Veterans Day and the itch
Monday was Veterans Day. By temperament I am not well suited to anything ceremonial so I usually avoid parades and formalities, but I did attend the Saturday events at the Commemorative Air Force: Dixie Wing at Falcon Field. It was nicely done.
I was reminded of something by the speakers, Maj. Gen. George Harrison, USAF, Ret., my buddy and fellow Vietnam helicopter pilot Lt. Col. Cliff Stern, U.S. Army, Ret., and Maj. Gen. Robert B. Patterson, USAF, Ret. Here’s some background.
I wrote my first newspaper column in 2001, and to my surprise the AJC published it. That column was about my dad’s role in WWII when he was a Navy Corpsman on a small escort aircraft carrier, USS Fanshaw Bay, in the Pacific.
Why suddenly write a newspaper column? I had been stopped in the left lane on Ga. Highway 74 at a traffic light in Tyrone when a car pulled up on my right side and the driver motioned for me to lower my window. When I did he asked:
“Is that your Purple Heart on your license plate?”
I answered, “Yes, it is.”
He said, “Thank you!”
I asked, “For what?” because I was confused.
He answered, “For what you did.” Then he drove away through the green light as I sat there for a moment longer than I should, nonplussed.
That exchange started me thinking, and some of my thoughts turned to the same “itch” one speaker mentioned on Saturday, the deep itch I still carried from Vietnam, the same itch countless other vets still carry, unsure whether it can ever be scratched.
At age 53 in 2001, I was a first time dad with an adopted child 4 years old, and my itch made me wonder what manner of crap she would be taught in school about the Vietnam War and the guys who fought that war. So maybe I was prime to be prompted to write a column about my dad’s service in WWII, and to mention I had flown helicopters in the Vietnam War.
That was an unusual step for me. Like so many other Vietnam vets, young men not interested in or equipped for political controversy, when I left the Army in 1972 I left it all in the rearview mirror, trying to forget Vietnam and get on with life.
For all those years until 2001 I never attended a single veteran gathering of any kind. But there was always that deeply buried itch, a dissatisfaction of things unfinished, a nagging that America never understood what really happened in Vietnam, never knew that despite rumors to the contrary, the young Americans sent to fight that war held up the same traditions of honor and courage as their fathers in WWII and Korea.
The truth about Vietnam is quite bad enough, of course, because even though American troops never lost a single significant battle, that war was screwed up to a fare-thee-well by the White House, Congress and the Pentagon.
But the truth wasn’t strong enough to survive the political turmoil and remains to this day hidden in a tangle of myths, half-truths and outright lies. As I tell high school students when I talk to them about myths of the Vietnam War, “Your parents probably know things for certain about Vietnam that have never been true.”
The itch to set the record straight comes from several directions. For countless young men coming home from their war experience, the insults flung at them at the San Francisco airport were downright un-American, while too many good people stood by silently as it happened.
Back then America’s finest veteran organizations like the VFW and American Legion didn’t want us as members; we were tainted by rumors from the anti-war left. Too many veterans of WWII drank the Kool-Aid and told us Vietnam wasn’t a real war, just a police action, even though some of us had been in a great deal of fierce combat.
Over the years Hollywood movies fueled misgivings about vets by characterizing our troops in Vietnam as inept or depraved. TV dramas would introduce a Vietnam vet when they needed a deeply troubled character, or an unemployed and homeless man, perhaps suicidal or liable to snap into violence at any moment. Writers followed suit, applying the same dysfunctional vet stereotypes in the period’s fiction. A stridently anti-war academia decided what to write in our children’s schoolbooks about the war, fueling my reservations.
Is it any wonder that so much passing for common knowledge about these vets was simply not true? Is it any wonder so many of them kept their service and their story to themselves for a long time to avoid conflict?
These were the guys I had ignored for nearly 30 years. That first newspaper column started me down the road to rejoin the brotherhood I had tried to forget.
Andy Burleigh read my first column and he called to invite me to the next meeting of Vietnam Helicopter pilots in Atlanta. Sticking to my well-worn behavior, I politely declined. Andy persisted and I eventually ended up going to their meeting, which was really just a bull session at Manuel’s Tavern. Perfect!
