War veterans have important story to share

It seems like listening is the least we can do.

A story published earlier this month in the Journal-World told the story of a Vietnam veteran from McLouth who was asked to recall his war experiences in honor of Vietnam Veterans Recognition Week. Forty years ago, he served in Vietnam for 18 months and, like most other veterans of that war, he still is dealing with that experience.

The McLouth man spoke out, at least in part, to urge other Vietnam veterans to do the same. “A lot of these guys have kept this stuff pent up, and they need someone to talk to,” he said.

He and his wife suggested Vietnam veterans should join organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion, where they could meet other former service members who understand the “stuff” they still held inside from their war experience. That’s certainly a start, but it seems that all of us who never went to war also could benefit from hearing those stories and sharing their pain.

Bottling up the experiences of war is nothing new. Vietnam veterans may have had it tougher because of the negative reactions some received when they returned home, but World War II veterans also had a stoic resolve to put their war experiences behind them.

There’s a reason, I think, that the “Greatest Generation” has only begun to be appreciated in the last few years. It’s because the soldiers who fought World War II needed a few decades to put that experience into perspective and be ready to share it.

My dad was one of those veterans, and the only stories I ever remember him telling about the war when I was growing up were humorous anecdotes about fellow soldiers, including a native New Yorker whose mannerisms amused a native Kansan.

It wasn’t until a few months before my father died in 2003 that I recognized the full impact his service in the U.S. Army Air Corps had on his life. While packing his belongings for a move, we came across his uniform and other memorabilia from his service in the South Pacific.

Something jogged his memory and he started to tell me about one day when he was running decoded messages sent by bombers on a mission from the communications center to the officers in charge. Although the messages said the planes were under attack and in dire need of fighter assistance, the commanding officer, for some reason, thought the message was a mistake. Although the communications crew confirmed the message more than once, the officer refused to act.

As my father recalled the battered planes that returned to the base that day and the ones that didn’t, tears welled up in his eyes. He apologized for his emotions. I told him that sharing that story with him was the highlight of my day.

Why hadn’t I heard that story before? Maybe he didn’t want to tell it. Maybe he hadn’t wanted to relive it. Maybe he thought I wouldn’t understand.

As a 1971 high school graduate, I came of age in the closing days of the Vietnam War, but that conflict touched people my age and a few years older in many ways. As with the generations before me, wars were fought largely by the men (not, of course, to diminish the role of nurses and other female supporters of the war efforts), so my view of Vietnam combat was purely secondhand – and for the most part, long after the fact.

Because of the dissension at home, it was hard for Vietnam veterans to talk about their experiences. Forced to bury their feelings about the horrors they had lived, they re-entered their lives at home with mixed success. Some memories are hard to leave behind. Most of what I know about the war experiences of my contemporaries has come in oblique references rather than full-blown stories.

I recall sharing a beer with a Vietnam veteran friend on the night American troops invaded Iraq on the orders of President George H.W. Bush in 1991. Operation Desert Storm, at that point, seemed like something from a video game. Americans were a little euphoric over the reported success of massive airstrikes and the new Patriot missiles that were taking out targets and creating spectacular fireworks over Baghdad.

A television over the bar gave a running report on the operation. As we talked about the news, my friend paused, then quietly said, “I hope they don’t get the idea it’s easy.”

Considering the current situation in Iraq, his comment seems prescient. There’s nothing easy about war, and no one understands that the way someone who knows the sound of a bullet whistling past his or her ear.

Every man or woman who fights on our behalf of our nation deserves our respect and gratitude. Memorial Day, when we formally honor our military personnel, seems like a good time to encourage all those who served to talk about their experiences not only with those who already fully understand the rigors of war but also with those of us who don’t.

It’s a conversation that could benefit us all.