This is a difficult story to tell. Because it is not something I am very proud of.
Back in the mid-70’s I had a group of friends. Just a bunch of kids morphing into adults trying to stave off the boredom of Midwestern life. One of this extended group was a guy named Bernie. I’ll leave off his last name. Bernie was a few years older than the rest of us. Which, given the times we lived in, turned out to be a gap too large to bridge. Here is why.
I was born in 1958. I was 12 when the Kent State shootings occurred. I was 13 when the draft was implemented to supply the Vietnam War with troops. I was 15 when the draft ended and I was 17 when Saigon fell, essentially ending the war. By about three years, I was too young to serve.
Younger people who have no memory of Vietnam may find this difficult to understand, but there was a time in this country that we did not ‘honor’ our troops. Many of the efforts we see today to thank troops for their service in Afghanistan or Iraq is atonement for how we treated our returning Vietnam vets. In a word, it was shameful. And again, younger people may not understand this – men and women served their country proudly, some not by choice, and were ostracized, marginalized or ignored upon their return home. Some even were scorned and spat upon. It happened.
The obvious question is: Why? How could we have allowed this behavior? I think it was a combination of American hubris and denial. Vietnam was the first war we ever lost. It was also the first war that was brought into our living rooms, with Walter Cronkite giving nightly reports - not of glorious American conquests, but of the Tet Offensive, the My Lai Massacre and body counts. With little or no understanding of how our national security was threatened, many of us could not understand our presence there. When Saigon fell and our troops came home (with the tragic exception of 58,226 of them), we had a collective awkwardness.
There was a natural instinct to blame someone. And instead of identifying the true culprits – the politicians who passed the Gulf Of Tonkin resolution that grossly and immorally escalated the conflict coupled with military officers whose main concern was enemy body counts so they could get promoted – the blame was placed wrongly and tragically on the returning troops. Respected? Hell, those guys were being called baby killers. Honored? We had just gotten our butts kicked by a ragtag group of indigenous people on their turf. We weren’t in the mood for parades. And when these young men (and women) came home, many wanted to just get on with their lives and re-assimilate with their old friends.
That’s all Bernie wanted to do.
Bernie just wanted to drink beer, chase girls and hang with his old buds. And while on the surface there were ‘hey man, glad you’re back’ affirmations, Vietnam was not talked about amongst us. We did not ask what it was like over there, but he would go there himself, much to our discomfort. He would talk about what it was like on foot patrol in the Mekong Delta, when one of us would change the subject to the latest Springsteen album release. Bernie played guitar, and I still see him playing the song Seagull by Bad Company. It is a song of protest, of the horrid meaninglessness of war. He sang these words –
Now you fly, through the sky, never asking why,
And you fly all around 'til somebody, Shoots you down.
Bernie sang with an outpouring of emotion only combat vets know, venting, processing, purging. Sadly, his audience hadn't yet begun to process any of it--nor did we have the emotional fortitude or mental maturity to "be there" for him. We didn't want to be yanked out of our semi-slacker get-high extended party by someone who witnessed the worst of mankind. So we ignored it and changed the subject. Bernie eventually got the hint and stopped talking about Vietnam. Then he eventually stopped hanging with us.
And you fly away today
And you fly away tomorrow
And you fly away, leave me to my sorrow.
I never saw Bernie again – I do not even know if he is still alive. If I were to discover that his life fell apart not because of what happened to him in the war, but rather because we, his friends, were immature assholes....Well, lets just say I own it.
Vietnam opened up our eyes onto this shame. Shame that we, the people that did not have to serve there, own. And to that end, one of the few positive developments that came out of Vietnam was it matured us as a country. No longer did we possess hubris-ish greatness. We learned (or did we?) we are not assured winners. And, most importantly, we learned who are heroes. So those aging Vietnam vets you come across, some sleeping under bridges, have earned every ounce of respect proffered to veterans of any of our other conflicts. If they are homeless, ponder why...instead of affixing blame. Their service was never properly honored. They carry an emotional burden beyond our comprehension.
I am sorry, Bernie. You deserved so much better from your country. And you sure as hell deserved much better from me.