Though Veterans Day was a few days ago, I've continued to think about my own experiences with veterans and their needs. At a gathering on Tuesday, we were asked to consider the connections we have with military personnel and I jumped back in my mind to my Uncle Morris Larson, who was a SeaBee during World War II. He brought back from the Pacific beautiful tapa cloths which adorned my homes for many years, till they became too holey to display any more.
But I can go a bit farther back than that and name a very early friend, Bill Brown, whose father was deployed in the Pacific during and after WWII, and was sent to live with his grandparents, the Scotts, in Portland. They were members of my Dad's church and Billy Brown was the first boy who I considered a boyfriend. We were all of 10 years old, I think! But my Dad worried a little bit that Billy might get fresh someday and once warned me about boys and testosterone in a way that mystified rather than enlightened me! I would love to see Billy Brown again and swap memories of those years in Portland. I don't know if he's even alive.
Fast forward to my senior year in college, when the draft for Vietnam soldiers was heating up: several of my classmates were drafted or enlisted. Some of them died, notably the very handsome and shy Paul Eklund; others came back changed forever and either managed to pull themselves together or experienced endless grief and sorrow from their psychic and physical wounds.
In the mid-sixties, I met the man I would marry and we participated in anti-war demonstrations, shouting "LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" I could hardly bring myself to yell these words; they seemed incongruent, considering how long US forces had been in Vietnam, and how recently LBJ had been propelled into the presidency.
In my first counseling position at Creighton Junior High in Lakewood, CO, I learned of an ongoing animosity between two teachers, one of whom accosted the other in the teacher's lounge and accused him of being a babykiller. One teacher had been in the protest marches; the other had just returned from Vietnam.
Then our mutual family friend, John Roessler, went to Vietnam as an officer and fell on a grenade to protect his unit, or so I recall the story. John had re-enlisted after a painful divorce and left behind a grieving former wife and his only child, who was still a toddler. His death hardly seemed real, until I visited DC and found his name on the Wall, as well as that of Paul Eklund.
Years later, I discovered a new friend, Patrick Mendoza, a lounge singer during my post-divorce years, who would occasionally invite me to sing harmony with him during his act. Pat was receiving treatment for his PTSD and this was the first time I had ever heard "shell shock" being diagnosed as something other than something to be ashamed of. He had been in the Navy and deployed to the Mekong Delta. Pat was reticent about his war experiences but not about his recovery and I learned a great deal from his stories.
A little more time travel brings me into more recent years, when a congregant in my Wy'east congregation mentioned his struggle with PTSD and his willingness to help me with a Veterans' Day service. In preparation I read the book "Achilles in Vietnam", which finally gave me much more clarity about the scenario of war and its broader effect on soldiers as well as the culture they return to. Steve Herring was a remarkably courageous assistant in this service; he told his own story for the first time and in the congregation listening were several of his buddies, in full uniform, there to witness and support.
Here on Whidbey, we have been privileged to have in our congregation several military families over the years, as friends and as members. One notable moment a year ago came when we erected the banner suggested by the group NRCAT (National Religious Coalition Against Torture). It read "Torture is a Moral Issue". Gradually I learned that our military families were hurt, even offended, by the banner's language; because the military had been accused of fostering torture they felt they were being called immoral, even though they were innocent. In a heartfelt and honest conversation of interested folks, they made their feelings known and suggested new wording. Our sign now reads "Torture: let's end it!"
About the same time, a young Afghanistan vet in the larger community acted out violently in a drunken rage at a festival; his parents were friends of the congregation and, sensitized by the new understandings I'd found, I asked them if there were ways our congregation could be helpful. Since that time, they have founded the Veterans' Resource Center here on Whidbey to reach out to veterans and their families who are struggling with post-combat issues, and we have been an active supporter of their work.
In fact, tomorrow's service will be about serving our wounded warriors in humanitarian ways, and these parents will be part of the service. We will also take up a special offering to support the VRC.
Looking back over these many, many years, I do not change my objection to war as a way of achieving peaceful ends. I see that there have been situations where we had to defend ourselves or defend others, situations we are stuck in, at least for now, that we got drawn into unwisely; I also see that we need a strong military to be a national emergency force, to act defensively if necessary, but also to provide disaster relief and protection for our nation in dangerous times.
And we need to take care of the men and women we ask to do this for us. We need to treat them well, consider their personal and professional needs and give them ethical standards to live up to, provide training that will help them protect themselves and others without demolishing their human reticence for killing; and when they return to civilian life, we need to give them the help they need to heal physically and psychically, for they have killed in our name. We must not abandon them.
I think back to the situation at Creighton, when one man attacked another with violent words and accusations and I am embarrassed by and ashamed of the lack of compassion we displayed when our Vietnam vets came back home. My personal acquaintance with John Roessler and Paul Eklund and others called into that terrible time helped me see that it wasn't fair, but I didn't know how to oppose that treatment at the time. I am smarter and braver now, I hope.
So Veterans Day has come to have a new meaning to me over the years and I am glad to see that we as a culture/society have also learned from our past mistakes. We may not have learned how to wage peace instead of war, but we have learned that our veterans' loyalty and willingness to serve are worth celebrating and that they are serving our country in invaluable ways.