My oldest brother Bob joined the Army and is a Vietnam War veteran. (“Tell him we said, ‘Welcome home.’”) Thank you. He will appreciate that.
There was one weekend in 2005 that changed my life forever. I had no idea that it was going to. I am not the same person I was before that weekend that I am now. Because of that weekend I now write for you. I try to bring concerns and issues that matter to you to the nation’s conscience. Or maybe I should say, with you Vietnam veterans, I am trying to give the nation a conscience. That would probably be more accurate.
Most of my experiences that caused transformation in my life have been through combat veterans. I don’t want those of you veterans who have served in times of peace to feel that I don’t understand you. A veteran is a veteran is a veteran. Combat veterans have laid the pathway for me to other veterans, not just in this country, but worldwide. The same issues concern every veteran.
The past two nights at this convention…when you all stood up when a patriotic song was sung… you grabbed the hand next to you like this (raised arm). You made one chain going around this room with all your hands up…that’s what combat veterans have done for me. I am connected to every veteran in this nation and in this world because of combat veterans, and I am damned proud of it. Pardon my language.
My father suffered from “shell shock.” He found refuge in alcohol and detachment. It wasn’t until you Vietnam veterans came home that people actually got a little bit concerned and decided they were going see if maybe, war was a little bit dangerous for people. They interviewed Vietnam vets who had come home and found out that everybody was adjusting just wonderfully. They had no problems, they were back into a social life, everything was honkey dorey.
That’s what the study discovered.
Then 25 years later, the people who did the study decided that maybe they’d come back and see how those Vietnam veterans were still doing.
They were startled at what they discovered. The Vietnam veterans said, “I’m depressed. I’m suicidal. I’m having nightmares. I’m full of rage. I’m full of anger.”
Not every combat vet was that way, because not every combat vet who experiences trauma suffers afterwards. But because of that study, because of you Vietnam veterans, we finally have figured out that “shell shock” – “combat fatigue” – is actually post-traumatic stress disorder. And because of you Vietnam veterans, they’re finally starting to do something about it. In my opinion, they are not doing nearly enough. But I am very grateful that they have started to do something. I didn’t understand all of this stuff as a little girl. All I knew was that my daddy was drunk a lot and he didn’t seem to like me very much.
In my family I was one of five children, smack dab in the middle. But there’s quite a span of ages between the youngest one and the oldest one. Twenty years. Because my father was not emotionally around, I looked up to the oldest who was Bob. He became a father figure for me. When he was the first one to join the services, I was very proud. I mean…what is not to like about a military uniform? What is not to be impressed about the presentation of the colors? I was very impressed with the uniform, I was very proud of my brother Bob.
He graduated from Officer Candidate School in June of 1965. In August of 1965 he got his orders to go to some kind of a weird place…somewhere I’d never heard of….started with a “v” something. I found out it was called “Vietnam.” When he left he said, “Write to me because letters are going to be important.” As soon as I got home I sat down and wrote my first letter to him and mailed it. I did that every day until he came back from Vietnam. Every day, even on a Sunday when the mail wouldn’t even go out, because I knew letters mattered to my brother. He told me so. He also told me everything was going to be okay.
When you have a loved one and you’re left behind…and your loved one is going to a dangerous situation…nothing is normal. Your whole life changes for you.
My family’s house was huge. It sat up on top of a hill. You had to walk up cement steps and onto its veranda, a wooden porch that would wind all the way around half the house. We lived in a very small town with 300 people. When you live in a town that size, you have neighbors who just stop in whenever they feel like it. They don’t call and say, “Hey, is this a good time?” They just pop in. When they popped into our house, they had to walk up the cement steps to the veranda. If they walked straight and took a couple of steps, they’d be walking into the living room door. But in a small town, you don’t walk into the living room door, because that means you’re kind of uppity. No. You go right around and you come in the kitchen door. If somebody in my small town had walked into my mother’s house through the living room door, her first thought would have been, “Are you mad at me? What are you in the living room for? Come back into the kitchen!” People loved my mother, she always had the coffee pot on. They were always coming up the steps, getting on the wooden porch, going around and coming back to the kitchen.
