Monday, May 28, 2007

Vietnam, A Memoir

Because it is Memorial Day, I won't be Sleeping with Bread today. Instead, I am republishing a post I wrote September 13, 2006. . .

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 if I had heard about the war there, I would have answered 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 again. 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 didn't know very much 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 28:19-20*). 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 on February 10, 1980.

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 a stereotypical 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 that 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 many of 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 the holiday 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.

*"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Matthew 28:19-20, New International Version


daisies said...

wow ~ thanks for sharing this beautifully profound, written piece of your family history and history seen through your eyes. hugs! xox

Mel said...

Made me tearful.....

And well it oughta.
Forever changed. Forever loved.

Thank you, ML.

dutchess of malfi said...

Beautifully written. Thanks for sharing. I too have read the books about nursing in Viet Nam and married a Vietnam Vet when I was barely 17 (He was 23.) It didn't last long.

Julie Pippert said...

Oh Mary. This is lovely, moving. It brings to my mind and heart so many similar emotions I have, for similar reasons.

Aliki2006 said...

I agree--very moving, pictures and all. Thanks for sharing.

Shari said...

What a beautiful and touching post, Mary! Thank you for sharing that again, because I didn't read it the first time you posted it.

Anonymous said...

Very touching post. Beautiful.