A mother’s hand pressed against the glass window of the bus parked in front of the Gary, Ind., post office. His hand, parallel to hers on the inside of the glass, brought them an everlasting moment of closeness that would last a lifetime. The early morning sun warmed her face as tears rolled down her cheeks and angled off a trembling jaw.
It was June 26, 1966. Her son embarked on his journey into the U.S. Navy as the anger and hostility of Vietnam shook our nation’s foundation.
It was a call to arms. He took no deferments and chose to join. Although the draft was being implemented to bend into place a pool of able bodied men looking for a place to be other than South East Asia, why give themselves to a fools’ war waged by those people in Washington? Make love not war.
Thirteen weeks of boot training was followed by endless weeks of specialized training, trailed by a sufficient quantity of hurry up and wait. Finally, deployment produced action, with a leavening of shock, fear and furor.
Then it happened.
Body damage, hospital visits and therapy.
Next billet, the Steel City; back home again in Indiana.
The trip home was unfeeling and numbing to him. His service to his country was ended, cut short by an injury that lives on within his person. After he arrived at the train station in Chicago, hefollowed his Master Chief’s instructions, found a gloomy overused restroom and changed out of his dress blues into civilian shirt and jeans. Only the spit-shined uniform shoes remained part of his outfit. There was no band, no greeters or banners — everyone came home from this war alone.
In fact, the spirit in the public facility was as if our country was not at war on the other side of the globe. The day was average for civilians with little concern of veterans and a fight nobody wanted.
When there was talk of Vietnam, it brought with it shouting groups of protestors filled with scorn, hatred, burned flags and torn draft cards. Public ridicule was reserved for anyone linked to the war. Human spit, the highest form of personal disrespect for the uniform, accompanied shouts of “baby killer!”
He stepped off the public transit bus at 51st and Delaware on Gary’s far south side. It was his old grade school patrol boy station. He had earned the coveted white woven Sam Brown duty belt back in what felt like a lifetime ago. It had barely been a decade, but his life was different now; gray, clouded with doubt, dispirited and stained with a glut of disgust.
His cane hit the broken concrete sidewalk first. He stood as tall as he could considering the injuries to his spine and thanked the driver with a snapped salute. The sea bag served as a tell tale to the driver when he climbed aboard. His salute closed the loop.
For more than 10 years he rarely, if ever, spoke of his military service, or the sadness that lived within him. Our country was still reeling from the body bags of more than 58,000 warriors coming home. The confluence of GIs and the streaming flock of men returning from Canada did not help close the wound. They entered job lines as equals. It took an era to recover from our shame of a lost war, and the yawning lesion of a country divided.
But time does not heal all.
Bad dreams, vivid memories and injuries, mixed in the alchemy of life, still bewilder and perplex veterans today. Many live with this privately and do not ask their neighbor for assistance for varying reasons.
For some it is a concealed existence in a nightmare nobody could envision. It persecutes vets with frightening recollections of combat. Vibrant, stunning reminiscences of the horrific taking of life persistently disorders their psyche.
So when you see a veteran today — or any day for that matter — think of them with honor, principle and sense of duty in your heart. But remember there is more to them than love of their country, sacrifice and a paid up obligation.
Consider the private torment some will spend the remainder of their lives adjusting to. Profess a kindness as you go about your daily proceedings and grant vets a little furtive space of their own. Surely they earned your respect. For one never knows, in the end, “He“ could have been me.