THINKING ABOUT VIETNAM
In the Spring
of 1968, I lost my fiancÚ Johnny in Vietnam. I'd been in love with him since I was
thirteen years old, had never really thought about a future without him in it, and six
short years later he was gone and I had to figure out a different future. I was not
the only one who had to do this. Johnny was a much-loved young man, a whole little
town in Arizona knew him well and mourned his loss. In more recent years, I have
learned that the men he served with in Vietnam loved him too. Like his family, these
men will also never really get over the loss of him. He was loved for his sense of
humor and upbeat approach to life and problems. He was loved for his graciousness to
others. He was loved for his kindness to children. And he was only one of more
than 58,000 like him.
In the wake of his death, in the shock of my loss, I made mistakes and faulty decisions that ultimately brought me to more and other losses and grief. The first mistake, and the one on which hung all the law and the prophets, was to shove down thinking about Johnny and his death. It hurt too much, my emotions were too big for me at age nineteen, and the intensity of my grief, the intensity of my rage at having him taken from his life and from me, and the overwhelming fear of finding myself cast loose in the world without my Rock, caused me to stuff down these feelings which I could not handle. When thoughts of him would pop up, I turned my mind to something else, anything else, before the emotions had time to suck me under.
For nearly twenty-six years, I could not read an article about the Vietnam War, or a book, or watch a movie that dealt with it. If I found myself accidentally in the aisle at the library where the books about the War were shelved, I would begin to tremble and feel sick. I knew why without thinking about it, so there was no need to think about it.
In that period of time, I married three times and passed through a couple of other long-term relationships. Eventually, each relationship failed, and it seemed to me that these men who had seemed so delightful and lovable and interesting, turned out to unexpectedly have clay feet. These abrupt and fairly frequent sweeping changes in my life affected my finances, my opinion of myself, and the opinions others had of me. Once I was out of a marriage or relationship, I would find myself mourning the loss of that love, and buried under a heap of depression. Life seemed fated to be a constant struggle for me, I seemed to be starting all over, all too often.
In the Fall of 1992, I had an emotional breakdown. It was a "walking" breakdown, I was not hospitalized nor did I go crazy, have a psychotic episode. I just began to cry and could barely control that for a number of months, depression was out of control and continuing to live became progressively less interesting. The reason for this was that accidentally seeing on television some Vietnam Veterans being interviewed at the Wall in Washington, DC on Veterans Day that year, had caused the Wall inside me to crumble and fail. I remembered Johnny in that instant, and could no longer shut it off. The memories swept over me like a flood, they came with a vengeance, there was no putting a finger in the hole of any dike. Since I had never truly let my grief run free at the time he died, it was bottled up in me as fresh as the day I got the news. Aged wine, fresh and sparkling from the wine cellar. It was the grief and rage and fear of a nineteen-year-old being born by my now mid-forties persona.
And not only those emotions for Johnny, but at the same time, the realization dawned on me that all my failed relationships were in fact my fault and responsibility. Unknowingly for all those years, deep down inside me where so much was preserved like a new penny in amber, I had simply refused to let anyone take Johnny's place. I, who'd had these shamefully-several marriages, was a one-man woman. More grief and guilt dumped down on me, I had hurt people by walking away from them after they had invested much love in me, I had run from them in fear that neither they nor I understood, and a couple of them had been permanently wounded in the heart. My responsibility.
I needed to
face all of this and deal with it, and the first thing that had to be dealt with and gone
through without any more avoidance, was the fact that Johnny was dead. Dead.
Dead. Waiting for him wasn't any use. I wasn't sure I could handle that, but I
knew that it had to be done, and I chose to face it even if it killed me. Maybe it
wasn't a choice, after all, since I could not stop those waters, but I made some choices
that were part of that situation: I chose to investigate Johnny's death and find out
what had really happened to him. Because I didn't know. The official notices
did not give details. I did not know if he had been with others or died alone.
I did not know what had been happening that day, that he could be taken down like that at
the very end of his tour when he had already survived months and months over there.
I owed it to Johnny to try to find out these things. It was all I could do for him, and I needed to do something.
My investigation became a journey in a very real way. For more than two years, I immersed myself in the Vietnam War and pursued no other interest. I read books written by men who had served there; I read a whole book about his Battalion and portions of other books that mentioned his Battalion. I checked out the photo-journals in the library and studied pictures taken of this and that during the Vietnam War. I saw every movie I could find about the Vietnam War: "Full Metal Jacket", "Hamburger Hill", "Apocalypse Now", "The Iron Triangle". The first one I saw was "Platoon", and a friend went with me to hold my hand in case I needed that -- I did not think I would actually be able to watch much of the movie. Fifteen minutes into it, I was crying, silent tears rolling down my cheeks -- not because I was fighting the shakes and trying to stay in my seat, but amazingly, because I loved every single thing I saw. Loved it. In a strange way, I felt I had come home. The various scenes all seemed familiar to me, and the reason was because in this way, via the movies, via the books, I was walking in Johnny's footsteps the best way I knew how. I had been absorbing Vietnam like a sponge, and by the time I actually saw the War depicted on the big screen, it was so much in me that it felt...right. I felt that in many ways, I had gone there at his side. Besides being the love of my life, he was also now my comrade, dead in Vietnam, and I was going there to bring him back like any good Marine would do.
I did, in time, find out about Johnny's death. All my questions have been answered. I was successful in bringing Johnny back home, for myself. In the process, I met and listened to many, many Vietnam Veterans who shared with me details about this or that action in Vietnam, this or that weapon, this or that experience they recalled. A number of these men were from Johnny's Battalion and could tell me specific things about where they had been and what they had done as members of that Battalion, even if they had not known him personally. One of these very, very special men is now my husband Tigr; we share a quite similar background since the Vietnam War had its way with our lives, and have understandings of each other that we believe no one else could ever understand about us.
