Saturday, February 4, 2012

I Am a Veteran

In 1968, during the Viet Nam era, I enlisted in the United States Army.  I reported for duty at Fort Ord, California, where I went through boot camp and then was trained in advanced infantry.  Most of the men I trained with went on to serve in Viet Nam, but I didn’t go with them.  My father suffered a massive heart attack while I was at Fort Ord.  I was transferred to an infantry training Army Reserve Unit so that I could return home to help my family through our crisis.

I lost friends in Nam that I cared for deeply.  I carry a great deal of guilt and remorse - survivor’s guilt - about it to this day.

My time in the army changed my life.  It brought out the best and worst in me.  It showed me a lot about myself that I didn’t want to have to look at.  Today I have regrets about that time, because when I look back on it I know that I could have done a better job, have been a better soldier.  I lacked maturity and had an enormously negative view of authority.  I didn’t know better at the time, but I still have regrets.

Viet Nam was a different era, and a different war than Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our country was much more conflicted then about our military involvement, and public awareness and consciousness about our role in Southeast Asia was very high.

Frankly, and in contrast, until I enlisted I was in many ways unconscious to myself and to the larger world outside of New Jersey.  I was consumed with pain and anger over my abusive childhood.  I couldn’t or didn’t want to see any other life beyond proving myself on the tough streets of Newark and its nearby neighborhoods.

Then I started losing friends in combat.  And my infantry training was so vigorous and brutal (necessarily so, to try to ensure my survival on the battlefield) that my eyes began to be opened.  I started to consider things about life I had never thought about before - the really “big picture” questions for which I had no answers.

My time in the service was a life-changing experience.  The changes didn’t come from having a wonderful time, for sure.  They came about, like so many other changes in my life, from pain, struggle, and sacrifice.

I was traumatized by my time in the service.  I had many trauma-related reactions after returning home, but because of the rough life I was living I attributed them to my ongoing struggle for survival in New Jersey.  I didn’t realize how bad the whole experience had been until it was over and further events took me out of New Jersey and back to California, this time as a civilian.  Then I really started to feel the painful effects of my time in the service.  But that’s another story, one I may share another time.

A number of my fellow soldiers at Fort Ord were pretty confused.  The trauma from our intense training and from public animosity to the war took its toll.  I remember one guy who tried to use a hand grenade to blow himself up rather than go overseas to kill other people.  If I hadn’t stopped him, he would have taken me with him.  Like I said, it was a very confusing time.

Not like today.  Soldiers today are much more committed and well trained.  They are passionately patriotic.  They deserve our support.  They especially deserve to hear something they’ve told me means everything to them - to hear from us, after they come home, “Thank You”.

This Veteran’s Day, if you know a vet, tell him or her, “Thank You”.  Don’t let feeling awkward stop you.  Don’t let not being able to fathom what they’ve been through stop you.
Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf, World War II - one thing remains the same.  Soldiers experience trauma.  Repeatedly.  Beyond our thanks, they also deserve to receive the help they need to heal and to return to the lives they left in order to serve us.  I want to use what I know to be a part of their healing.  This is what our Veterans Program at the institute is all about, and why I am so deeply committed to it.

It’s just that the need is great, and what our veterans can afford is relatively small.  So, I have a dilemma.  I need your help.  Stay tuned . . . .

2 comments:

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