On a day in October of 1965, I was in that kitchen with my mother. Because it was a beautiful day, all the windows and all the doors were open. And then I heard the steps.
Do you know what it’s like to hear footsteps on a wooden porch?
Thump. Thump. Thump. Heavy. Steady. Thump. Thump. Thump.
I had been doing some studying about the War. I had been watching TV. Vietnam was the first War was that was telecast on the news with footage from the lines. I’m not sure what I think about that broadcasting war on TV and seeing the deaths. When the footage came on, I looked for the face of my brother every time. When I saw a body on a stretcher, and there was a hand sticking out with a watch on it, I would say, “Oh, my god, Bob has a watch like that! That must be Bob!” Or if I saw a dead body on the ground, I’d look at those boots and I would say, “OH MY GOD, MY BROTHER HAS BOOTS LIKE THAT!” Well, duh. Everybody had boots like that. But as I said, when you have a loved one in a dangerous situation, there is no such thing as normal. Everything turns into fear.
There I was in that kitchen on that October day with Bob gone when I heard those footsteps on that wooden porch, coming at me…and I thought, “I don’t recognize those.”
I had kept asking people, “What if something would happen to my brother, how would I know?” They said, ‘Oh, you’d probably get a telegram. Or more than likely, people in uniform would come and tell you.” So I was always afraid of people I didn’t know. And I did not recognize these footsteps.
I heard ‘em coming around…thump…thump…thump….and I kept thinking, “There is NO WAY my brother is not coming home! He promised me! He told me, ‘Everything’s going to be okay,’ ” and I believed him.
Those footsteps started getting closer and closer and I was thinking, “Is…is that ONE person? The death squad…that comes in twos…right!?! I think it’s just one person.” I’m there, listening to these footsteps that are getting closer and closer upon me. When all of a sudden the kitchen door is pulled wide open and a neighbor sticks her head in and says, “Hey? Got any coffee?” My mom said, “Sure! Come on in.”
I could only stand there and stare. I stared at the wall opposite me as my neighbor went by me, and I saw my heart that she had grabbed out of my chest and smacked up against that wall, slide down that wall bleeding. I was so scared for my brother. But then I put my chin back up, and I was more determined than ever that he was going to come home.
Although I had begun knowing a lot more about Vietnam, I am glad I didn’t know everything.
In mid-November, I did not know that my Second Lieutenant brother was on a plane with his platoon and heading out for much needed R & R when his radio man handed him the radio and said, “Sir? We got some new orders.” I did not know that when my brother took the radio and said, “Yep? Yes, sir!” that the plane was going to be turned back to the front lines. I did not know that in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, in a lovely little valley with the Ia Drang River running through it, that the 7th Cav was there in battle and they were in trouble. They were calling in reinforcements. My brother belonged to A Company, First of the Fifth. They were one of the first groups that was called in.
I did not know any of that. I also did not know that the life span of a Second Lieutenant in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam was a whopping three minutes.
The second day, November 16, 1965, his group was leaving from an area called Landing Zone X-Ray, and moving to a spot called Landing Zone Albany when they were ambushed by mortar fire. My brother was leading his group into the mortar, which he explained to me afterwards, is what you do. That army does not make sense, but he was trying to get his men out of danger when he was hit by mortar in his back and fell to the ground. He should have died instantly, but he didn’t. He hung on. Four of his men picked him up, put him in his poncho, and under heavy enemy fire, began taking him to the Medevac site. His men had to drop him constantly to fire back at the enemy to save their own lives; over and over, they picked him up, dropped him, picked him up, dropped him, all the way to the Medevac site. There was one moment when my brother slid right out of the poncho in a sea of his own blood. They picked him up, put him back in and made it to the Medevac site. The medic there took over and stopped my brother from bleeding to death.
This was the first major battle of the Vietnam War and it was horrific. There were many casualties in a short period of time, and many wounded waiting to be Medivac-ed out. But while my brother waited, the Medevac helicopters back at base were told not to go in any more because the enemy fire was so bad.
Well, hold on a minute, demanded two supply pilots. Absolute nonsense, they argued. They were not going to leave any man behind, and they were NOT going to leave our wounded behind. Too Tall Freeman and Bruce Crandall decided they were going to take their supply helicopters and they would make the runs to pick up our guys.
