A tribute to a Vietnam Veteran
|Post Traumatic Stress Disorder = You can take the soldier out of Vietnam, but you can't take the Vietnam out of the soldier.
Today, you apologized to me because you sometimes struggle with memories of your past.
That war does not allow one day to go by without crawling into that dark place in your mind where bad, sad, frightening and horrific memories live. I watch you, as you struggle with the pain of remembrance. I look into your eyes, and I see the ache in your heart as a vision breaks through the trap door of a past that you attempt to keep locked up. During these moments I touch your shoulder or lean into you, only to let you know I am here to listen to you, and to comfort you, always.
That war allows many days to go by until it crawls into the lighter place in your mind where fond, happy, celebratory and prideful memories live. I watch you, as you smile with pride at a quick passing memory. I see that pride in your eyes as I listen to you share a story that makes you laugh, and your laughter is so contagious that I find I am laughing along with you – even though I don’t understand why your story is funny.
Thirty seven years ago, you signed up to become an American Soldier, it’s what you had wanted to be for as long as you could remember. You donned the uniform, and you stood taller, your smile was wider, you were ‘home’ surrounded by a brotherhood that few would ever really understand.
And you went to war, because that’s what soldiers do. And you found trust in your brothers. They were there with you, in foxholes while rains poured down upon you. They were there with you as you walked with your machete cutting through what seemed like miles upon miles of bamboo. They walked softly through the jungles with you, wondering what may be lurking behind each tree. They bathed in murky waters with you as you all laughed for a brief moment, until a familiar clicking sound brought you all into silence – a rifle being cocked – time to take cover. They filled sandbags with you. They built landing zones with you. They built bunkers with you. They lay in wait on night patrol with you, not making a sound as rats crawled across their bodies. They waded through leech infested waters, again in silence, although you and others were bitten and bled. And they watched your back, as you watched theirs, and you all counted the days until you would leave this dark place. A brotherhood of men in jungle fatigues, soldiers.
There were battles. There was napalm. There was disease. And there was death.
You lost brothers – brothers who had shared with you their hopes and dreams. You lost a brother whom you had just been playing cards with before a surprise attack ended the game and you traded your hand of cards for your M-16. And you looked into his eyes as he took his last breath. And you had no time then to mourn him as gunfire rang out in the night. And finally morning came, and the realization of how many brothers you had lost was overwhelming. Still, you could not mourn, there was no time for that, not then.
When you came home, people called you ugly names. People did not understand what you had lived through, or what you had seen. People, even those very close to you, did not want to hear about your experiences in a land called Vietnam. People did not understand the turmoil inside you. They did not understand your pride, or your pain. So you shut them out, allowing very few to get close to you.
For years and years you held your pain down deep inside. You tried to push aside your memories, but they came to haunt you as you slept. The memories caused you to scream out in the night. And soon, the memories began to creep into your waking hours. The pain of your experiences colliding with the pride of being what you had always wanted to be – an American Soldier.
For so many years, you wondered what was wrong with you. You shared your confusion with no one. And finally, as happens with so many Vietnam Veterans, after so many years the floodgates open, and the memories are too hard to bear, and you find you have to understand what is happening to you. You need to justify the fact that you check to make sure doors are locked, and windows are locked before you attempt to sleep. You need to know why you barely sleep.
I have been to the Vietnam Memorial with you, my proud soldier. I have visited the Moving Wall with you. I have watched you as you linger at a certain panel and lightly rub your fingers across names carved into granite. And I have watched you struggle with your feelings there. I have seen in your eyes, the pain you feel because so many of your brother’s names are carved there, and yours is not. Selfishly, there is not a day that goes by that I am not grateful that you are here, with me.
And I am here for you, my husband, and my soldier – always. Hold me close, and know that whatever your struggle, make it our struggle. Trust me to help you mourn your losses. You owe me no apology! You owe no one an apology!
Remember the 58,195!
"If you are able, save for them a place inside of you and save one backward glance when you are leaving for the places they can no longer go. Be not ashamed to say you loved them, though you may or may not have always. Take what they have taught you with their dying and keep it with your own. And in that time when men decide and feel safe to call the war insane, take one moment to embrace those gentle heroes you left behind."
Major Michael Davis O’Donnell
January 1, 1970
Dak To, Vietnam
Listed as KIA February 7, 1978