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From behind Medium.com's paywall: Dear War Veterans:

I can guess at why you keep your war experiences to yourself. Perhaps, you think, if you tell civilians what happened over "there," we will judge you, or you will further judge yourself. Your evil will be exposed, or your heart. Maybe you want to protect us.


The thing is, we sent you to battle. We don't deserve to be protected from what we allowed. We are part of your story, the story of war.


How, you ask.

I am old enough to have watched the Vietnam Conflict on television every night — and it really was watching a war in near real time. There was no censorship, journalists were free to hitch a ride to any hotspot they could find transportation to, and many of those journalists were freelance. It was the last time a Chief of Staff would allow such breezy access to a combat zone. It was exciting and terrifying because my brothers were heading into that world that seemed to be composed of smoke.


My oldest brother graduated from high school in 1966 and proceeded to lie in order to join the Marines (he was missing a hip joint from a childhood autoimmune disease). He graduated from rifle school in December of that year and arrived in Vietnam in January, 1967, where he was assigned to an artillery unit not far, but worlds away, from Da Nang. I remember reading a letter he wrote to my mother at the time in which he said "things ave been a little tough around here." "Things" refers to the Tet Offensive. Later, when the Viet Mihn had receded into their hidey-holes and mountains, he transferred to a CAP (Citizen Action Plan) unit. CAP units were the Marine Corps's hearts and minds program, wherein GIs lived and worked in a village, winning the trust of the locals and teaching them to fight. This had nothing to do with ARVIN, the South Vietnamese Army. It was villages fighting their own battles with the help of eight or so Americans on the information villagers could be privy to.


These are the only two things he told us when he came back — his assignments. The rest was lies. I've spent forty years trying to unravel and understand them and him. Most recently I requested and received his service record. It was revealing. He mustered out of the Marines as a lance corporal, almost impossible for someone who saw as much combat as he. He'd told us that he was knocked back to private first class because of some wildly successful but highly illegal ploy on his part. But his records frankly show that he was due for a promotion but shipped out before it came through. I know that he went native because when he came home he blacked out his face and very blonde hair, put on a pair of black pajamas and went prowling. One night he asked if I would lend him my rosary.


He didn't explain this and it didn't go on for long, and it hurt my 13-year-old heart that he didn't tell me what or whom he was looking for and what he prayed for. I only knew it was something bad and tragic. Had he wanted to keep that secret, he shouldn't have asked for my rosary. There were plenty of them in a drawer dedicated to the detritus of Catholicism. He wanted me to witness this guilt. Without explanation.


He stopped writing home after he left his artillery unit — we didn't hear from him for almost a year. His later descriptions of his time in CAP would make a classic movie: building a schoolhouse, some lazy times on the Gulf of Tonkin (CAP units were north of Da Nang, between Highway 1 and the coast), tense fire fights at night. There was even a love element.


If there was, in fact, a Vietnamese Liat (see South Pacific), then why did he not sign up for another tour, as his records reveal a conversation about? He told us he wanted to do another two-year tour but was refused. Why did he lie about that? My next oldest brother was joining up in six months; my father was a veteran of Korea, a doctor during the worst battles in that sorrowful war. They, at least, would have some understanding. The rosary thing brought me into this circle of people who would understand.


Maybe it was to put us off from less trivial events, which, given the black pajama days, worked about as well as standing in the middle of the yard while playing hide-and-seek. Or maybe it was for a rebel's glory.


But I was there. drinking shots of tequila at 11 a.m., when Saigon fell. I saw the overfull helicopters tilting out to sea, the ships crawling with refugees, the legions of people taking what they could and heading for the possibility of anonymity in the countryside. I also saw my brother put his fist through a wall. I saw him getting drunk, which would reignite the malaria he caught in Vietnam. I saw him weep.

For the last seven years he had the pride of Marines and the love of a lush, dangerous country. Pride and love were locked away. Did he feel that he, too, was locked away?


He and I didn't always get along and one day I set out a big stack of nonfiction books about the war, hoping either to irk him into telling some true stories or, at least, to irk him.


His reaction was surprising. He fell on them like a kid on Christmas morning. I think he was lonely. I think he desperately wanted to swap stories and laugh or wail in recognition. I had given him half of what he might have been longing before.


He died in 1987. He had been attending a group for Vietnam veterans and at the memorial, one of them told me that, beneath the habitual lies and occasional outbursts of unacceptable violence, he was really a good guy. I gaped at him in astonishment and then someone came over with condolences and I never caught up with this man who might know some of the truth.


And so I have read and watched everything I can find about the war and about CAP units. I loved and hated my brother, and some of my hate was not knowing the truth about him. Nothing would have surprised, shocked or disgusted me; his life had already done that. The movies and Ken Burns had already done that (Ken Burns's The Vietnam War was not about the war. It was about policy wonks and anti-war demonstrations.) I can close my eyes and feel the wall of hot humidity, the smell of creosote and iron seeping from the wounded and dead, hear the chaos and cries for help, feel the sweat pouring into eyes and crotch, see the mayhem and, most frighteningly of all, the Vietnamese boy aiming his vz.24 at me — me, who had done nothing worse before this hell than get

drunk and skip Latin…


So why not answer questions about your war. We sent you "there" and it is our obligation to know the truth in order to shoulder our own culpability and complicity. We are not made of glass; we will not break. The more you speak of it, the less it will come for you in the sound of fireworks, the backfiring of a car, the peculiar mix of colors in a random sunset. "It reminds me of this time in Afghanistan when…" is much more cathartic than a dream or a flashback, although you may need professional help for them as well.


By "we" I speak of empathetic listeners. You'll know they're not if within minutes of a conversation they ask about killing. You'll know if they insert themselves with opinions and flat statements rather than questions of clarification and experience.


It's time to talk to us. You might be surprised at how much we love and accept you. Close the distance, come back to ordinariness, let us share the burdens, let us love you.


Semper Fi and Aim High and an open-handed Veterans Day to all.


Best regards,



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