This one truly got to me… I don’t know who wrote it, but I’d love to meet him, shake his hand, and welcome him home…
It was a simple passing comment I suppose but, in retrospect, it had profound impact, much more than I was prepared for. As I sit at my computer, writing this, my eyes welling up and a deep sense of remorse engulfing me, my thoughts carry me back to the war and all the images I tried so hard to forget. What happened? Why did this chance encounter with a total stranger evoke such a visceral response? Why did it affect me so? Whatever the reason, I had to write about it, perhaps, to lay my demons to rest.
It’s been over half a century since that war, the one in Vietnam; the war that divided and shamed a nation and made criminals out of its military.
America’s involvement in Vietnam was the event that galvanized the radical Left, Marxists and Socialists in this country. Financed and trained by the world’s Communist’s, these America haters, and enabled by a sympathetic media, caused the humiliating defeat for America by making a noble effort appear dirty and demonizing those that supported or fought. They broke the will of the country on the backs of those who defend it and fight for what is right and good; leaving a legacy of indecision and doubt that plagues us to this day.
But, I thought I’d left it all behind, years ago. I went to war when I was 19 years old…old enough to fight, too young to be afraid. My initial education into man’s inhumanity to man took place in 1968, one of the war’s most tumultuous years. It was graphic and detailed. Although as a ‘Navy’ man assigned to an amphibious assault ship, I didn’t engage in any direct fire missions, but my duties required my direct involvement and participation with Marine units. I prepared them for combat, supported them while “in country”, covered them with the 30 caliber machine gun from the open door of a CH34 helicopter when on medivac missions. I carried them on stretchers, held their plasma bottles, applied pressure to their open wounds, and carried their bent, broken and lifeless bodies back to the ship in my helicopter. Today I could care less about the time I spent “in country” getting shot at in such exotic places as Khe Sanh, Quang Tri, Con Thien and my special favorite, the Rock Pile. I paid my dues, but all that was in my past…long forgotten.
Yea, I heard the stories and the talk about post-war stress syndrome and all that bunk. Some slackers trying to get something for nothing, trying to scam the taxpayers out of more of their hard earned money. I had dealt with it, why couldn’t they? It was over, dead, buried…nothing left. Or was it?
Today, on the other side of 60, with a family, a mortgage and credit debt, my only involvement with the government now is drawing my retirement check and cursing their liberal tax and spend policies. Too old to fight…too young not to care. But, what happened that late Friday afternoon one winter day seemed so innocent at the time, I didn’t even remember the man’s name, but its delayed effect humbled me later that evening as I sat mindlessly watching TV. That simple passing comment, from a stranger, brought it all back, like an avalanche or a cresting wave upon the beach. Somewhere was a little slimmer of guilt… or fear… or remorse, hidden deep in the recesses of my mind; a demon waiting patiently.
The day was unseasonably warm for the middle of the winter. I had been cooped up in my office all day, pushing papers. The only saving grace of my otherwise routine job was the ability to work with some fine people and problem solve issues. I took a break and walked out onto the building’s loading dock to catch a breath of fresh air and engage in some small talk with a friend. Things were humming on the dock. Trailers were backed up against it, trailer rear doors open, and the load levelers locked in place as the forklifts moved in and out of the trailers with precision. When I arrived, my friend was talking with a small group of people discussing how to offload some particularly heavy pieces of materiel from a truck. As decisions were made and people moved off to complete their work, I was left standing with the truck’s driver and my friend. My friend was a big man and former college football player. Having played some ball myself, we would always banter between us about the sport. He would usually wind up harassing me about being so old I probably played with a leather helmet, to which I would jest that I actually did, my freshman year in high school. On this particular day, his comments made reference to me being so old that not only did I play football with a leather helmet; I probably used a musket and powder horn when I was in the war.
John’s revelation of me being ‘in the war’ was immediately picked up on by the truck driver laughing at our repartee. A middle-aged, balding man, showing the obvious signs of life’s mileage, the driver asked if I had been in Vietnam. When I confirmed his suspicions, his demeanor quickly changed. I could see the glimmer of respect afforded comrades lingering in his eyes. I knew instantly he was a brother. Upon confirmation of our men-in-arms status, he began conferring upon me his credentials by sharing the common small talk of who, what, where and when he served in our country’s morally right but misguided foreign adventure. Men who go to war share a kinship, a brotherhood or camaraderie you might say. It doesn’t matter what nationality, service or what conflict, if you’ve been placed in harm’s way, you’re automatically a charter member of the club that gives you immediate credibility with other veterans and exclusive bragging rights.
I listened patiently, as was my duty, interjecting a story of my own when appropriate. Eventually, the ritual telling of war stories ebbed and, realizing our present duties, we started to go our separate ways. As I turned to go, this seemingly unassuming total stranger held out his calloused, working man’s hand and said, “Welcome Home”. Perfunctorily, I shook his hand firmly and repeated his comment, “Welcome Home to you to”.
The profoundness of his salutation did not immediately hit me. Not until I returned to my office. As I sat there thinking about what he has said my eyes began to well up with tears. I thought about it all day and well into the night. Why did this simple comment mean so much to me? Even now I cannot think about the incident without a tear.
‘Welcome Home’…I knew what he meant. ‘Welcome Home’…as incredible as it sounds, in 50-plus years since the war, no one had ever welcomed me home from it.
Perhaps… it is because now, after all these years; after all the bitterness and division; after all the name calling; all the hate and loathing; all the self-doubt, the anxiety and shame…I was forgiven… I can finally put my demon to rest. I can finally come home.
If you know a Vietnam Vet, go shake his hand and welcome him home…