My parents had a plan; they were going to send me and my brother to Canada to live with a great-uncle they hadn’t seen in 20 years. I was 14 and my brother was a year older, and the Vietnam War was in full swing. If it went on much longer, they would have to send my younger brother too. The next year, the war was ended, and our nation’s long nightmare had come to an end. My family let out a collective sigh of relief, not completely sure of what we had avoided, but grateful that it was over.
It wasn’t until I was serving a church in Cincinnati that I discovered just how brutal the experience of war was for those who were brave enough to enter into the service of their country. My only interactions with veterans up to this point had been men who had served in WWI, II, and Korea, and none of them were talking. It’s as if they had made a pact with each other to keep silent; what happened on the battlefield stayed on the battlefield. Vietnam was different; maybe it was because they were treated so badly when they came home, or maybe it was a generational shift. Or maybe it was because this was the first time a war had been broadcast daily, warts and all. Regardless of the reason, many of the soldiers who came home told their stories, and it was painful to hear.
One veteran I met in Cincinnati was a psychologist who worked with men who suffered from PTSD, a condition he himself was haunted by. I met him at a gathering where we were both group leaders for first-year medical students, and we got to be friends. This friendship quickly turned into confession, and I knew immediately that I was not trained for this. He was haunted by what he had seen as a medic, and his tears and guilt poured out of him every time we met. His anguish was palpable; his grief debilitating. After a few months, I was able to convince him to seek professional help, and after I left there for Pennsylvania, we lost contact.
I am opposed to most wars because I recognize that many of them are fought for money. This doesn’t mean, however, that the brave people who sign up to defend our country are anything but heroic. We have set up systems that work, to some extent, to help veterans in their greatest need, but too many of our Vietnam vets have slipped between the cracks. We don’t have to glorify war to honor those who serve our country, and we should be doing a better job of providing help for them. William Tecumseh Sherman was on the mark when he said, “I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.” Too true. And while it seems facile to say it, Thank you for your service.
Prayer – God, keep us from using war to line our pockets, and only as a last resort. Help us to work towards peace whenever possible. Amen.
Today’s image is of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.