So, I am at this motel in Crestview, Florida and it just so happens there is some sort of Vietnam Veteran war reunion or something going on, and there are all these vets staying at the motel. So I get talking to some of them and the same old phrases keep coming up:
I have been hearing those same words for 40 years now and am pretty sick of them. Another one that always comes up is something about how the veteran was protecting America, while cowards avoided the war by going to Canada.
Veterans are moved by peer pressure, just like any other group, but I believe it is even harder for the war veteran. When you go to war, you are putting your life on the line, and chances are pretty good that you are exposed to some awful things. You might have been wounded, had friends wounded or killed, or you may have killed the enemy or innocent civilians or just seen the enemy killed or civilians killed or maimed.
War is nothing like a Hollywood movie. The smells are sickening, and the sounds take your hearing away, but the screams stay in your mind for the rest of your life.
Talking to veterans one-on-one is a different story. They don't have to play to the crowd. They don't have to pretend they fit in with all the guys. Sometimes secrets come out and doubts surface. That goes both ways. That vet has to know you know what he knows.
At the VFW meeting everyone is talking about "their" war, and mostly funny things are talked about. Screw-ups by the Brass, funny guys, and funny stories about liberty calls—always skirting around what really happened, because you know if you bring up the actual war, the smiles will go away, and it will make everyone start thinking about things they don't want to think about.
Some things are so painful you never do get to talk about them except to yourself, and, ironically, if there are guys alive who were there and witnessed those painful things, they are the last people you ever want to see again. If one of them gives you a call and wants to visit, the time between that call and that visit is filled with that horrible memory, and chances are good you never even get around to talking about it, you end up just dancing around and talking about the good things. Then you part with an empty sick feeling knowing the two of you will probably never meet again, because that one huge horrible moment in your lives that you share is too painful or too scary to speak of.
Some guys live the rest of their lives trying to hide from memories that just sit there at the front of their mind waiting to come out, but they just can't let them, because they have no idea of how they will act or how they will be able to stuff them back inside. Some people say time heals all things, but that isn't true if time stops, because you refused to think about something, when you finally do, it is as fresh as yesterday.
It is strange, but it really doesn't matter what war you were in. The dying and the screams, and the smells are pretty universal. A wound that rips a man's stomach open can come from a bomb, a rifle, a pistol, or even a sword or knife. I have seen 80 year old WWII vets sit and talk one and one with a 20 year old Gulf War Vet like they were brothers. Each knew with confidence the other understood what experiences they were each dancing around trying to let a little leak out into the conversation. Sometimes a conversation like that can take some of the pressure off from those thoughts you have been hiding from yourself. Each can walk away, maybe not feeling better, but a little safer with themselves.
So, if you are not a vet, a war vet, you are not going to learn what war is really like talking to a veteran. If a guy starts telling you all the gory details of his war, I believe he is either a total nut case, or he is a bull-shitter who never was in the war. Oh yeah, there are exceptions and some vets are able to put down on paper or in book form what they saw and what they heard, but those vets are few and far between.
Really, I think all this hiding of the truth about war hurts. It hurts the veteran, because he has to suffer those memories all alone. It also hurts the veteran's loved ones, because they don't know why or understand what that vet is going through. It also hurts our nation, because the only war most Americans know about are the wars they see in the movie theater or those late night WWII propaganda movies Hollywood produced to keep spirits up on the home front.
Even today, with all the social media we have, most Americans still believe a person transforms into a hero the minute they put a uniform on. Only the combat veterans know what war really is, and they for the most part are not talking.
BACK to the Politics Columns.