For God and Country
You’ve seen him, he may not stand out in your memory but you’ve seen him. He’s the man you stepped over in the doorway, the one you turned your head away from, unable to face the look in his eyes. He’s the man in the park that you warned your children to stay away from. He’s the man behind you in the grocery store; he has only a few items in his hands because he eats like he lives…alone. You saw him last year at the Veterans Day parade; he was the only one who stood proud and undistracted as the soldiers marched by. You held your child’s hand a little tighter and moved away from him because his disheveled look made you uneasy.
Maybe you have one of these men in your family, you remember that cousin or maybe it was an uncle. You do remember…don’t you? He’s the one that the relatives tried to pretend didn’t belong to the family. You were probably told as a child just to stay away from him and not to ask any questions. Well, now that you remember seeing him, why not take a moment to see him as he was, young, proud, brave, and ready to face whatever fate life held in store for him. He was willing to defend the rights of those unable to defend themselves. He heard the call and he answered. He joined the military and went to Vietnam. He along with so many others left lives that showed no great promise of a future to enter lives that would rob them of their futures. They were barley boys yet the strongest of men. Forced, trained and programmed to take life when they didn’t even have time to know what life was about yet.
I don’t think that unless you were there or to some extent took the time to love someone who had been there you could ever imagine the incredible injustice and inhumane situations these men were and still are forced to face. The words here are difficult to speak because none that I can find hit hard enough or stab deep enough to make my thoughts known. You fight for your country, your rights and your life and the only recognition you get if you’re one of the ones who makes it out, and I don’t say lucky ones because I don’t know how many of these men feel lucky to be back, but regardless all they get is a parade once a year and a guarantee to make the front page of every newspaper should their past and present lives catch up with them and they feel it’s time for a little satisfaction or revenge or if they simply fall so far into their war and I say their war because it truly belongs to only them, that all our faces blend together and all of the betrayal they feel explodes in their minds and imagine if you can that in the middle of a playground or shopping mall these men are once again fighting for their lives. They don’t see you or me; they simply see a society that turned its back. Or maybe they see a village like the ones we see on TV and think nothing of but to them it’s another battle to be fought, people to overcome, self preservation…one of our strongest instincts.
Do you or I have the right to condemn these men? To question what they feel? Who are we as a society to judge any of these heroes, who whether living or dead gave their lives for a country that never gave them anything in return.
We have taught our daughters not to get involved with them. We have programmed our children to stay away from them. We as mothers have sworn our children will never feel the pains of another war like NAM, but have we taken it one step further and reached out to help those who did feel those pains? We as fathers look to other people’s sons and feel a loss, we wish we could talk to our son the way that man talks to his, but do we stop to look at our sons standing right in front of us? Granted maybe he’s not the same son he used to be, his walk is not as straight, and his eyes are not as hopeful but then how could they be? He has been forced to kill or be killed. Men, women and children, he had to do it all, but he’s your son none the less, and he may reject you at first but needs you now more than ever before.
Take the time to stop and think, would you turn your back on your son if he were to be injured and lost his sight in a work accident? Would you give up all hope if your child were diagnosed with a terminal disease? Then why have we found it so easy to turn our backs on our children who have lost everything? Their eyes no longer see the world like yours or mine. We become tired of the facts that they trust in no one, get their hopes up for nothing and love no one. When we think about it, it is probably these very traits that saved our men’s lives, if they were too trusting they were susceptible to betrayal. If they were daydreaming about what kind of life they would have, they were caught off guard. If they were thinking about someone they loved or wondering if that person still loved them, then they may have hesitated at that critical moment that would decide if they would be coming home alive or bagged. So for obvious reasons they learned to bury every emotion they felt, to see no people behind those enemies, no child behind those eyes, no friend behind those smiles. This is not just a temporary state of mind they chose to put themselves in; it is a way of life they adapted to. It’s not easy to understand how people can live like this but they have been left no choice. It seems so ironic that the very traits that saved our men’s lives are the ones that cause us to turn our backs on them.
There is no way I can try to write about their feelings while in country or the horrors they were forced to face every moment of their lives. I can imagine how I would have been completely destroyed if I had to confront even a fraction of the nightmares they live with. There is no way I could do any justice in describing the pains and horrors they have experienced. There are no words in my life that could cut to your heart the way listening to stories of that Hell have done to me. I find my entire outlook much more cynical than it was before I took the time to know this man, there are times that I feel anger towards him for exposing me to a way of life that I knew nothing of. For making me look at people, my country and myself in a way that I was not accustomed to. I always felt that somewhere there was a good part to everyone, that with all the injustice in this world the country was still working towards the right goals and that all the scandals were nothing more than rumors from people who were not able to understand what it was we were all working towards.
