I was recently asked why I was so angry and why I couldn't forgive people who, in my estimation, didn't perform as well or do as much as I did.
But, in my mind's eye, I didn't perform all that well; and I can't forgive people until I figure out some way to forgive myself.
I was eighteen and stupid when I finally got to Vietnam. Young, because I was in a hurry to become a hero like my Father -- a ball turret gunner on a B-24 bomber during World War II. I can remember growing up in the 1950s, a product of the baby boomer generation, listening to my Father talking with all the neighborhood men about their experiences in World War II.
Our next door neighbor-- a Marine veteran of the assault on Iwo Jima, former soldiers, veterans of the D-Day assault at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, and Naval veterans of sea battles around the world attended frequent back yard barbecues and holiday celebrations and argued incessantly about whose service was tougher.
They had a common bond, a secret fellowship that I longed to join. They celebrated their return safely, honored their dead and lost, and enjoyed the respect of a country which relished their victory against fascism and aggression.
I can remember endless arguments in grade school, while each of my friends and I hailed the accomplishments of our Fathers and whose Father had been the most heroic. I spent hours drawing sketches of air combat while teachers droned on about subjects I knew I wouldn't need when I grew up and became a soldier. I hounded my Dad to let me stay up late at night to watch war movies and then barraged him with questions about the war.
I was too young to realize that his answers were always general, and he never related specifics about what he had done. And I never noticed that he often drank himself into insensibility, night after night, as he relived memories and recurring images of attacking FW 190s and anti-aircraft fire so thick that it appeared as man-made clouds.
It was no surprise to my parents when I enlisted and volunteered aviation. They had known I was going to fly, no matter what; and my taking the Oath and leaving for Basic Training was the real culmination of graduation from high school.
When I finally got to Vietnam, I was still fired up with patriotic fervor; and I gave every bit of myself to my job and my unit. I knew that when I came home, I was going to be just like my Dad. I would join the Legion and my fellow veterans, and I would be secure in the knowledge that I would be proud of my service to my country for the rest of my life.
I gloried in the excitement and adrenaline high and swaggered as I built up my time and my "rep." The true face of war did not affect me until years later. The blotting out of the memories of friends killed by enemy fire or flaming crashes or just stupid accidents did not begin to affect me for two decades.
And, when I came home, I found that time had passed me by; and the service that I had gloried in was a cause of pain to anyone I tried to tell my stories to. My family and friends, who had no idea what I was talking about, treated me with sympathy because, after all, I still hadn't realized that my service, in an unpopular war, was never going to be honored because they had been told we had lost.
It didn't take me long to realize and learn, as did all my fellow Vietnam veterans, that it was better not to talk about Vietnam. It was easier to rejoin society by not admitting that you had been there and, better yet, sometimes denying that you had even served. I fell into that same trap. It was just easier to get along. Time went on, and I started a new life.
I watched the POWs come home in 1973 from the comfort of my recliner. I watched it by myself because I still didn't have any close friends who would understand the depths of my emotions or the cause of my tears. I wasn't crying so much for the joy of their safe return but because of the reception they received that the rest of us never experienced. And I cried because, instead of suffering their fate, I had left to come home to safety.
When Saigon fell in 1975, I felt that closure had finally been granted; and I could put my past behind me and finally forget.
But sometimes, something would trigger a memory. Often it was a song, sometimes a news report; and I would be swept back to a sudden memory that I had long ago put away. As a police officer, I would, every once in a while, have to investigate a death; and I would once again suffer the cloying stench of a long-dead body or, on the odd occasion of having a National Guard Huey pass over, I would be forced back into a time that I had forced myself to forget.
In the early eighties, I read, with avid interest, of the plans for a Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. I tried to explain my disgust with the design to my young wife; but her memories were of imagines on television at dinner time at a time when, in her life, she was more interested in dolls and pets.
When the final product was revealed and once again I watched alone, I was taken by the power of its presentation, even on television. And I knew, as if it was a magnet, that I would have to see it for myself and maybe say good bye to people who had died when I sought safety and came home.
Then the self-sponsored, "Welcome Home" parades started, I ridiculed them in public and yearned to be there in private. But I didn't have the courage to go by myself, afraid that someone would know of my secret shame and anger at myself because I was safe, with a family.
Years later, when the country celebrated and rejoiced in an overwhelming victory in the Gulf, I, again, was a bystander. I watched the celebrations, and I was jealous and envious. They had fought a four-day war and were granted the respect and adoration that my Father must have gotten on his return, and I couldn't understand why it didn't happen for us.
Throughout that thirty-year span, Vietnam veterans were vilified and shamed. The new war movies, made by the same people who made war seem heroic and glorious a generation earlier, now showed the veterans of my war as people to be pitied. Newspapers and television never failed to show Vietnam veterans in the worst light and took every opportunity to show the War as immoral and a great American tragedy. But I didn't have anyone that I could express my feelings to and those that read the articles or saw the movies suddenly became experts on what was wrong with our involvement and why the Vietnam veteran could never, really, be returned to society.
Yet, still, I remained silent. After twenty years of inaccurate reporting and the knowing looks of acquaintances, if I brought it up, I had learned that it was better to remain silent. And I did.
But now, I'm angry. I'm angry at myself for keeping quiet when I saw pseudo-Vietnam veterans interviewed for their tales of woe on television in order to reinforce the media's depiction of Vietnam veterans as an object of scorn. I kept silent as the 591 POWs came off the plane at Clark Air Force Base in 1973, knowing that none of the almost 400 aircrew who had been captured in Laos have ever been returned.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, a document was discovered that proved that there were actually 1,205 American POWs at the time of the Paris Peace accords, and our government knew it and did absolutely nothing in the interest of supporting and establishing a new world order.
I finally decided enough was enough when it began to be apparent to me that there were Vietnam veterans beginning to seek each other out. When we began talking to each other, revealing all of the emotions that we had all suppressed, I got even more angry.
I'm mad because I came home and those guys on the Wall didn't. I'm mad because I sat back and did nothing to bring the rest of the POWs back. I'm mad because for almost thirty years, I've let the American media vilify and scorn our service; and I did nothing. And, I'm also mad because it is suddenly fashionable to claim Vietnam service and use that as a crutch to gain benefits and sympathy, and I've seen it happening over and over again; and I did nothing.
Why can't I forgive and forget? Because I owe. I owe something to the people I left behind in my unit to do my job for me while I sought safety. I owe something to those of my brothers who were captured, and I found it safer and more comfortable to forget them. I owe something to those 58,000 names on a Wall that I still don't have the courage to face because I am ashamed.
Ashamed that I did nothing to protect them and ashamed of a country that still does not realize what was done to them.
I am not going to forget. And if I have to spend every single moment of whatever time I have left making people realize the sacrifice that we made and the unjustified shame that we have been forced to endure, I will.
No more lies about the POWs and no more catering to a Communist regime which has turned human beings into a profit and loss margin. No more acceptance of media lies which claim that Vietnam veterans are homeless, drug-addicted criminals.
No more tolerance of those who fake service in Vietnam or participation in nonexistent American atrocities.
And no more silence from me and acceptance of the status quo. I will not be silent and safe anymore.