On Saturday, May 26th, the Friday Harbor American Legion Post 163 will be open to the public for a special Memorial weekend visitors’ day event. And I’ll be there. No, I am not a veteran of Vietnam. But my life was profoundly affected by those who are. “War Never Ends” is the name of the local Vietnam Veterans exhibit at SJIMA—and it is true. War lives on, shaping lives and destroying them too.
My own life was shaped and sharpened by two years as an officer’s wife at Fort Dix, New Jersey during the Vietnam War. My ex-husband was a dentist, therefore a Captain. There were officer’s stickers on our bright red Mustang and when I drove it around the base, non-officers would salute the sticker. I would blow back kisses.
I got pregnant at Fort Dix and as Memorial Day weekend approached, my doctor recommended the baby be induced. It was only years later when I wondered why. As a good and obedient patient, I agreed, and was admitted to Walson Army Hospital. My son was howling vigorously before he was fully delivered, and the nurses were pleased. The policy was 24-hours of observation of the newborn infant and separate rooming-in of the sedated mother. When I was finally told I could go to the nursery to pick up my son, I did. When I got there, I was told to return to my room, and they would deliver him to me. So, I did.
The next thing I knew, there were two unfamiliar men in suits at my bedside. “Sorry,” they said. “Your son has expired.” And so began my slide into bottomless grief. The why of it all was never revealed to me. The grief of it all kept me from asking.
About a month after my son’s death, I continued non-stop into bottomless anguish and isolation. From somewhere deep inside I got the message to go and volunteer in the wards where injured young men were returning from Vietnam. And so, I did.
For the rest of my time living at Fort Dix, I volunteered two afternoons a week in those wards. I was the young do-gooder who didn’t have a clue. But I was there because it was the only place where I felt comfortable. Grief ruled the day. Those wards were weighted with it. Young men, with eyes full of wordless sorrow, were bed-ridden because of wounds to their bodies. But the underlying depth of it all was because of wounds to their souls.
Back then, I was too young, too naïve, and too personally grief-stricken to become informed about the political details of that war. But the politics on the streets packed a wallop. There were anti-war marches and also civil rights marches in protest of the war being waged against blacks and other minorities on the streets of cities throughout the country. The soldiers I met on those wards were black, white and every shade in-between. Their brotherhood was silent and soul deep. Every man mattered.
At the end of the two-years at Fort Dix, I returned to Seattle, got a divorce, and hit the streets in protest against the war and for civil rights for all. It never occurred to me that these protests also included vendettas against the soldiers themselves. But in some places, they did. Soldiers returned home from their hellish experience in Vietnam only to be reviled and spit upon. I was on the streets because of how they were exploited and how much they suffered. But this was not the message received.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve spoken with some Vietnam Vets who live here in San Juan County. Most of them are still in-hiding –physically, psychologically, emotionally and/or spiritually. The harm they experienced in battle, combined with the cruelty they experienced upon homecoming, left scars—invisible and permanent. Post-Traumatic Stress “Disorder” is actually a human “Response.” There is nothing out-of-order about it. The clinical reductionism of it all can also create stress. What is needed is understanding, compassion and respect.
At the American Legion event on Saturday, May 25th at 3:00 pm, Vietnam Veteran, Peter de Lorenzi will host the gathering to share poems, writings and stories. Vietnam Veteran, Reve Shannon will co-host. I will read poems by a Vietnam Vet who prefers to be out of the spotlight. I will also read a poem or two of my own. And if you, too, wish to help turn the tide in support of all who served in that cruel, exploitative war, come, share, and join the circle. The Legion is at 110 First Street in Friday Harbor.
The SJIMA exhibit continues through June 3rd. All U.S. Military veterans receive free admission to this exhibit. https://sjima.org/my-war-photographs-by-vietnam-veterans/