Channel surfing, my eye was stopped by the image of a man’s finger tracing a name inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and it all flooded back. Like many Vietnam vets, I’d stood at the Wall and done that same thing. Funny how that fleeting image brought back so much.
It made me think of the buddies I had, my first experience with triage in a field hospital and what coming home afterward was like. I remembered how I started working with vets on the streets, then pioneered the program that became the Vet Centers (now numbering over 300 nationally). Because I was convinced that the missing piece was a user-friendly phone line for vets to get all kinds of information and resources, I started one. That was the beginning of what became the National Veterans Foundation.
A lot’s changed since then, but some things are the same. We still have vets returning from combat and vets who are struggling with past injuries, seen and unseen. Transitioning back into civilian life is no easier now than it was then. Many of the calls the NVF’s Lifeline for Vets receives today could have been made in the years during and right after the Vietnam War.
A major difference now is that PTSD is a recognized diagnosis. There are ways to treat it so the effects can be somewhat mitigated. These last ten years of war have taught us about Traumatic Brain injury, sometimes brought on by just being in a combat zone. TBI has often been called the signature wound of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recently we’ve added yet another acronym—MST—for Military Sexual Trauma. As if being in combat were not enough, MST adds another layer of PTSD.
While we are constantly expanding our body of knowledge and learning more about how to help heal our vets, I wonder if there isn’t some truth in Tim O’Brien’s comment that “…there’s a kind of national amnesia about Vietnam.” The realities of war and the combat experience are never an easy topic. We turn our heads away. We dodge the conversation about Vietnam…and Korea, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
On July 4th we’ll celebrate Independence Day with parades, picnics, band concerts and fireworks. Old Glory will be saluted and our history recounted. Then as summer comes upon us we’ll put away our flags and fireworks and get back to business as usual.
PBS recently aired a preview of the new film from Ken Burns, The Vietnam War. In his closing remarks, Burns says, “…reach[ing] into the lives of people we spoke to, you can understand new dimensions of courage and new dimensions of heroism and it may not take place, always…on the battlefield.”
That’s how I feel about the men and women who have put themselves in harm’s way for us. When we look at them now that they have come home to us, let’s honor them for their new kind of courage.
If you know a veteran who needs help, here’s our Lifeline for Vets crisis and information hotline: 888.777.4443.