A Vietnam veteran reflects on Memorial Day
Walt Whitman said, “I contradict myself? Of course I contradict myself; I contain multitudes.”
So OK, I contradict myself too. I yearn for peace in myself and in our world but I am full of anger and fear. I want to be at peace but what do I do with all the chaos I have inside me?
I don’t remember much but I see how it affects me, like Monday when the bombs went off at the marathon and I immediately go on autopilot, lockdown mode. I don’t feel safe.
First day of Tet, 1968, I was flying into Tan Son Nhut after two months in Tokyo where the paper I worked on was printed. It was a stupid in-house newspaper for all the Army troops in Vietnam. I didn’t kill anyone but I contributed to the war by writing stories that said everything was OK, we were doing the right thing. I’d work a day and a half each week putting the paper to bed, then I’d spend the rest of the week stoned, walking around Tokyo looking at the lights, playing Pachinko and watching Italian spaghetti westerns dubbed into Japanese — while the rest of you were back in Vietnam.
No wonder I feel guilty; I have no right to these feelings. But this is my story.
So it’s the first day of Tet and I can see the mortars popping right behind the plane as we land — at least I think I can remember that because I don’t remember anything else that day — how I got off the plane, back to Long Bien, nothing.
I’m sure the years of drug and alcohol abuse play some part in that. I never talked about Vietnam to anyone for almost 20 years after I got out. No one knew until I freaked out, crashed and burned, broke down. And I still feel broken. What are we supposed to do with this shit?
My father, damaged in World War 2, couldn’t help. His advice, when I got drafted, was to not miss the experience of my generation. Thanks Dad.
I know the toll war takes. I tell my wife and children war is not the answer. I try to apologize to them for the pain my anger, my violence, has caused them. June 11 I have five years clean and sober; I try not to hurt myself and those I love anymore. War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. What do I do now? Breathe. Keep breathing. One foot in front of the other.
Rainer Maria Rilke, In Letters to a Young Poet, said, “If the angel deigns to come, it is because you have convinced him not by tears, but by your humble resolve to be always beginning, to be a beginner.”
I remember to breathe and find some peace as I breathe. I understand it’s a process, but I begin. I breathe for peace in me and in our world. (veterans healing from war retreat, 4/13)