Recollects baiting and shaming of returning Viet Nam Vets and how this affected them, turning some of them into activists (still doing their work today) and some of them into psychologically damaged individuals suffering from PTS and other mental health issues. A comparison is made between these persons and those Vets who will be returning from Iraq.
It's 1974, and I'm hangin' with a bunch of friends in a Portland, Oregon, tavern. Good time. We're sitting at the bar, plying one another with adolescent humor, laughing at one another's puns. They're drinking beer and I'm modestly sipping Perrier.
Then, there's a sudden loud crash from behind the bar, where the bartender's just dropped a metal container on the floor, and, in that moment -- in the very instant that the noise manifested -- the guy on the stool next to me has dropped to the floor. He is crouched low, his fists in front, his eyes turning, his head turning as he surveys his surroundings. He looks like some kind of alarmed wild animal with all instincts of survival in play. He is silent. After a bit, apparently satisfied that mortal danger has been evaded, he gets back up onto the bar stool and buries his head in his arms which are folded on the counter.
The other customers have two separate reactions: Some of them are laughing, and making sarcastic comments about "Idiot Viet Nam Vets, and why don't they all just go back to Viet Nam and be crazy over there." The others are silent, grimly staring into their drinks, their jaws clenched.
He's sitting next to me, so I reach out and touch his shoulder. "It's Ok, you're OK," I say. His shoulder is trembling. Now, the customers are staring at me. The grim ones and the laughing ones, both. I quit. Pick up my purse and go home. And, sometimes, I see him still, crouching on that floor, looking through the legs of the stools, through the legs of the other customers with an expression in his eyes I have never seen before, or since: Anger and terror combined so strongly that another sudden noise might have ignited lethal action.
Viet Nam Vets. These men -- and, as a matter of fact, a couple of women I know -- sacrificed everything. Some gave their lives. Most gave their futures. They were welcomed home with such jeers and verbal abuse, that many of them did not wear their uniforms upon return. Instead of being given recognition for their valor and selflessness, they were verbally attacked, maligned, publicly shamed.
Some of them chose -- and continue to choose -- to stand up for those principles and ethics that were violated. These Vets learned their painful lessons well: When they see corruption, dishonesty, greed and lies being foisted upon American citizens, they speak out. They describe the Viet Nam war as having been pushed forward with the same kinds of lies currently being perpetrated to justify our Iraq incursion: Back then, only imaginary WMDs were missing from the propaganda machine.
And they speak out powerfully and effectively because they do not wish a repeat of the Viet Nam travesty and tragedy for their own children and grandchildren, or for any other persons in this country.
But, for many others of them, the derision and denigration foisted upon them when they came home, hit a sensitive target. These Vets were suffering severe pain, guilt and anger -- deep wounds inflicted upon them by this senseless, baseless war. Their psyches, their very souls, were torn to pieces with memories of what they had been obligated to do, ordered to watch, and forced to condone. These injuries did not warrant Purple Hearts. Instead, these injuries prompted desperate attempts at escaping recollections too vicious to think about, but too powerful to avoid. These were the men who escaped into the world of substance abuse, who jumped off barstools and crouched, ready for battles that never went away, never left their consciousness.
What was that pain, that guilty anguish, that anger -- so often directed inward -- about? For having participated in a bogus war -- an exercise in power-grabbing by the USA that went awry because the administration then in charge underestimated the so-called enemy? For having been naive enough to believe that this war was warranted? For having been duped, for having been used?
And, after thirty years, "Viet Nam Vet Baiting" is still going on. In the recent past, I have witnessed Vets -- one of them physically disabled by his war injuries -- accused of having "lost the war," of cowardice.
Was My Lei any different from our slaughter of innocent Iraqi civilians, or from our officially sanctioned orders to torture detainees at Abu Ghraib? Currently, soldiers are officially ordered to carry out these acts and then take the blame when these actions become public knowledge while their superiors cop out. How are these travesties any different from those perpetrated in Viet Nam?
On the evening of June 22, 2004, I watched the release of officially documented information from Rumsfeld which stated that it was "OK" -- amongst other things -- to use such methods as water torture, hitting in the chest and forcing detainees to stand at attention for eight hours at a time. These orders, by the way, were not carried out by several of the soldiers at Guantanamo Bay, because these enlisted men stated that these orders were in violation of the Geneva Conventions. And, for standing up for their principles, they risked courts martial.
When these Vets come home, will they be vilified as the Viet Nam Vets were? How are the lies, inaccuracies and hidden facts of our current administration regarding the Iraq war any different from what was foisted upon America's citizenry between 1960 and 1973? Upon their return from Iraq will those soldiers, now gallantly serving their country, also be labeled pariahs, sentenced to loudly voiced disrespect and made the objects of cruel jokes? Will their self-esteem be a target for those same persons -- those tormentors who never, ever wore a uniform, never once fought for their country in any capacity whatsoever -- the real cowards?
And, maybe, in the end, we'll do exactly what we did in Viet Nam: Declare victory and flee. And our new crop of Veterans? Some of them will choose to stand up for those principles and ethics that they saw violated. Once more, they will speak out powerfully and effectively because they do not wish a repeat of this travesty, this tragedy, for their own children, their grandchildren, or for any other persons in this country. And, once again, they will speak from experience.
And others will jump from barstools at sudden noises and crouch, preparing to fight an invisible enemy already devouring them from the inside.
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