9,087,000 soldiers went to Vietnam.
282,000 didn’t come home.
I wanted to talk to you about the Vietnam War. Before we start, please understand that I do so with a great amount of humility. I’m thirty; I was born an entire eleven years after the war ended. None of my blood family fought in the war. I was never personally scared by this.
I live in Western PA. Worse, I live in an old steel town. Older men in my town were in the war. I live among the ruins of that generation. And I personally know three men who did live through the war, and came home.
The first is my daughter’s paternal grandfather. He was drafted, sent to Vietnam and came back an angry man. He drank too much, did copious amounts of illegal drugs, and neglected the children he had with multiple women.
Mostly, my former father in law was just an upsetting person. He didn’t work, mostly he just drank. He lived in a two bedroom house with his sons, and he slept in the couch in the living room. Every morning he would wake up, sit up on the couch, open a beer, and not move from there for the rest of the day. He often drove drunk, and caused a car accident that I was involved in while I was pregnant.
He once almost stabbed my former brother in law in the throat during a Vietnam flash back.
He would talk about the war, usually late in the evening when his beer was catching up with him. He would tell us that our own government had tested Agent Orange on our soldiers. He told us about picking up prostitutes and of men who died. I didn’t believe half of what he said. He was paranoid, hateful, and horrifically racist. It was clear that the war had left him a very different man, and not for the better.
The next man I want to tell you about is the father of a friend. Actually, this is the father of my friend who I talk about sometimes, Kyle. The one who overdosed and died.
He was older when he had a son, nearly retirement age already. Mostly what he did was watch tv and take an excessive amount of pain killers for his knee. He’d gotten a piece of shrapnel in it during the war. Then he took an excessive amount of pain killers because he was addicted to them.
He was a great guy, though. He was never frazzled by anything, never upset. He never wanted to talk about the war, though. He just quietly got addicted to pain killers.
Finally, I want to tell you about my ROTC instructor. I’ll call him what we always called him, Major. Major was my hero. He reminded me of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. The first thing I ever heard him say, to a class room full of thirteen and fourteen year olds, was,”You all look like a bunch of damn old women.” We were doing PT at the time. He made us all read Killer Angels, and he would make you do pushups if you said yinz, crick, or yeah. For a very long time, I didn’t say yeah at all, like even at home. I think part of me expected him to show up in my living room and demand that I drop and do pushups right there.
Major rarely talked about the war, but one thing he told my class about war stuck with me. “When you’re under fire you’re not fighting for your country. You’re not fighting for your family, or your girl, or your ideals. You’re not fighting for Mom’s Apple Pie. You’re fighting for the man next to you, your brother.”
Unlike the first two men I told you about, Major was in good shape. If he suffered from his past, he never shared that with us. If you’re keeping track, that’s two broken men, and one that was fine. Not the best odds.
But all of this, all of these things that shaped my life, they’re just echoes. I was born eleven years after the Vietnam War ended. I have still been shaken by the aftershocks.
Now we’re at war again. We have been, in fact, since 2001. My classmen went over there, and they’re coming back now. The ones I know are coming back haunted.
It makes me wonder how long these aftershocks will last. I wonder if they’ll be strong enough to shake my daughters when they’re grown women.