My brother had to wait his turn. He was in and out of consciousness, much like the day was going from light to dark. Everybody knew that the copters couldn’t come in at night because of the enemy fire. As the day turned into evening my brother prayed that if he would die, it would not be on foreign soil. He wanted to live long enough to die on American soil.
Evening settled in and it was determined that he was going to be on the next copter that made it in. He waited for the sound. And then…
Sure enough, the “whomp whomp whomp whomp” – the sound of hope – was coming in.
They loaded up my brother onto the helicopter and two weeks, three countries, and several operations later, we knew that he was going to stay alive. That he was going to come home. That he was going to be walking and talking.
The first time he came up our steps and I gave him a hug, he looked like my brother, he smelled like my brother, he sounded like my brother. But when I stepped back and looked into his eyes, I saw a stranger. He was not my brother any more. He had a “stare” that I didn’t know why was there.
In 2002 he retired from his work and was belatedly diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder. We started to talk then about the experiences that he had. He started telling me what it was like to be in combat and I started telling him what it was like to be back home, left behind, feeling alone and not being able to do anything about it. So when 2005 came around and he got word that there was a forty-year reunion of the Ia Drang Valley survivors, I said, “You aren’t going to go without me, I’ll meet you out there.”
A book had been written by Hal Moore and Joe Galloway, and a movie made about that ambush in the Ia Drang Valley called, “We Were Soldiers Once and Young”. My brother had bought me a paperback and had written down his own comments in pencil. He is mentioned in the book by rank and what happened to him was described. Someone said to me, “Take a hard cover because Joe and Hal are going to be there and they can sign it for you.”
I flew out there on a Friday to meet my brother, his wife and one of their sons. When I got to the hotel he and his family were still out for dinner. I knew there was a reception that night, a banquet on Saturday night, and service at the Wall on dawn Sunday morning. I called my brother and told him I’d meet him at that evening’s reception.
I grabbed my hard cover book, got in the elevator, and headed for the reception. I did not know that when I left that hotel room, I was going to return to it later as a different Karen St. John than the one who was just leaving. I just got in the elevator, went down to the floor and when the elevator opened up, I stepped out.
But I couldn’t go any further.
It wasn’t because I didn’t know where the reception was. It was right there, through the double door ahead of me. It wasn’t because I was afraid to go in. That room had nice people. I knew that. It was because I felt something. Something strong around me. The voices…you could hear them…they sounded like normal voices…but I could feel something in those voices whirling around me, wrapping all the way around me. I stood there and thought, “There is something in the air here. There is something different about this and I don’t know what it is, but I’m going to find out.” I decided I was going to be kind of quiet. Which is a feat for me.
I walked into the reunion and when the veterans came up to me to chat, I thought, “You know…they’re all…normal. They’ve been through one of the worst things in their entire life and they look like normal people. They act like normal people. They’re talkin’. They’re walkin’. They’re having a good time. Some are quiet. Some are chatty. Some are gregarious. But they’re normal people!”
Veterans would ask, “Do you want me to sign your book? I’m on page such-and-such.” Mmm…YES! Someone said, “See that tall guy over there?” Oh, yeah, the one, like, two heads above everybody else? Telling raunchy jokes? They said, “That’s Too Tall Freeman.” I introduced myself to that Medal of Honor recipient who then signed my book. I also met Joe Marm, another Medal of Honor survivor. As if that wasn’t enough to comprehend all at once, somebody then said, “See that guy over there, in the middle of the group? He’s a nice guy.” People were lined up to talk to him. I was told to introduce myself to the nice man whose name was Bruce Crandall. Did I know who he was?” I said, “Yes, I know who he is, I read the book.” So I went over, introduced myself to Bruce, a future Medal of Honor recipient, and went back to the party. I hung out with my brother, got my book signed by the authors and enjoyed myself. But as the night started going by and it started getting darker, things started to change for the veterans.
I didn’t know what caused the increasing unease. The Honor Guard was still standing in the back with the ribbons from the campaigns…but things were getting tense. Things were getting uncomfortable. I didn’t know what was going on. I turned around and I happened to look over in Bruce’s direction just as he had turned around. I was shocked to see all the joy was out of his eyes. He had a haunted look. The same look my brother had. I didn’t understand it then.
