It’s hard to know what to do with a compliment you rarely hear.
One of the reasons I decided to separate from the Air Force after my first hitch was the spitting derision all of us Vietnam-era veterans received upon coming back to the world. It made no difference where we served or what uniform we wore. We were routinely trashed by Americans who were clueless what it meant to sign up, straighten up, listen up, get squared away and ship off.
The Vietnam years were an ugly part of an uglier Cold War. When we returned from wherever we were stationed, we needed America to care because we knew if we’d been correctly led in Vietnam, we’d have won. We knew the level of our training and had faith in the troops we served with. It stung to have to leave Saigon the way we did.
We needed America to care.
They didn’t. Americans didn’t. Tired of the stinking war and weary of a meddling, arrogant, condescending civilian President who’d never gotten within sneering distance of a military uniform, they transferred their disgust and hatred to us. To this day, I can be wearing a veteran’s cap in a restaurant and be glared at or, worse perhaps, looked at with wonder–all while people will walk over to younger military men and women and thank them.
The Cold War years weren’t fun and games, either. Yet the Vietnam portion of that time was especially hard on all concerned.
Every war before or since has been just as ugly. No one likes the thought of having to kill other humans merely because they want to kill us and take or destroy what’s ours. Whether blowing them up in a triple-canopied jungle path, a dirty tree-forsaken wasteland, in surface engagements or unseen desperate moments undersea, or in the frozen northern skies, death is just as real.
And during war, it’s not just bodies that die. Hopes. Dreams. Ideals. Innocence. Kindness. Decency. Love. Values. These and so much more are the wages of sin whose paymaster is War.
When we returned to The World, we of the Vietnam era never got the accolades, yellow ribbons, bands and public applause from grateful countrymen. We received accusing glares and vile, profane insults. After all, we lost.
Except we didn’t. No matter what branch we represented, nor what our specialty was, on the ground, afloat or in the air in any operation where we were allowed to fight that battle with unrestricted use of our training and experience, we won. From the Revolution through to these seeming interminable jihadist hotspots around the world, where United States troops are unleashed to fight and operate as we’ve been trained, we’ve prevailed. We win.
Some of us are blessed enough to come home again. Some show visible battle scars. Yet all–every one of us–have the internal scars that derive from leaving all that’s familiar and loved, heading into an unknown future spent someplace we’ve only heard about. We all–every one of us–get that ‘thousand-yard stare’ the minute someone asks about our time out of country or overseas. Even if served in the same place, each tour was – is – different.
We’ll tell you the funny and memorable stuff. Surface things. The rest? We’ll likely report to our Final Port of Call still holding most of that inside. And you might’ve noticed on every Veterans Day we seem to trot out the same old pictures to put on Facebook.
That’s because my generation served before cell phones had been invented. If we had cameras they were clunky Instamatics, and just something else to have to pack around. Then, too, we were focused more on doing our duty than posing for pictures.
All of you in the civilian world have been taking things like I just wrote to heart. You’re welcoming the young military pros coming back with your sincere honor and appreciation. Thank you for that.
While you’re renewing the nation’s recognition of the valor of America’s military vets, take some time to remember those of us with gray hair who were serving around the world before these you honor were born.
Senior adults now, we stand tall and proud today, mystified by observing a spoiled generation wipe their noses and other less desirable body parts on the flag we so deeply admire.
We wore our nation’s uniforms before it was popular. We knew when we enlisted what we likely would face. Though things and people disappointed, even disgusted us–we’d stand for America again if needed.
We’re noticing, America, that you’ve begun to recognize some of us as well, stopping by our restaurant tables or pausing in Costco to say, “Thank you for your service.”
Believe us when we overcome our shock to respond: “Thank you for your support.”
Just bear with us when you see a tear in our eyes when we say it.
It means more than you know.
© D. Dean Boone, November 2017