“There is some cheering across the river—occasional bursts of it as the news is carried to the advanced lines. For the most part, though, we are in silence . . . With all is a feeling that it can’t be true. For months we have slept under the guns . . . We cannot comprehend the stillness.”
—Robert Casey, Battery C, 124th Field Artillery Regiment, 33rd Division, November 11, 1918
On occasion, I am provided with the opportunity to travel and make presentations to public policy seminars. On one such sojourn, as I walked into my hotel, I noticed a crowd standing and gazing at a monitor.
The assembled men and women, all clearly senior citizens, wore casual clothes, jeans, jackets, sport shirts and t-shirts. Smatterings of patriotic messages and patches adorned their attire. Some stood next to their significant others; and all stood, a few with the assistance of a cane or walker, rapt by the digitized old photos rotating past them on the monitor.
Flitting across the monitor appeared a picture, taken amid a tangle of damp foliage, of a duo of hale, grinning young men standing amid a muddled tangle of lush foliage.
A man in the crowd pointed at the photo. “That’s me.”
Then the photo of two soldiers in Vietnam vanished.
As the rotation of photos continued, other veterans recognized themselves in pictures that were snapped during an unpopular war in a distant land a lifetime ago.
Heading for the elevator, I glanced at the sign above the monitor. It was a reunion of Vietnam veterans.
Had their experiences after the war forged a deeper bond of camaraderie between these veterans or frayed it? Would this reunion rekindle lapsed friendships? Continue long-standing vows made long ago to keep in touch? And what of the inescapable, painful memories of fallen comrades? The pain of learning who in their ranks has since departed this vale of tears?
I wondered what paths their lives had taken following their service to our nation. How had their wartime experiences shaped them? Or scarred them? I recalled the experience of Ari, a Vietnam veteran, who related to me how upon his return home from Vietnam he had stood at a bus stop, still in uniform, and been accused of being a “baby killer.”
I recalled the recollections of one of Ari’s friends, Andy, who at the time had opposed the war. He and many who most vociferously opposed the war were, for the most part, middle- and upper-middle-class college students, while the soldiers were often working-class youths drafted into the service. As Andy reflected, the veterans and the protesters were “worlds apart.” The veterans were bound for assembly lines. The college students. bound for the professions and the business world. As is their youth, today the world to which the veterans returned is gone, erased due to decisions made during the careers of the former collegiate antiwar protestors.
The war and its aftermath constituted a nagging wound among the baby boomers that, despite their later-in-life friendships (such as Ari’s and Andy’s), never fully healed. After leaving the nightmare world of a foreign war, what had these veterans made of their American dream? Had it proved to be all they hoped it would be? A future in which they could thrive rather than simply survive? Or like a fallen comrade, had it died before their eyes?
Standing alone in the elevator, I spotted one of the veterans ambling toward me. I held the door open for him. On his shoulder was a military patch identifying his service. I recalled the abuse he and his fellow Vietnam veterans endured upon their return to our less than grateful nation. The calumnies were despicable and pervasive; the haters’ vitriol so intense that they literally spat their venom upon returning Vietnam veterans.
My thoughts were scattered by the opening of the elevator doors. The veteran stepped into the hallway and headed for his room.
“Thank you for your service.”
He paused. A light smile slipped from his lips. He nodded and walked on.
The doors closed.
The past couldn’t.
But it had been remembered; and, for an evanescent moment, for one veteran, it had been righted.
“On that day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”
—The Inaugural Veterans Day Proclamation, President Dwight David Eisenhower, October 8, 1954