Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Vietnam, a memoir

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the nurses who served in the Vietnam War. It was inspired by a documentary on television of the same subject.

A few days ago, I came across a story online of one Vietnam veteran's journey back to Vietnam to the site of a prolonged battle for territory, as told by his wife who accompanied him. It was part of a series on that country by The Hot Zone, the website where Kevin Sites, for Yahoo News, is going to every country in which there is a significant armed conflict in one year.

As I am wont to do when the subject of the Vietnamese War comes up, I started thinking about my uncle who was a veteran. I also started thinking about my awareness of that war, what it was about, where it took place, etc.

As a child of six, if you had asked me if I knew of the country of Vietnam or heard about the war there, I would have had to answer no. Instead, I could tell you that one summer day, as my aunt watched my sister and I, the phone rang. We were going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for dinner. Mom would meet us there. My aunt cleaned us up and dressed us in our cousin’s sunsuits. All of my aunts, uncles and cousins were there. Grandma wasn’t happy about something. We took pictures that day. My mom, her brothers and sisters and my grandparents smile for the camera, the sun in their eyes. I am in the background wearing a red and white sunsuit swinging on a tire swing.

I know now we were saying goodbye to my uncle before he left for the army and Vietnam.

Sometime with the next year, I knew the name Vietnam and that there was a war but I didn’t really understand anything about what was going on. I just knew that my aunt had these cool bracelets. They were metal and had names on them and letters: POW or MIA. I learned that POW meant Prisoner of War and MIA meant Missing in Action. I knew the names of men that were POWs and MIA.

I know now that my uncle could easily have been a POW or MIA but, fortunately, he wasn’t.

More time passed and my uncle came home from Vietnam. We gathered at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I was happy because somehow Uncle L.T. was special. He was much younger than my mom and his brother and sisters. I loved seeing him. He was the coolest grown up. My sister asked him if he killed anybody in the war. I was shocked that she asked the question but I wanted to know the answer also. He said he probably had but he didn’t know for sure.

I know now he surely killed someone in his time over there. He was only 18 or 19 years old.

As I grew up and went through school, elementary, junior high, high school I knew very little more about Vietnam than I did when my uncle was there. It was said by some to be--and I didn’t think to question--the only war the United States had ever lost. I knew the movies Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now had something to do with the war. I must have been taught about the war in history class but I cannot remember any of it.

I know more now about the history of the war but I also understand how very little it had to do with the Vietnamese people or their well-being.

When I was in high school, I came across a story. It was a story about a Christian soldier in Vietnam. In despair over his situation there, he cried out in prayer, “Lord, why am I here?” He looked down and saw a Vietnamese New Testament opened to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20.) All the fire and brimstone preaching I had listened to all my life had not been enough, but this call to join God in his work did the trick. I prayed a prayer of commitment to God later that night with my high school pastor. The following Sunday my Grandpa baptized me at the Bell Gardens Free Will Baptist Church.

I know now that the Lord used this story of Vietnam to call me to him.

After high school, I saw movies like Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. Sometimes the movies helped me understand. Sometimes I was repulsed by the anger and bitterness of those who had gone. After I got married, I finished college. My American history professor had us read Home Before Morning about a nurse’s experience in Vietnam. Reading that not only helped me understand a woman’s experience there but gave me insight into the soldiers’ experiences also. During those years, my uncle didn't talk much about the war. He told me that he hated it when people got bogged down in the war and blamed it for not being able to move on in their lives. He told me that before it became known that he was an alcoholic--a church-going, Bible teaching, communion meditation-giving alcoholic. By the end of his life, he had just married for the fourth time and his relationship with his daughter was strained, to say the least, because of what she endured for years. He had times of sobriety but his journey was a rough one.

I know now that although he didn’t look like the stereotype of a Vietnam veteran, his life was scarred nonetheless. I also know that there are many other veterans out there, from any war, who look like anyone else on the outside but have thick scars on the inside.

One day after coming across pictures at my mother's of his Christmas in Vietnam, my uncle told me that was his favorite Christmas ever. When asked why he said because it reminded him of the church in Acts 2:42 "...they had all things in common." It wasn't until a few years later when I heard the rest of the story. That Thanksgiving he had been in one of two transport helicopters. They were fired upon. The next moment he watched the other helicopter fall out of the sky carrying his fellow soldiers' to their deaths. They spent the next weeks in the field. Finally, at Christmas, they came back to the base for some R & R. Depressed and exhausted, they faced Christmas away from their loved ones. Somehow, they all ended up coming together, reading letters from sweethearts, friends and family to each other and sharing what gifts had made it through the mail. They barbecued hamburgers using raisin bread for the buns. They forgot, briefly, the horrors they endured day after day.

I know now that no matter how difficult your circumstances in life, if you have good people around you, you can find joy in the midst of pain and fear.

Years after that, my uncle sent me an email. In it, he told me about a book. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. He said it came the closest of anything he had ever read to describing what it really felt like to be a soldier in Vietnam. In the email, he described trudging through the jungle, day after day. It was tedious, uncomfortable, relentless. Suddenly they were fired upon. A soldier near him had half his head blown away. He was still making noises so my uncle performed a field tracheotomy on him and the medics took him away. They all got back up and went on trudging through the jungle. Business as usual. A day or so later, they got word the wounded soldier was dead. They kept walking.

I know now that there are two soldiers on the Vietnam Memorial who share the name of the soldier my uncle told me about. One died in October the year my uncle would have been there. There is something about knowing that name and knowing it is on the war memorial that makes me feel close to Uncle L.T.

In 2004, at the age of 52 my uncle died of a ruptured abdominal aortic anuerysm. Surely the years of heavy smoking and alcohol abuse contributed to his death. No one could say with any certainty that had he not gone to the war he still wouldn't have become an alcoholic. I remember though the words of his childhood friend at his funeral. A friend who remembered him before and knew that afterwards he was not the same person.

I know now that he was another victim of the war although his death came 30 years later and his name will never go on the wall.

The last picture with his brother and sisters not too long before he died. Unfortunately one sister, my Aunt Margaret, had passed away a few years earlier so the picture isn't complete.


Sheila said...

6:28 am? Are you not sleeping again?

I have to admit that I skimmed this post. My dad was in Vietnam, and the subject is a tricky one for me. Some days I can take it; others just a thought brings me to tears. I like how you told the story as it unfolded in your life, and then added the things you know now as you look back as adult.

Mary-LUE said...

She, I've been having to get up earlier to get everything done by the time my kids have to leave. Getting everything done of course, includes checking out the first round of blogs in the a.m. Must have my priorities in order you know!

I started this post at 6:28 am but quit at 7:00 and then came back to it after Wild Things 1 & 2 were safely at school. Plus, the bulk of it I had actually worked on a few days ago. To be completely revealing, the idea for the format came to me in church last Sunday and I spent part of the sermon thinking about what to say.

I know, I know. I'm going to hell now!

If you ever want to talk about your dad having been in Vietnam, I'm a willing ear. I don't know too many other people who had family there.

Thanks for reading!

L-Girl said...

Really powerful post Mary. Very touching...loved it.

V-Grrrl said...

I like this piece of remembrance and reflection, the way something seemingly in the background of your life can cast such a long shadow and touch so many people.

I wore POW bracelets as a kid. I don't have the bracelets but I still remember the two names that were on them. Now I'm curious what happened to those guys...