Saturday, May 29, 2010

Remembrance & Reality

Calverton National Cemetery, Long Island, NY, where the
cremains of the father of my four children - a Vietnam veteran
and my former husband - are interred.

Stained glass windows, (right) depicting the first sounding of "Taps," in 1862, and (left) the ultimate bugler, the angel, Gabriel. The windows are among those in the Nation's oldest, consistently-in-use military chapel, the Chapel of the Centurion in Virginia.
Remembrance and Reality Part I
This weekend, and specifically on the 31st, our great Nation will stop for a few moments in time to remember our war dead.
There is no greater sacrifice than to die defending your nation's ideals and freedoms. I have, for as long as I can remember, been horrified and haunted by the thought of being a young person under siege on a battlefield.
From the televised images of the Vietnam War that exploded into the Country's living rooms during my childhood, to the nightmares those images created in my young mind, to the horrors of imagining what it's like for the peers of my children to crawl through sand on a sweltering landscape with the very real possibility of being blown to pieces, or captured, tortured and even beheaded at any moment, I've been terrified and sickened by thoughts of war my entire life.
A wide-eyed young man, staring almost blankly, or perhaps stricken with panic upon realizing what he was in fact involved in, I kept a small brown and white photo of my grandmother's brother tucked into the mirror of my dresser when I was a teenager. During World War I, this young man whose blood flows in my veins ran through the ferocious lines of battle, carrying important messages. An aunt of mine still has the bell he rang as he approached friendly troops so they would not fire on him. Uncle Al, as he was known to me, was said to be "shell shocked." He never married upon his return. He spent his life largely alone. Apparently, he suffered mental damage during that war.
The man I married served in Vietnam, a fact he kept hidden until shortly before we married. I learned of his service while heading out on his 19-foot Sea Craft to view Fourth of July fireworks on Long Island's Great South Bay.
Suddenly confronted with the first explosions of sound, light and color, my then-boyfriend nearly collided with a much-larger Fire Island ferry (an out-of-commission PT Boat from World War II). My shriek of warning jolted him back into reality before disaster struck. He had experienced a "flash back" to the war, where he served on a boat on the treacherous rivers of Vietnam.
That evening, he told me, with very little detail and with very little pride or enthusiasm, of his service to our Country. I've seen only two photos of him from that time, one the formal military portrait of a fresh-faced, clean shaven, smiling despite his circumstances young man. The other, a curled and faded Polaroid of the same fresh face, with an added and pronounced heaviness to his brow and forehead, but with the same cautious, yet youthful and hopeful smile. This time, he's holding a gun of some sort, standing on the deck of a boat in Vietnam.
I could never fathom how a young man like him could possibly survive such a vicious thing as war in such a hostile, far away environment. I could never justify the matter-of-factness with which our government, over and over again, sends young men, and more recently, young women, to their deaths.
I could never understand the courage it must take, the determination, the resolve, for a young person to report for duty and in all likelihood, death, in service to a Nation he or she is just getting to know as an adult.
I will take nothing away from the war dead and those who survive those brave men and women. But, based on my experiences, I don't believe that any person returns from war as alive and vibrant and with as much potential as before. I believe that large portions of all Veterans have died, or have been gravely altered, on fields of battle.
So along with remembering the dead, I remember the shell-shocked, the unappreciated and the ridiculed for their service, the forever changed of war. I remember those sickened by agent orange and the plethora of chemicals used to fight wars. I remember, the "What might have beens."
Yes, where there is life there is hope. Yes, many Veterans of combat go on to lead productive lives and to overcome the horrors of war.
But still, why should any person or spirit or potential be crushed or altered on a battlefield in this day and age? War should be obsolete, and battle should be unnecessary in a truly evolved, civilized world.
War kills - people, hope, potential, dreams, environments - war kills everything its gnarled, ugly, toxic hand touches.
My ex suffered night terrors, flashbacks, alcohol-addiction, and eventual death because of his service to his country. He should have sought counseling, but he came from a war that was not popular or praised or talked about. Veterans of his era put up, shut up and moved on, despite devastating physical and psychological wounds.
I was affected by the residual damage of his service, as were his children. He only began talking about his service in the final years of his life. After his death, one of the last pieces of mail I retrieved from his mail box was a bill from the Veteran's Administration for health care. He did receive a grave, a gravestone, and burial from the government. And my children are entitled to be buried along side their father.
I honestly and deeply believe that combat veterans, their surviving spouses and minor children, should receive full health benefits from the government, and even housing and educational subsidies.
Those two fresh faces, my grand uncle and the man I once loved enough to marry, both deserved better lives and greater compensation from the government they defended.
On a positive note, my son, age 11, and I, had a wonderful experience a few weeks ago, regarding his father's military service.
During a Boy Scout bake sale at our local market, a Veteran of the Vietnam War approached our table of baked goodies, wearing a veteran's cap and t-shirt. I commented that my son's father was a Vietnam Veteran. With that, this kind stranger told my son all about his service in Vietnam, and all about what he knew his father did in Vietnam. This wonderful man took the time to tell my son that the soldiers who manned the river boats saved many, many villages full of people -families and children - from dying. He told my son that his father was a hero, and that he should never forget that and always be proud. The 15 or so minutes it took for that man to tell my son what his father was never able to tell him gave my son new knowledge of his father, it brought him closer to a father he desperately misses. It gave him the knowledge that as a young man of 18, his father was brave enough to go to a far away country and defend its people.
I have more to tell about Memorial Day traditions, memories and how those traditions and memories relate to today's current events. However, my carpal tunnel is acting up, my hands are seriously tingling and painful, so I'll continue tomorrow with "Part II-" which will address our President's observance of Memorial Day, poppies, and parades past.

No comments:

Post a Comment