Is everything perfect in my life now? No. It is not possible to live over thirty years in a state of depression and hounded by the sense that one is failing at everything that means anything in life, and suddenly have a new slate to draw upon when understanding arrives. The losses that the path of my life took me through remain losses; those people remain wounded. Things I lost along the way, things precious to me because of their various connections to my life, include all but one of Johnny's letters to me from Vietnam, my Grandmother's piano which could not accompany a move since I had nowhere to put it, other family antiques bequeathed to me which I had to sell to get me by some financial hardships, my dearly loved horse Dego which someone stole from me and sold to get back at me for leaving, several other pets that I loved and had to give away due to moves to apartments from houses...and the custody of my children from my first marriage, who were taken from me and given to my "ex" because my living circumstances at the time were considered too unstable even though the children were well cared for.
The Vietnam War has cost me dearly.
The Vietnam War has also given me back riches beyond price. New friends, among whom is the man in whose arms Johnny died, and Judy-my-friend who understands. My Tigr, whose love, loyalty and support are precious beyond compare. My Johnny, whose presence is a happy third in this household, unseen but full of joy that both Tigr and I are now together and on a path in life that is taking us to those things we never had before. My faith in God, which went out on a long hike in the Spring of 1968 and didn't return on its own. And my country, which for most of my life has been a puzzle as to why anyone would bother to fight for it.
But most of all, the Vietnam War gave me itself. As much as any civilian and any woman who did not go there, who did not serve, can know, I have seen Vietnam. My country went, my Johnny went, my Tigr went, my Battalion went, and I have gone in every way I know how to go. I can say, and with a certain truth, that I know the feel of the rifle in my hands, that I know the cries of the wounded, that I know the agony of a friend's death. I know the smell of the jungle and rice paddy. I know the ever-present fear, not just of what might happen, not just of what might happen to me, but of what might happen to anybody and that I might have to see, and the tension of what may be ... around that little bend in the trail. I know the exhilaration of escaping that blast, the relief when the booby trap is disarmed. I know the choking-in-the-throat feeling of digging, digging, with my hands, with any available scrap of metal or wood or plastic, digging into the pile of tangled dirt and material that was just a moment ago the bunker of my best buddy, before the mortar, before the rocket -- digging, digging in hopes that he is still alive.
I know Vietnam like a cousin once-removed. Not my direct experience, but by the next seat over.
The first question Life asks is about Death. The second question is Who Am I? The third question is Why Am I Here? The Vietnam War exposed all the questions, confronted in its time all the situations that dramatize the questions. If we look closely at the Vietnam War, it is a series of lessons, some terribly painful, some empty, and some sublime. Some of the lessons are those who served. Some of the lessons are those who died. Some of the lessons are the birds that took flight.
And the answers are there, too. The Vietnam War was Biblical Parable, Morality Play, and American Tragedy. Sometimes in a succession of moments. Sometimes in the same moment. All of us who went to Vietnam, who really went in whatever way that happened, died there. Now we know the answer to the question that Life asks about Death. It only remains to be solved, Who We Are, each and every one, and Why We Are Here.
When Johnny was in Vietnam and writing letters to me at home, he did not write about the death he saw and the killing he had to do. He did not write to me of his exhaustion after a day of humping hills or jungle in 110░ temperatures and humidity that made simply breathing feel like exercise, while carrying weights of 70 and 80 lbs. He did not write to me of his pain at the loss of a friend, or the pain of the blisters on his feet. He did not write to me about the sores on the bodies of the Vietnamese people or the torn and dirty T-shirts that the little children wore. He did not write to me of his hunger when the supplies could not reach them, nor of his thirst that drove him to drink water filtered through scum while hoping his purification tablet would protect his insides. He did not write to me of his fear.
What he wrote to me was about love, and only that. He wrote to me of his love of his family. He wrote to me of his love for music. He wrote to me about his love of tortillas. He wrote to me about his love of the color blue. He wrote to me about his ideas and plans for our future. He wrote to me with encouragement for me in my writing of poems and stories, and in the classes I was taking in college. He wrote to me of his love of movies and asked me to go see some and tell him all about them.
At the end of his long and hard days, when he had seen friends die and looked on the vacant eyes of children, when each of his steps felt like it would be his last and might have been, when his clothing was rotted and falling off his body in places, when he ached in his guts from dehydration, he sat down and wrote to me on crumpled paper with fingers that left dirty smudges, and he wrote of his love for the tall pines, green pastures, and still waters ... of his home.
And when they were ambushed, and he had to shoot a North Vietnamese soldier at point-blank range, as the man lay dying on the ground, Johnny could not bear to look at him. "Do something for him, Doc," he begged. "Please do something for him."
We are born human beings. We die human beings. In between, there is the chance for comprehension.
Johnny was but one of those sent to fight in Vietnam. His story is his own, but not just his, for he represents the thousands and thousands who were just like him. They took us with them, we who stayed home while they shipped out. Whether we want to see that or not, it is true. Whether we want to accept the lessons of the Vietnam War or not, does not change the fact that they exist and affect us. Maybe the attendance in your church has dropped since the late 1960's. Maybe a Veteran lives next door. Maybe your tax dollars are going for counseling for those who returned and were denied welcome. Maybe your children are playing wargames in the street. Maybe your daughter married a bum when her beloved was killed in Vietnam. Maybe she didn't. Maybe he wasn't.
But if you are reading this, a seed has been planted, a door has been opened, and the questions may not let you rest.
The first question Life asks is about Death.
The second question is Who Am I?
The third question is Why Am I Here?