You folks talk in code, you just don’t know it. Veterans would walk up to each other and say, “How is your night?” And someone would answer back, “I’m back in country.” And I thought to myself, “Why the heck would you go out in the country in the dark when you can’t see anything?” Or they would say, “How is so and so? How’s his mind?” “He’s back there.” What? Where’s “back”? And then they started talking in percentages. They’d say, “What’s your percentage?” “30%.” “You should have 100. Call me. I’ll tell you who to talk to.”
I now understand what all of that means. I understand PTSD night terrors, back in country…I understand the Veterans Affairs percentages. I didn’t understand it then. What I understood was, I was mistaken. Those real men were not ordinary men. Those were heroes. They were tough. They were like steel…honed on the central highlands of Vietnam; and I had the privilege of being with them.
That banquet on Saturday…when I saw those colors come in and all those uniforms…I still liked the uniforms, but it was when everybody there got to stand up and introduce himself and say what company he was with, that changed me. I realized during those introductions, that I was no longer impressed with the uniform…I was impressed with the human being in it. That was my first change that weekend.
On Sunday they had a pre-dawn service at the Wall, Panel 3 East, and roll call. That’s a whole, entire, different experience. I wrote about it and it’s on the literary wall of the online Vietnam Memorial Wall page if you ever want to read it. That was a profound moment for me and my second change. Because as I stood there, I cried…not just for those whose names who were on the Wall, but for those whose weren’t.
That weekend absolutely changed my life forever. I went from not caring about veterans, not being concerned about veterans, to being an advocate about what’s important to you, and wanting to do everything that I possibly can for those issues that concern you.
I wanted to write about that reunion and so I did. I sent it to three publications.
The first editor wrote back and said, “We don’t do anything about the Vietnam War any more because it was so long ago.” The second editor said, “I really would like to print your article but my publisher said we did something about the Vietnam War last year and it’s too early to print something else.” The third editor wrote back and said, “You saw the heart of the veteran. I’d like to publish this.” And so, in 2006, I started my career writing for ViêtNow magazine. I am deeply grateful for all the years that I’ve had writing for that magazine and all the opportunities that it has given me.
This is the first impact you Vietnam veterans have had on me.
In 2007 I started doing book reviews that were written by veterans or were about veterans, and I still do that. I do film reviews, too, and I have a personal blog for veterans.
ViêtNow and my association with it has given me cool things that I am invited to.
I’ve been to dedications for Medal of Honor recipients.
When I read about the Westborough Baptist church…which is not a church… which is not affiliated with the Baptist faith…which is really a hate group that goes to funerals and bothers the survivors of the soldiers…I found out there was a motorcycle group from the American Legion and other groups that put themselves between the haters and the family. I found out my state had one…I introduced myself to them. “I write for VietNow. I’d like to learn about your group.” Since then I have spent time with the Patriot Guard in flag lines at services, at cemeteries and with them in the joy of welcoming home the National Guard from war.
With the impact that you’ve had on me, I’ve learned several other things from you.
I’ve learned not to flinch.
I listened to an Iraq vet talk about suicide bombings and how he had to scrape babies off walls in pieces. I didn’t react because I learned from you folks that you have to talk about it and I can’t show any reaction. I have to get across the fact that you had to do what you had to do in those situations to survive. You all need to know that you are still okay.
You also taught me how to mistrust politicians when they praise you.
A group hired me in 2008 to investigate the political voting records of key political candidates throughout the nation. While doing my research, I really got mad. There are a lot of people who gave the most beautiful speeches…and sold out our veterans. I thought, “You know what? You are not gonna do this to MY veterans. I’m gonna call you out.” I wrote, “You talk a pretty speech but you’ve got a slight of hand going. You said all those wonderful things about what you are going to do for veterans…and then behind their backs you’re betraying them.” I was particularly hard on those who were veterans themselves and didn’t vote for the GI Bill. Or didn’t vote for the health care funds that came up. I said, “You know what you are? You’re friendly fire. And you’re hurting my veterans and you darn well better stop.”
You taught me more.
