What is the allure of a reunion? What draws us back, on some deep emotional tide, to reconnect with the people we were young with, long ago? I don’t understand it really, but I do feel it. It’s irresistible to wonder “what if?” What if we knew then what we know now? Perhaps, most intriguing of all, what if we could do it over? Would the course of life be different?
This summer, Tim was invited to a reunion of Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW) and I went along for the experience. (An experience that included, by the way, a flashback of dorm living, side by side in dissassembled bunk beds and sharing a bathroom with our new best friends in the Roosevelt University Residence Hall)
VVAW dates back to 1967. It’s an organization that Tim was part of in the years after his service in Vietnam. A small band of veterans, a chance meeting at a peace rally, and the organization was formed to speak openly of direct experience, to speak out against the failed war; to be truthful when the official account was a lie; to face up to the hate which divided families, communities, and the nation. Eventually, VVAW was instrumental in bringing down a presidency and ending a war. Its members occupied the national mall in Washington, DC; disrupted the Republican Convention in Miami in 1972; threw medals across the White House fence, organized the Winter Soldier Investigations to record the full truth of war crimes; organized support for traumatized vets when the government dismissed post Vietnam syndrome as weakness.
Where are the veterans of Vietnam today? Some are side by side in daily life. That’s been my experience, in twenty eight years of marriage. Some are invisible, getting on with life, showing nothing to the current world. In my work I see the few who continue to actively suffer in the aftermath. But the veterans gathered in Chicago in the summer of 2007 are a small cohort who never put down the struggle. They are teachers and poets and nurses; they serve in government and universities and community service; they show the marks of the war. They range in ages from mid fifties to mid sixties; of course they show the years. They are men with marriages that have survived or failed, with grown children, with grandchildren; with children serving in the current war. Some show the effects of Agent Orange exposure which could lie dormant for decades before bringing the war to the forefront again. Though they speak in quieter voices, they are still not intimidated by hate or anger.
“Every guy who went there has a story and it deserves to be told.” This is a comment in the opening reception, held in a small Vietnamese restaurant on the north side of Chicago, and the entire weekend is about stories. Told in front of microphones or in small circles, told in photographs, scrapbooks, news clippings; some in published volumes; spoken aloud as poetry, performed musically, visually told in art. For the men who survived the war but did not live this long; the theme is drug or alcohol addiction and post traumatic stress; imaged over and over again as demons, as dragons, to be wrestled with throughout the years. Their stories are told, too, in a long evening of memorials.
I thought I was coming along to get a glimpse of who my husband was, ten years before I knew him; and I do see that, but more; because he still is that steadfast man; principled, loyal, and patriotic against the grain; and because the need to speak still exists. And because I have people to thank, who pitched in and saved Tim’s life a time or two. The wake up call, from that first night, is the presence of a new generation – possibly a quarter of the participants are young men and women; the generation of our children, already aged and darkened by the recurrence of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have stories too.
Recently the Omaha World Herald published a series of interviews with young Nebraskans returning from the war. They come home to find ordinary life boring and slow. They don’t fit back into the places they left They recreate a dangerous edge in the adrenaline rush of expensive, high speed cars and motorcycles, Some have been injured; more arrested in high speed chases or for driving under the influence. One after another tells of failed engagements or marriages; estrangement from families; the negotiations of intimate relationships too complex for overstressed nerves to handle.
Buried in the federal legislation “No Child Left Behind” is the sanction for the armed forces to enter high schools to recruit children. In a school system that increasingly fails its students, where there is so little of interest especially for those not planning on college, the armed forces parade a multitude of career choices. You too can be a sniper. For vulnerable young people with absent fathers or fathers who are difficult to please, the message is clear. We will toughen you up, we will teach you, and we will make you into a man.
Uncle Sam wants you. So much that to fulfill enlistment he will target parents by challenging their patriotism. He will take you if you are up to 42 years old. He strives to create “a more pleasant boot camp experience”. He will accept you despite medical or moral challenges, drug offenses, non-offensive tattoos, or obesity. He will pay you blood money to enlist yourself, and a blood bonus to recruit your friends. When you are high on the adrenaline rush of boot camp, but not yet jaded or shattered by IED’s in the desert, he will send you back to talk it up amongst your friends.
On the first night, a young veteran of the Iraq War tells of meeting a Vietnam veteran at a political event of some kind. As they talked about his impending deployment, the vet wrote his number on a card and told him “Call me when you get back. You are going to need it”. And he kept the card, and when his tour as a medic was over, he needed it, and made the call. This is the essence of commonality between the younger vets and the older ones, and between the two organizations. Not just political parallels, but recognition that the fathers’ generation has experience of value that needs to be known; and that we have created a generation who needs to hear it. It is an issue that is close and immediate for us, as it is for many. Our young friend Bryn will be leaving for Iraq in September. He’ll be wearing a St. Christopher medal that Tim carried throughout his service in Vietnam; a token given over quietly, over coffee, one morning this summer.
The reunion closes on Sunday morning at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, the world’s only museum with a permanent collection focusing on the subject of war from an artistic perspective. More than that, it is a place to offer healing in the creation of art as well as the viewing of it. The two story space is still and quiet, designed to allow reflection, to give space to step back and absorb what disturbs and saddens. A veteran’s nightmares, etched in ink on a twelve foot long canvas panel which he unrolled a few inches at a time, all he could bear to focus on. A video cycles endlessly as a young recruit’s head is shaven, but the focus is on his eyes, how they cloud up and darken as the transformation is complete.
Two stories above us, from the ceiling of the gallery, is a faint metallic sound. In a ten by forty foot space hang 58,000 dog tags, one for each name on the wall, moving just a little, as if still alive, on soft currents of air. It’s an installation called “Above and Beyond” It’s the faint sound that closes the weekend.
That thought comes back to me: “If we could do it over, would it be different?
Written in the summer of 2007