As any vet might predict, I enjoyed reconnecting with my brothers and found I had been wrong to avoid it all those years. I had been denying one of the most powerful connections of my life. These were the men most like me, the ones who understood me best even though we never met, the ones I can trust to watch my six, the strangers who make me feel like I’m home when I walk into their gathering. I promised myself I would teach my children the truth about them.
In 2005 a dimwit said something to me belittling the service of Vietnam vets. I responded in anger but after I cooled off, I realized the real problem was our story had never been properly told to counter the false stereotypes because most of us kept it to ourselves.
Even at this late date, if we don’t tell it true, who will? It was long past time I kept my promise to myself, and so I started to work on a book.
I worked on that book for five years. I talked to countless Vietnam vets along the way, learning a great deal and being reminded that I had learned by watching them, while they were in their early 20s, the true meaning of loyalty, courage and trust. These were the people who had earned my admiration.
My itch isn’t about me at all; it’s about them, the ones who lived and especially the ones who didn’t and who deserve to have the truth told about them.
I was struggling at my desk to finish one of the last chapters in my book one day when my daughter, Melanie, then 12 years old, walked in and asked me, “Dad, what picture are you putting on the cover of your book?”
I dug out a picture of Tony Armstrong kneeling beside the turret at the front of his Cobra gunship and told her, “Here’s one of the pictures I’ll put on the cover.”
She looked at the picture carefully, double-checked my face and declared, “Dad, this isn’t you! Why would you put someone else’s picture on the cover of your book?”
I said, “Melanie, this book isn’t about me. It’s about them, all of them, all the Vietnam veterans.”
I took the title of my book from two places. First, at the beginning of the movie “Gladiator,” Roman General Maximus spreads calm among his men just before a hand-to-hand battle by greeting them with a fist over his heart and the words, “Strength and Honor!” Second, I persuaded Joe Galloway, the Ernie Pyle of the Vietnam War, to write the foreword in my book, which he closed with this sentence: “They were the best you had, America, and you turned your back on them.”
The title of my book is “Strength and Honor: America’s Best in Vietnam.” It’s a good fit, and I took pleasure in “America’s Best” as a poke in the eye of the false stereotypes of my brothers created by the anti-war left.
That book was me scratching my itch. It was also intended to let other vets know that however isolated and frustrated they may have felt over the years, they have never been alone, and I wanted to tell their families what they endured and the high traditions they upheld.
When the book came out in 2011, I had the relieved feeling, “Now I can die in peace.” That means I have scratched a very deep itch as much as I can, but don’t rush me on the dying part.
I have been gratified by glowing reader reviews, which you can check out yourself on Amazon if you don’t have enough to do, but the very best review I could ever have was a voicemail message left on my phone a couple months ago.
The message started, “Terry!” then there was a long pause. His voice was trembling a little when he continued, “I’m reading your book,” and then another long pause in which he was clearly struggling. He finally choked out, “Thanks for writing it,” and the message ended.
I’m smart enough to know the deep feelings he was expressing between the lines didn’t come from my writing eloquence. They have been buried deep inside him since he came home from Vietnam. All I did was write true stories about other vets that resonate with his experience. But his review is the highest praise to me.
The good news, of course, is in recent years being a Vietnam vet has become not only acceptable but even popular, most of the negative baggage cast aside. That’s good for my brothers and good for the country. I’m pleased to see America heaping gratitude on veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan because we Vietnam vets won’t let a generation of vets be disparaged again, not while we are alive.
Another thing that will last so long as we live will be the itch. I was able to scratch mine, but it still itches nonetheless.
One last thing. To all of you who give your time and effort to celebrating vets of all wars, we are grateful beyond words. I have the deepest respect for the VFW and American Legion and other vet organizations, but I have a request.
Please don’t let anyone call us heroes. That makes many of us uncomfortable.
I realize the positive intent, but no matter how little or how much combat we have under our belt, no matter what lofty medals we wear, we know the heroes are those who left their life on foreign soil, dying a violent death young while doing their duty and never living out their lives.
Those are the heroes.