As for myself, I believed that no one in my life would do me any deliberate harm if I were just honest with them. I believed that people just instinctively wanted to help other people. Now that I have had the chance to look at life from another’s point of view I see a side of life that I guess I always knew was there but never had the nerve to face. I think one of the hardest things he has taught me is that no matter who is a part of your life, parents, friends, children or lovers you truly are in this life alone. If through all your pains and test you can find one person you can call a real friend then your life is much fuller than most. We spend so much of our lives looking for that one thing to fill us, to make our lives worthwhile that we let so many possibilities pass us by.
There are people that we pass on the street every day because they look common or don’t meet our standards of what we feel they should be like. What we fail to see is that many of these people are at these points in their lives because we have failed, failed to stop and lend them a hand, stopped to see who these people are on the inside. One of the things that bothers me most is that so many of these people are stronger and more intelligent then you could even imagine. There are men who fought and risked their lives for this country and its values and are being forced to live in standards that are unjust and unforgivable.
The next time you’re walking down the street, and you see someone who has no home or looking for food take a minute and look in their eyes, look very hard. Look past the understandable pain of having no place to call home and not knowing where their next meal would come from. Look past the expected pain because he’s cold and alone and see if there is a deeper pain, one you just can’t understand, a person that just can’t be reached. When you look in his eyes, does he seem to look through and beyond you? Then this may be the man who has seen the most terrifying side of life there is…death…and walked away. He has truly seen Hell. He’s seen life, the thing that is supposed to be our most valued possession become absolutely valueless.
Children, the most innocent of all, oblivious to the wars of man, unimpressed with principals or prejudice beliefs become tools to take life, little possessions that unknowingly played a part in one of this world’s most unforgivable events to ever take place. He watched others not so different from himself become statistics. We hear the expression “fought for their lives” so often that the true meaning is lost. Imagine with me that you are faced with another human being who is as scared as you, you don’t speak each other’s language, and you’re not even fighting a battle between yourselves. You know one of you must die, which also means one of you must kill. I can’t imagine either part being easier to face. Or perhaps you have seen so many of your friends lay there with limbs missing, sight missing, hopes missing that you have become numb to the whole thing. This is no longer just a fight for your life, but you are now fighting for every man you have ever watched die, every man who has clung to you, looking for you to find a way to make his pain stop. Hoping with the last breath in him that when he looks into your eyes, you will hold the answers. Why are we here? When will this end? How many more will die? As his eyes ask you the last question, “Why am I dying,” all of the fight in him and the pain and the anger and any last bit of strength he had in him is passed to you, and you have now taken on his battle too. You must own his revenge, a small piece of satisfaction. You must fight for his pains, and the pains you inflict must be a hundred folds more terrifying than his.
You all came together in that land that God forgot as strangers, strangers to each other and strangers to this pain. You left there knowing that no matter who became a part of your worlds now, you are the only ones who will ever understand…maybe ever really care. You will know this war and a side of life that the rest of us can only watch on television or read stories about. There are feelings that you were wrong for the things you did while in country, that there was a shedding of human morals and values. However, if you were not able to throw those morals and values to the wind you would not have made it out, and I would never have had the opportunity of knowing you or loving you. So for the things you are criticized and condemned for I want to thank you. There are no words to explain the feelings inside you must feel. This must be one of the hardest things you face, to know that no matter who you talk with or what you say no one will ever truly understand what you live with. Everyone there came home with different feelings. We can all come together today and put every ounce of energy, time and money into finding a way to fix the wrong that’s been done and we would never succeed. Some wrongs can just never be made right. It’s too late for parades and too late for understanding.
I am only able to scratch the surface of the suffering you must endure, and in that suffering, there are so many stories to be told that I can only feel remorse that not everyone will be touched by you the way you have touched my life. There is a part of you that is very foreign and frightening to us. We can hear your words but don’t expect us to understand. We can see your hurt but don’t ask us to feel your pains; we can love what you stand for but don’t ask us to stand by you. This seems to be the message we are sending you, and with all the strength in me, I wish I were able to go back and change that message to one that told you we are proud of you, respected you, to go back and give you the love and welcome you so painstakingly earned.
