|March 1968 "Tet" - Vinh Binh Province|
Vietnam. For most American's under 40, this is a benign word. But for the rest of us, it conjures memories of political unrest, the loss of countless young men both physically and in spirit. What a turbulent time in our country's history.
I can remember when the Persian Gulf War (Desert Storm) was over in 1991, as the soldiers were returning, a large number of Vietnam veterans were finally starting to get their due. The realization that we had stigmatized them as they returned from their war needed to be rectified, and it seemed only fitting to bring them back into the fold by including them in the celebrations.
But for so many Vietnam veterans, it was nearly too late. Years of health problems, both physical and mental, had surely taken their toll. One of those veterans took the picture you see here. He is my uncle, but for a number of reasons, I'm not going to name him. I will tell you some of what I know about his experience as a Vietnam War veteran.
He graduated from a well known local university with highest honors in Political Science. He enlisted in the service around 1963; to most Americans Vietnam was not in their lexicon. He trained as an elite soldier, becoming part of the special forces Green Berets and was assigned with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. He was an expert in languages; by the time he returned home, he knew 6 or 7 Oriental languages as well as French, which was spoken by the South Vietnamese officials. After 1972, he spent a few more years attached to the 101st Airborne where he 'changed hats' proudly wearing the Black beret.
As the picture shows, he carried a camera. I remember him telling me it was a Nikon, and that it had gone through hell. Dropped in rice paddies, shot and generally mistreated, but it kept on working. Seemed at times he was talking about himself. His role was that of interpreter, and later as a liaison between the South Vietnamese officials and U.S. officials and dignitaries. I have photographs of both Chuck Connors and Henry Fonda; the images of Henry Fonda are simply remarkable.
The real job? The job he was trained and unofficially assigned to do? That we don't talk about. He told me once; I wasn't shocked. What shocked me was what happened when the War was over. Many, many soldiers, drafted to fight in a war we couldn't win, trained to do the things that soldiers are trained to do, were then fired. That's right. From the lowest foot soldier to some of the higher ranking officers, including my uncle, they were released from their duties.
Imagine someone being trained to kill, returning to jeers and taunts unable to find work because of physical and mental disabilities. In my uncle's case, he'd spent so long in the rice paddies he had what he still refers to as swamp rot, a debilitating skin disorder on his legs. For years he suffered in silence, removing himself from society and his family, taking a low paying job in a shop in downtown Chicago.
And it was, in 1991, that he finally started to get some help. He reconnected with one or two of his comrades, and was connected with current military personnel. He started working with the Veteran's Administration to get some health services that he desperately needed. Most importantly, he started getting mental health services, which he sorely needed.
My uncle is a character. He is constantly medicated in order to be able to function; he jokes, "I take two pills. One so I won't kill myself, and one so I won't kill anyone else." We have a unique relationship. I do my best to acknowledge who he is, and the things he's done. We talk about politics, gardening (his one joy), life and love. Occasionally we'll break into French, a lovely way to share a common interest. And every once in a while, he'll look at me, and relate a story about something that happened to him while he was a soldier. I cherish those words, because I know he gives them to me with the understanding I will never judge him. Because I never will. I respect the hell out of him for doing the job he was assigned to do. That's what a great soldier does.