You talk me to be sassy. Now, there are some who might say,”Karen, you didn’t need to be taught that.” You taught me a special kind of sass. It is true what they say about women when they feel protective…well, I hate to say this…but I feel protective of you. If somebody’s gonna get you, they’re gonna have to go through me first, and I tell you…they ain’t gonna wanna do that.
I was invited to a veterans’ group where a staff member was going to be there from one of the presidential campaigns. He was going to talk about what was being proposed for you veterans. The staff worker was introduced as a veteran. He launched into the health care plans of the candidate. Now it is my idea that your health care be included as a line item in any military budget. I think that makes total sense. I wanted to make that point to this staffer. So I said, “Sir!” He said, “Yes?” I told him my idea. He said, “Okay.” I said, “Will you tell that to the presidential candidate?” He said, ‘Yes, I will,” and he turned around. I thought, now you wait just a minute. You don’t turn around on me. I want your word. “Excuse me!” I said to him. He turned back like, whoa, what is this woman wanting now? And I said, “Can I have your word on that? That you’re going to take that idea to the presidential candidate?” He said, ‘Yeah. I give you my word” and he turned back around. Again I thought, wait just a minute. “Sir!’ I said. He turned to me, probably thinking, “WHAT does this strange lady want!?!”
The veterans are looking at me now, too. I said, “I don’t want your word as a staffer. You’re a soldier. Right?” He answered yes with pride. I told him, “I want you to look these veterans in the eye. I want you to give them your word as a soldier that you are going to tell that idea to this presidential candidate. Health care has to be a line item.” He had a look of alarm on his face. But he put his shoulders back, lifted his chin and he looked those veterans in the eye and said to them, “I give you my word as a soldier.” I have no doubt he kept it.
But the impact you’ve had on me is no different from the impact you have on others.
When I stepped up here to the podium I told you I did not achieve anything great; that I was not special, that I was average.
That’s a plus.
I am a normal person. There are billions of people like me who care about you. They are doing things quietly and humbly like I do, trying to help you. They are donating their time and/or money and efforts. They are writing their legislators, they’re checking voting records, they’re trying to vote for the right one who will help you.
There are billions of people trying to help you. Just like me.
I know that you are here at this convention because you want to be with your brothers and sisters in arms. But I am telling you that you also have brothers and sisters in heart. I am your sister in heart. There are billions of us who care about you.
From time to time I get emails from strangers saying, “You know, we were learning about the Vietnam War in school and I have a lot of respect for what those men and women went through. Can you tell me a little bit about them?” Or, I will have people write me and say, “I want to know what happened to my father…my friend’s father…my brother…can you point me in the right direction? “ In fact, there is a beautiful story about a son of a combat veteran who contacted me trying to find out about his dad. He didn’t know until his father died that his father had been awarded the Silver Star. It was a wonderful story and it is published in one of the issues on the of ViêtNow. Your influence is felt. You are heroes in uniform. There is no doubt about that.
But your impact isn’t just with us. It is being passed on to other generations.
What you haven’t been told yet is that out of uniform, you are creating heroes. The upcoming generation…and the generation after them…now know what you have been through. They want to be like you. They want to be noble…like you are. They want to be tolerant…like you were. They want to be a hero…like you remain.
You weren’t just heroes then…you are heroes now. Don’t you doubt that for one second.
I told you I learned to respect the human being in the uniform. You changed that, too.
After all that you’ve gone through…the rejection…blame…criticism…that you faced with tolerance…kindness…compassion….your greatness is not in the fact that you were a human being in a uniform. Your greatness…is that you stayed one.
You’ve made me a better person and you’ve made me a stronger person. I can’t say that I’ll walk in your footsteps because I don’t have the nobility, the courage or the compassion you do to say that I can do that. But I will walk by you. I stand by you. And I will stand UP for you.
For all of you combat veterans, I say with great love in my heart: I am so glad you made it back.
To all of you veterans, I say: welcome home. Thank you for your service.
I honor you. I cherish you. And I salute you.
To learn about the study of PTSD on Vietnam veterans, click on National Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Study (NVVRS).
Click on General Impact of Vietnam Veterans to read St. John’s article on the increasing impact of Vietnam veterans.