Like veterans of all wars we lived a tad bit--or a great bit--closer to death than most people like to think about. If Vietnam vets differ from others, perhaps it is primarily in the fact that many of us never saw the enemy, or recognized him/her. We heard gunfire and mortar fire, but rarely looked into enemy eyes. Those who did, like folks who encounter close combat anywhere and anytime, are often haunted for life by those eyes, those sounds, those electric fears that ran between ourselves, our enemies, and the likelihood of death for one of us. Or we get hard, calloused, tough. All in a day's work. Life's a bitch then you die. But most of us remember, and get twitchy, worried, sad.
We are crazies dressed in cammo, wide-eyed, wary, homeless and drunk. We are Brooks Brothers suit wearers, doing deals downtown. We are housewives, grandmothers and church deacons. We are college professors engaged in the rational pursuit of the truth about the history or politics or culture of the Vietnam experience. And we are sleepless. Often sleepless.
We pushed paper; we pushed shovels. We drove jeeps, operated bulldozers, built bridges; we toted machine guns through dense brush, deep paddy, and thorn scrub. We lived on buffalo milk, fish heads and rice. Or C-rations. Or steaks and Budweiser. We did our time in high mountains drenched by endless monsoon rains, or on the dry plains, or on muddy rivers, or at the most beautiful beaches in the world.
We wore berets, bandanas, flop hats, and steel pots. Flak jackets, canvas, rash and rot. We ate cloroquine and got malaria anyway. We got shots constantly, but have diseases nobody can diagnose. We spent our nights on cots, or shivering in foxholes filled with waisthigh water, or lying still on cold wet ground, our eyes imagining Charlie behind every bamboo blade. Or we slept in hotel beds in Saigon, or barracks in Thailand, or in cramped ships' berths at sea.
We feared we would die, or we feared we would kill. We simply feared, and often we still do. We hate the war, or believe it was the best thing that ever happed to us. We blame Uncle Sam or Uncle Ho and their minions and secretaries and apologists for every wart or cough or tic of an eye. We wonder if Agent Orange got us.
Mostly--and this I believe with all my heart--mostly, we wish we had not been so alone. Some of us went with units, but many, probably most of us, were civilians one day, jerked up out of "the world," shaved, barked at, insulted, humiliated, de-egoized, and taught to kill, to fix radios, to drive trucks. We went, put in our time, and were equally ungraciously plucked out of the morass and placed back in the real world. But now we smoked dope, shot skag, or drank heavily. Our wives or husbands seemed distant and strange. Our friends wanted to know if we shot anybody.
And life went on, had been going on, as if we hadn't been there, as if Vietnam was a topic of political conversation or college protest or news copy, not a matter of life and death for tens of thousands.
Vietnam vets are people just like you. We served our country, proudly or reluctantly or ambivalently. What makes us different--what makes us Vietnam vets--is something we understand, but we are afraid nobody else will. But we appreciate your asking.
Vietnam veterans are white, black, beige and shades of gray, but in comparison with our numbers in the "real world" we were more likely black. Our ancestors came from Africa, from Europe, and China. Or they crossed the Bering Sea Land Bridge in the last Ice Age and formed the nations of American Indians, built pyramids in Mexico, or farmed acres of corn on the banks of Chesapeake Bay. We had names like Rodriguez, and Stein, and Smith and Kowalski. We were Americans, Australians, Canadians and Koreans; most Vietnam veterans are Vietnamese.
We were farmers, students, mechanics, steelworkers, nurses, and priests when the call came that changed us all forever. We had dreams and plans, and they all had to change, or wait. We were daughters and sons, lovers and poets, beatniks and philosophers, convicts and lawyers. We were rich and poor, but mostly poor. We were educated or not, mostly not. We grew up in slums, in shacks, in duplexes and bungalows and houseboats, and hooches, and ranchers. We were cowards and heroes. Sometimes we were cowards one moment and heroes the next.
Many of us have never seen Vietnam. We waited at home for those we loved. And for some of us our worst fears were realized. For others our loved ones came back, but never would be the same.
We came home and marched in protest marches, sucked in tear gas and shrieked our anger and horror for all to hear. Or we sat alone in small rooms, in VA hospital wards, in places where only the crazy ever go. We are Republicans, Democrats, Socialists and Confucians and Buddhists and Atheists--though as usually is the case even the atheists among us sometimes prayed to get out of there alive.
We are hungry and we are sated, full of life or clinging to death. We are injured and we are curers, despairing and hopeful, loved or lost. We got too old too quickly, but some of us have never grown up. We want, desparately, to go back, to heal wounds, revisit the sites of our horror. Or we want never to see that place again, to bury it, its memories, its meaning. We want to forget and we wish we could remember.
Despite our differences we have so much in common. There are few of us who don't know how to cry, though we often do it alone, when nobody will ask "what's wrong?" We're afraid we might have to answer.
Adam, if you want to know what a Vietnam veteran is, get in your car next weekend, or cage a friend with a car to drive you. Go to Washington. Go to the Wall. It's going to be Veterans Day weeked. There will be hundreds there, no, thousands. Watch them. Listen to them. I'll be there. Come touch the Wall with us. Rejoice a bit. Cry a bit. No, cry a lot. I will. I'm a Vietnam Veteran, and, after 30 years, I think I am beginning to understand what that means.