It occurs to me that you may be wondering why I'm so intent on writing about vets' mental health issues. So here's a belated introduction.
I'm a vet, but not a combat vet. I was drafted into the Army in 1968, right at the height of the War in Vietnam. Many of my friends were sent to 'Nam, but I was lucky enough to end up with a cushy assignment at Fort Meade, MD.: writing news releases for the U.S. Army Field Band and Soldiers Chorus, and booking some of their concert tours around the country.
So I emerged from the Army, unscathed, or so I thought. But many others didn't. One boyhood friend came home from 'Nam with a lovely new wife, a nurse whom he'd met overseas. Shortly after they returned home, he divorced her. A few years later, he committed suicide. Both were unsettling, troubling, and not completely understandable at that time.
I didn't really begin to put the pieces together for a couple of decades. Then my youngest daughter, Sarah, graduated from college just outside Washington, D.C. It was the Memorial Day weekend, and we decided to go visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which I hadn't seen.
The vets on Harley-Davidsons who called themselves "Rolling Thunder" were everywhere, thundering their way up and down Pennsylvania Avenue as we joined the line of burly bikers in their black leather jackets waiting to get into the memorial. Slowly we moved up to that long, low wall containing the names of 58,000 soldiers killed in that war, panel after panel of names.
I was trying to figure out which panels represented a specific year so I could look for names I recognized when a park ranger came along. I pointed toward one panel and asked whether those young men would have been killed in 1969. Yes, the ranger told me, that was indeed the time period.
"So," I said, turning to Sarah, "these panels would have been some of the soldiers I served with."
"Welcome home, sir," said the ranger.
Instantly, I was sobbing helplessly on my daughter's shoulder while the ranger rubbed my shoulders. I couldn't believe it, still can't believe it. How could I have had such an intense emotional reaction when I had never been in combat, never been shot at, never been forced to take another human life? And what must it be like for those combat vets?
War damages everyone, although it does the most damage to those closest to it.
A few years later, when President Bush made the decision to invade Iraq and subsequently Afghanistan, I felt the eerie echoes of Vietnam again. But since I had emerged from that war relatively unscathed, I concluded that it was payback time. One of my driving missions became making sure that this generation of soldiers received the help that my generation never did.
Personally, I now believe that the President and Congress should be required to put one dollar into the vets' recovery machine for every buck they put into the war machine. Feel free to add a comment if you agree (or disagree), and let your friends know about this blog.