Saturday, May 24, 2008

Memorial Day 2008

The following accounts are interviews I had with Vietnam War veterans, men of my generation. They reveal examples about the meaning of war and military service to veterans who have risked and who are risking their lives for our country.

Roger – USMC 1969-71

“Being a Marine is like being a member of a brotherhood,” said Roger, who works at the VA hospital in Battle Creek, Mich. Among the many tattoos on his arm is the Marine motto: “Retreat is not an option.”

“If you join the Marines you know it’s the toughest group in the military and that a lot of responsibility is heaped on to Marines, more than in the other services. You honor the flag, the president and never dishonor yourself or your mother. You know that the fellow next to you will take a bullet for you.”

“In the Marines you carry its values with you for the rest of your life, values like honesty, helping others, always being faithful to other Marines, taking care of your own….It’s a brotherhood.”

“Nobody wants to take a life but if the enemy shoots at you and you refuse to shoot back, what do you think is going to happen?”

“You won’t find veterans that believe in war, but you’ll never find a vet who doesn’t believe in his country.”

Roger suddenly realized at the beginning of the Iraq War that “our babies were fighting in a war.” He suddenly started to tear up. When he enlisted in the Marines in 1969, he was a baby, too.

“I guess my mother was really worried. She had four sons in the service at that time.”

Although he stayed in the United States during his service, when he returned from duty his reception was less than what he expected.

“I got spit at and had drinks thrown at me in bars because I was a military man.”

Nevertheless, throughout all these years Roger has remained firm of purpose regarding the Vietnam War: he and his fellow Marines did their duty. Yet, he showed some sympathy and understanding for those who treated him and his comrades so badly:

“They were just taking it out on us because we were in the military.”

Art – USMC 1968-70

“When you’re 18 you think war is a big adventure,” said Art who enlisted in the Corps right out of high school because he had no other direction in life and “didn’t know any better.” After he finished his tour, he got a job at the U.S. Post Office where he’s worked ever since.

“When you get there [in Vietnam], you find out they are shooting real bullets.”

Art said he started questioning the idea of war in the spring of 1969 when he first went into combat. His life was forever changed.

He arrived in Vietnam just after the Tet Offensive and was assigned to a clean-up maneuver in the northern-most province of South Vietnam near Da Nang. He encountered many small skirmishes, but the happy-go-lucky extrovert said he soon adopted a cynical outlook on life.

“A certain feeling overcame me when people started shooting at me. It put me in a reflective mode. I began to lose my life and ask about the nature of our existence in this world.

Art doesn’t claim to be a spiritual or religious man, at least not in organized religion, but when he was in intense combat he had a “out-of-body experience.” As he found himself elevated above the battle below, he realized he could have died there.

“I came to appreciate the gift of life that God gives us and realize that it’s a shame that we squander it in conflicts.”

Art is especially concerned about the psychological damage done to young men in war and how it affects everyone around them: their family, spouse, kids and co-workers. He knows Vietnam vets who have struggled with lifetime repercussions because of that war.

“Why should we send the young in harm’s way? They have no sense of risk and they’re not old enough to reflect on the value of the life they have been given. They think they will either be heroes or dead men, but then there’s a gray area they don’t think about: what if they get wounded?”

Vietnam War statistics show that 58,226 soldiers were killed or classified as missing in action and 153,303 were wounded.

“I’m not sure about the spiritual existence after this life, so I appreciate the life I have here and now. I savor the moments. It makes war and killing so senseless.”

George – U.S. Navy 1967-69

George had never visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. so before the January 2003 peace march began, he and I decided to spend some time there.

On that cold, 20-degree day, we walked in silence to the memorial. As we neared the deep gouge in the earth, I felt an ache in the pit of my stomach. This was our generation’s war. It was George’s war.

We walked a few yards into the memorial and looked at the names engraved on the shiny, black granite wall. Even in his silence it was obvious George was deeply touched.

We continued about a quarter into the walkway until George stopped. He had a “peace on earth” sign with him and we took photos of each other holding it. Then he wanted to leave.

As we left the walkway a solitary security guard suddenly appeared near the entrance and told us that signs were prohibited at the memorial.

“Peace on earth,” the guard said as he read our sign out loud. “What an idea.”

As George rolled up the sign and put it under his arm, the guard saw us fumbling to capture the meaning of his words.

“You don’t think I’m for war, do you?” he snapped.

The guard probably saw hundreds of people a day at the memorial. As the prospect of a new war loomed, just 30 years after this one, he had pulled duty at the stark, black wall with the 58,000 names etched on it.

George and I walked on to the huge white “temple” nearby, the Lincoln Memorial. We climbed the smooth marble steps and gazed at the towering sculpture of the somber president who oversaw a divided nation, which resulted in the deaths of 620,000 soldiers, according to some estimates. Now, nearly 150 years later, we were a divided nation once again on the brink of war, only this time the war would be fought in a faraway land.

George and I walked a short distance to the Korean War Memorial. It commemorated our fathers’ war. (The memorial of their other war that had occurred seven years earlier was in the process of being built further down the mall.)

The memorial’s triangular shape and its position on the mall opposite the Vietnam and Lincoln Memorials, called to mind the demands that war makes on our young. The faces of the immobile metal figures are grim. Their hunched stance caused by the weight of their equipment and the weariness of war contradicts the men’s otherwise youthful strength and presumed optimism in the future.

On this Memorial Day, let us honor our dead by asking why we are willing to sacrifice our young for the “just” causes of the old? Let us likewise seek to devise alternative ways of settling our conflicts without going to war.

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