‘These are my guys … and I’m responsible’
If you could have seen the eyes of the man who said that to me, you would have learned something about the war in Vietnam. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, this man’s eyes spoke to a soul still in turmoil from that war.
This man had served as a second lieutenant in command of the guys to whom he referred. Undying friends for over 50 years, each of them was wounded during the war. Their physical wounds have mostly healed, but their psycho-emotional wounds remain tender, and no one but their closest peers may touch them, not even wives or children.
These three retired Marines had a reunion here two weeks ago for a program with Huts for Vets, based in Aspen. This was the first designated Vietnam veterans program Huts for Vets has run. Now in our seventh year, we were finally able to address this scarred and devastated generation of soldiers.
The trip was instigated by this second lieutenant because of what he recognized while sharing a dinner with the Huts for Vets team last fall. He and another Vietnam veteran — a Native American with two Purple Hearts and a collection of beautifully carved wooden flutes, which he played for us at our base camp — recognized healing in the post-9/11 veterans with whom we all broke bread.
Where these younger veterans are often recognized with the “Thank you for your service” mantra from well-meaning civilians, the older Vietnam veterans had a very different experience.
Dan Glidden, a local Vietnam veteran and founding Huts for Vets board member, introduces himself at our opening dinners with two photo images. The first picture he shows is the iconic image from the end of WWII of a sailor kissing a girl in Times Square.
“This is the homecoming I thought I would have coming home from Vietnam,” Glidden explains with a wry smile. “Instead, I got this.”
Then he shows a magazine news photo from the late 1960s of a line of protesters outside a military base accosting the troops as they came home. One protester is at the forefront of the group offering a double middle-finger salute.
“My vow,” Glidden says, “is never to allow today’s generation of veterans to be treated like I was and like many of my generation were. So even if a ‘Thank you for your service’ sometimes feels insincere, it’s a hell of a lot better than the welcome home we never had from Vietnam.”
This season, for the first time, Huts for Vets, ran two programs simultaneously — one for Vietnam veterans, the other for a cohort of post-911 veterans who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several of the younger veterans said that their fathers had served in Vietnam and had similar experiences on their homecomings.
As a war protester back then, I feel the angst of Vietnam veterans who suffer a sense of betrayal they have carried for half a century. While I never protested the troops, I nonetheless feel a debt of conscience for soldiers who were pawns sacrificed to gravely mistaken U.S. policies only to be treated poorly back home.
It was those policies that Secretary of Defense at the time, Robert McNamara, perpetrated with reckless hubris when he declared: “The North Vietnamese can never defeat us. They can’t even make ice cubes.”
McNamara later recanted his dismissal of an enemy he could never understand, an enemy Vietnam veterans got to know and respect during a conflict that would pit them against the most dedicated, innovative and inexorable warriors America may have ever faced.
Whether their service in that war was worth the cost is still debatable for some, like the man whose eyes speak more than his words when honoring his friends. Over the years, however, that cost has risen. Three times the number of names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., have taken their own lives since the end of that bitter war.
The undying friendship of these Vietnam veterans speaks volumes to their brotherhood, something eyes express better than words.
Paul Andersen is founder and executive director of Huts for Vets. His column appears on Mondays, and he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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