Wednesday, May 20, 2015

To Remember Nam

The picture speaks a thousand words... and so many more.  My cousin posted this photo on Facebook and the comment thread it produced is full of memories that tug at hearts. Little truths leach out from those who were there.  The unspoken... remaining so because there are no words. The occupation of Viet Nam, a war that continued for decades.... that sent so many young boys overseas.  An era that is never lost or forgotten as many may think.

Viet Nam ~ 1970
 I was around 11 - 13ish years old during this 60's - early 70's era. My own age group of peers really do not know the "feeling" that goes with this time. Only those that had close family members serve in Viet Nam would know what I came to understand. Though there were many who served, many shared little of what they experienced upon their return. The painful truths were stuffed away as young men tried to come back and be the way they were when they left for their tour of duty. Only to find that coming home was painful as well.

 It was a time of confusion, conflict, the quest for peace was demonstrated amidst a time when support for our troops was needed most.  Loyalties were tested, sons were lost to war, protests, marches, political unrest, and violence erupted even as people tried their hardest to escape the mounting tensions and seek their own calm within the turbulence.

 Five of my cousins served in Nam, with two of them returning home by way of my family's West Coast residence.  I was excited each time there was news of a "visit" from one of my cousins, only to learn that these visits would hold a significance of this era in my heart that would last a lifetime.  I quickly figured out this was not the same as when relatives vacationed and stayed at our house in California.  This was more of a passage, so to speak.  An important one.

My memories that are connected to these events are of packaging homemade cookies, using plain popped popcorn to absorb the shock of the long trip and rough handling as they were transported half way around the world.  This project was spearheaded in our home by my sister, 7 years my senior. It was her classmates and the cousins that were her age that disappeared as one by one so many were drafted into service.  As more boys left for Viet Nam, more girls packed care packages.... this went on for years.

 Upon one cousin's return from his tour in Viet Nam, I remember my Mom putting his uniform in the washing machine over and over again, as he protested.  She was determined to get the smell of the jungle out of it, he told her he would just dispose of it, there was no use. The washer chugged and the whole house smelled of it!  I can still smell that strong, dank, putrid smell of the jungle that followed each of them home.  It does not wash away.

As another cousin came through via San Francisco, we had to go get him at the hospital; he was recovering from a virus that affected his lungs.  I always looked up to these cousins; they were older than I, and wiser.  I longed to be their age and know more about the world.  I was still learning.  

 I first saw my cousin in a hospital bed. He looked different from the boy that gave us rides on his brother's motorcycle in Wyoming. I saw his expression, clearly glad to be "home".  In contrast, I will never forget what was shared or the struggle in his eyes to understand.  His need for normalcy came first, then the long road ahead of many decades to try to make sense of the times. And heal. His lungs healed quickly, his soul, not so much.

 I now realize, that they were just young boys with little roots of identity just starting to form in there hearts...

 I had a conversation with my parents in the 90s. I brought up the 60s era and describing it as a pivotal time and how I saw it as a catalyst for some of the diversity that I see as beneficial to our society. They disagreed!  They remembered this time as extremely painful with emotions scattered. Fear and tragedy were so prevalent as the headlines showed unrest and there were disagreements about almost everything. I could see that these memories are difficult for them, even so many years later. Here was a generation that had witnessed WW11 and the Great Depression.  They had rebuilt their continuance only to have the rug pulled out from under them once again - this time with little direction as so many energies were divided.  It was like the puzzle pieces were just thrown up into the air and no one knew how they would scatter or where they would land, or how to put the puzzle back together again.

The recent posting of this photograph on Facebook brought modern day comments that I will share. My admiration goes out to those who speak of these events that they have spent a lifetime coping with. A part of their being lives these milestones day after day.

Out of 20 grandchildren of my grandparents, five cousins served in Viet Nam - there were 20 of us!
Terry was there in 1970-71
Ron was there in 1968-1969
Al was there March 1968 to December 1968.

Al: "The Army lost my records for a year so I didn't have much time left when I went over. If you had to be lost, San Antonio was a better place to be than Vietnam. I got a full-time job as a pharmacist and moonlighted at being in the Army. Can you be AWOL if you don't officially exist? I was an E-2, the second lowest rank, but I had an apartment where my next door neighbor was a Lieutenant Colonel."

Al: "Allen was there in 1964. He went on a troop ship. It took about a month to get there. When they got there they had to climb down cargo nets to get off. They had few creature comforts at that time."

Al:  " Gary was there during the time I was. We talked on the phone about getting together when he came to Vung Tau but it didn't work out."

The conversations continued:
(Speaking of the photograph)

Terry: I showed this photo to a friend, Rod, yesterday. Now I cant stop thinking about these guys. Thought I would share it with you again.

Al: As many times as you want to share it, Terry is OK with me. I wear a "Vietnam Veteran" cap about 99% of the time. Guys come up to me all the time and after we talk a little they say, "I've never told anybody this before but...." When they finish I tell them that my story is a little different. I was a pharmacist in Vung Tau an in- country R&R center. My weapon of choice was a syringe of penicillin. I never shot at a VC but I killed a lot of VD. They laugh and go on their way. I feel like they got something out in the open for the first time and I made them laugh to let them know that everything can be OK. Maybe it is not OK yet but it can be.

Terry: Al, Vung Tau was a life saver for us grunts. Went there 4 or 5 times. Yeah it doesn't matter what we did in Nam we all understand each other. And we are there for each other.

Al: On the rare occasion when someone wants to give me a hard time I tell them that I have talked to hundreds, if not thousands of Vietnamese and not one of them has ever said that America should not have done what we did. We paid a high price but the Vietnamese paid an even higher price especially after the Americans left. When I tell older Vietnamese that I was in Vung Tau they almost always respond with "That is where I made my escape." Then they pour out their story, too. I rarely try to make them laugh. The usually end by grasping my hand and bowing their head and saying thank you.

And this photo, gently inserted as a comment by Jan:

And, of course there was the reference to the beer.....
Richard: Good old Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Ahhhhhhh

Terry: PBR'S at 100 degrees. Almost burn your lips.

Richard: 88 cases on a pallet.

Richard: Up on the DMZ we got mostly Ballantine beer. It sucked.
Al: Did you have to pay for it? In Vung Tau it was 10 cents per can.
Terry: Not on the fire base cuz we were the guys that were crazy and cried guns. Beer was free.

Al: in Vung Tau there was a screw-up platoon. They guarded the supply depots. About once a month a pallet of beer disappeared. The top brands were always available in the Mi mi bar. It was the Miami bar but the a fell off.

The sharing of this photo says so many different things, some of which I have not heard as it speaks to so many! I see the camaraderie and the paradox of loneliness. A group of soldiers, longing to go home but keeping each other strong. No doubt, the connections are visible here. Connections that stood the test of time, some transcending death itself - and the messages will carry forth, for generations to come. 

As the quest for Peace shows that Love reigns, even when there is no peace...

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