It’s Veterans Day. It’s a day when some of us recognize those who sacrificed part or their entire lives to service. Some were drafted (or in my case, nearly so), some enlisted gleefully, some reluctantly, some were raised to serve by military families. Too many were forced into service by harsh economic circumstances–too poor or too poorly educated to find work or pay for training. The military offered both.
When we signed up, we knew only what the glossy recruiting posters and the John Wayne war films told us. Military service seemed exciting, heroic, patriotic, and important for so many reasons. We were promised GI bill benefits, training, good food, free clothing, and trips to exotic places. We were told how the Veterans Administration was staffed and ready to take care of us when we returned. While we did get to go to some pretty exotic places, and some got useful training useful in civilian life, very little else was true.
I signed up to get training on the Caribou–a fixed-wing plane used to deliver cargo. Half-way through Basic, they told us the deal was off–we could train to be in the infantry or try to be accepted into the helicoper program–I chose the latter and did make it through that program (many did not as it was already over-booked). After training, in the spring of 1969, I went straight to Vietnam to serve in an Air Cavalry troop. Remember the movie “Apocolypse Now?” Our unit (the 7/17 Air Cavalry) was identical to Robert Duvall’s–yes, just that nuts. By this time, I had already lived in Southeast Asia from 1962 to 1965 as I attended High School (and learned Thai)–I was an Army brat who had already spent his entire life in a military family being bounced from town to town, school to school for about twenty years. I went to Vietnam fully aware that their government was utterly corrupt. I knew they were being propped up by the US corporations that wanted to harvest their resources. I went anyway. I didn’t want to ruin my life by fleeing to Canada or running from the FBI. I figured I could work hard and help as many of my fellow soldiers as I could, but I was not a great officer. I was reprimanded for questioning my superiors when I thought they were misinformed or made decisions that put their troops or my aircraft in needless jeopardy. I knew the Army and I did not have a bright future together.
When I came back home from my overseas tour, I soon developed a number of medical issues that made it tough for me to stay on flight status. It seems those of us exposed to Agent Orange and the repeated pounding on my back had taken a toll. But by 1972, it seemed the Army was done with us anyway — they discharged tens of thousands of us overnight without notice and I was out of the Army and out of a career. Without a job or prospects, I retrained (thanks to my wife) in computer science on the GI Bill and the rest is history. But I was still having medical problems. This began a four-decade battle with the VA to get care. I dared not mention the night terrors, the anxious moments, the shock of explosions or fireworks–the PTSD. It was not spoken of. I was afraid I would not be able to get work if anyone knew. I kept it all inside. Today, many still do–I don’t.
The VA has evolved since then. When I was discharged, they sent me home with an endless supply of Darvon, a powerful painkiller. Years later they switched me to HydroCodone, OxyCodone and Tramaodol. Last year, they pulled all of those, patted me on the butt and told us all to get over our pain. “It’s all in your head.”
Yes, the VA is actually getting better, but they still are grossly underfunded, understaffed and under the current Republican administration, funding has been further cut while even more men and women enter the system every day in need of help. Case in point: the VA system to manage the GI Bill has been down for three months with no fix in sight. Benefits have been cut because of a shortfall in revenue due to massive tax cuts for corporations.
What really hurts to the bone is when the President is absent for the Veterans Day observances in the US. While he could have attended a service to commemorate fallen soldiers from World War I near Paris, he opted to stay in his hotel room because of the wind and rain. We knew he was afraid of drafts so we were not at all surprised. We now know that he really thinks about veterans–like John McCain.
I have learned that I and all those who came home were forever changed in so many ways. We returned awakened to the ugly world of corruption on both sides of the Pacific, to the night terrors of PTSD, of addiction, of betrayal, of denial, of shoddy treatment by their own countrymen and the government who recruited and drafted them–to all of it.
One veteran suggested the best way to help veterans is to stop creating them. I agree.
One more thought. When we observe Veteran’s Day, we need to remember the families left behind. The wives and girlfriends, the kids, the parents, the relatives, the friends, the employers, the rest of those who also contributed to helping keep up their morale, keep their jobs open, keep them remembering why they were over there and far away from home–sacrificing so much. My own wife of fifty years was one of those women. She sent me a Playboy magazine in Basic Training (of course, she and her college roommates pasted clothes over the women), she mailed me a birthday cake on my 22nd birthday that almost survived the trip but brought a warm chocolate smile to my face, she wrote dozens of letters, and kept me going and sane when I came home when people thought I was a war criminal because I served. She redirected my anger and frustration over the years and helped make me the man I am today. Thanks, hon.