There was a time when parades were a symbol of our pride in God and country when veterans of earlier years walked down the street and were greeted by friends and family, as they should be. Old men removed their hats and placed them over their hearts, little children stood straight and tall like little tin soldiers, not knowing what it meant but knowing that these men were special and women wept with pride as their men were given honor or remembrance. The flag led them all, waiving with all the price and respect it could muster. This is how it should be, a country pulling together to defend its values. With the support from home so strong and powerful that it can be felt by men in the deepest jungles of battle.
I’m sorry, this is not what we showed you. I watch Veterans parades today, and the flag seems ashamed to wave. Now the old man removes his hat to place over his heart and looks around; he sees he’s the only one and wonders if he has just lost track with the times. Placing the hat back on his head he walks away, head down and thoughts clouded. Children seem to run right by you, unaware of the honors you deserve or even aware of what honor means. We have failed our children by not teaching them what a true hero is, what it means to uphold values. People have lost belief in most of it, they can’t look at a flag with pride knowing that it was in its defense they lost a love, a child’s parent, a daughter, a son. The man at the podium speaks heart-wrenching words that come from the darkest corners of his mind, of pains felt, friends lost, and injustices endured. I look across the crowd which seems to be shrinking in numbers each year, and I see that his words are falling on deaf ears and his pains cannot be seen by these blind eyes. Each year his voice seems to lose more and more of its determination to make these people understand. He sees now; they don’t come here for him or his men anymore; they come for the balloons, the crowds, the social event…all the wrong reasons.
There are many ways to pay tribute to those who can no longer be with us. Please, shed no tears for these heroes but rather take a moment of each day and remember them. Not with a smile or a tear but with a helping hand to their brothers for whom the war still goes on. No greater honor can be bestowed upon them then to have a man they fought with, with whom they watched death every day receive a piece of human compassion in their name. We can bring flowers to the dead or write songs of their pains, and it will not change anything. However, offering an ear when needed or lending a helping hand will be the first steps to helping these heroes come home as they should have been able to do years ago.
Picture the faces of every man on the wall looking out at the injustice their brothers are facing and imagine the anger and helplessness they feel when they see them laying on heating vents for warmth or looking through barrels for food to fill their stomachs. Imagine the pain that is felt when they see someone they fought beside fighting the system for their benefits, benefits to which they are more than entitled to. Some have lost legs, others have lost arms, and many have come home with all limbs but continue to walk with a disability that cannot be seen by the average eye. It runs deep through their minds and stops them from pursuing the very things they are entitled to enjoy. We may feel frustrated if an airplane interrupts a TV program, imagine if every time a helicopter flew overhead, it sent a rush through your body because with it came a flood of memories, memories that blood smells, shrapnel cuts, and men die.
Granted it’s a fact of life that every one of us will die. Some with die of old age, some of sickness some will die with family and friends others will die alone. The only guarantee in this world is that someday we all will die, but we need not tempt fate by arming our children with fully automatic weapons and sending them to try their hand at war. Well, this is what we did, and some did not make it home, others brought back their bodies but have yet to recapture their emotions. They were left miles away and years ago in a land that one should not visit even in their dreams. We may all have our crosses to bear, each one built by our own mistakes or misjudgments, strengthened by our goals or greed’s, but our biggest obligation in this life should be to treat each other with whatever we have to offer. Are you Helpless? Let me help you. Are you hungry? Let me feed you. If you’re a hero let me respect you, let me give you the honors you deserve. We live in a country that will pay to study why birds fly south yet our brave young soldiers lay dying in our streets.
We suffered a great loss, over 58,000 of our sons died in a nightmare in addition to the nurses who sacrificed their lives to care for them. They were far from home, and I can only imagine feeling very alone. Yet we are suffering a loss just as painful right here in our own backyards, more than twice this number have taken their own lives since returning home obviously feeling very alone. These statistics are unforgivable; we have lost more lives to our own refusal to accept their pains and horrors than we did in the fields of battle. Please…to each of you who lost a child, a brother or sister, a child or someone you loved, take a moment in their honor and reach deep into your hearts, unbury all of your pain and sorrows and look them straight in the face and make a promise to yourself that you will help to make the difference. Only then when we’ve honored all our heroes and met all their needs can we hold our heads high and once again be proud of what this country once stood for. If you must shed a tear, cry not just for those whose names are etched in stone but also for the thousands who continue to walk alone.