Monday, October 12, 2009

Washington, DC

Washington D.C. was the last part of our journey that took us from home, to Vietnam, back home, then to D.C. I thought it was fitting to take Dad to the nation’s capitol since we had the opportunity to visit Vietnam’s capitol two months prior. All decisions on war come from this city. I am reminded often that Washington D.C. is our city. We the people own it. The monuments, memorials, and museums are open to all with free admission. We can enjoy many things that make us proud to be Americans. However, D.C. is also a place where we can go to voice our concerns, to march, to protest. I’m taken back to all the images and footage of the many protests of the Vietnam War. It was a troubling time of complex issues. Many people wanted their country out of a war with a seemingly lacking purpose. The media were handcuffed or handcuffed themselves with information and misinformation. The administrations sunk deeper into political turmoil, personal gains, and indecisiveness. And stuck in the middle were the soldiers who were fighting for a freedom that they were told was in jeopardy.

In D.C. there are breathtaking monuments to presidents that inspire the individual to rise up to accomplish great things. There is the Washington Monument standing taller than all others, seen from great distances, providing an exclamation point, reminding the country of our liberty and unity. There is the White House, whose occupant we have the right to choose, to lead us as we need in good times and in bad. There is the Capitol spread out and expanding, providing structure and stability, while reaching to the sky in grasps of progress. There is the Lincoln Memorial with its steps, one after another climbing to reach one of the best views in the nation. The steps are reminders of our past struggles, of our troubled history, but also of our triumphant glories. You can’t help but here Martin Luther King’s voice with each step as you ascend to visit Lincoln. And then off to the left, looking back out into the mall, huddled in the trees, humble and sincere is the Vietnam Memorial.

Our walk to the Vietnam Memorial, or “The Wall” as many refer to it, was similar to our trip to Vietnam. I had no idea how my father would react when seeing it. We walked through the trees from the Reflecting Pool and came over a hill to see the wall unfold in front of us. Its power, persona; its spirit and haunting reverence attracts you. We entered similar to how you enter a cold swimming pool, slowly wading in the shallow end until your body gets used to the new environment. However, I can’t say we became comfortable in a typical sense, but we felt welcomed. A pair of memorial assistants asked my son where he got his Vietnam hat and we began telling them of Dad’s journey back to Vietnam just a few months prior. My father spoke with them for a while then decided to try to find two people that he knew on the wall from his hometown. We discovered the book to help us locate the names but only found one. We searched every possible spelling for the other but turned up nothing. I could see my father’s frustration and imagined many other veterans returning to find people they have lost in this sea of names. And all they want is to visit those names etched in the black marble, to see those faces in their memories, to be reunited on different terms, and to say good bye or maybe even hello.

Although my father found one name in the wall, I knew he was bothered by the many others he had known or had seen killed in Vietnam without names he could remember. He still saw their faces in his dreams, in the day and in the night. As we left he told me again about a guy who was there less than a week, who walked right into a landmine right in front of him and blew up. He said, “I didn’t even know his name. He wasn’t there long enough. I didn’t get to know him. He just got blown to pieces. It was our landmine. He blew up.” As he started walking up and out of the memorial, I could tell that there were tears swelling up behind his sunglasses. I could tell the true weight of the wall, the true weight of the war, in how my father walked. He got to the end of the memorial and stopped with the Washington Monument behind in the distance. He was fighting in Vietnam for that monument, that symbol, that liberty. But now all he could see were the names in the wall and his own face forty years older reflected in the black marble.

The Vietnam Memorial is not a celebration of triumph, but it is not a concession of defeat. It is neither. It is a memorial, a quiet place for introspection and a place to remember people who have passed on. It is a place for reunion and reminders of the outcomes of war. It is an honest reminder that many people lose their lives, good people enter and exit differently. For some, war is quick and final, leaving voids for those left behind to never fill. For others, war lives on every day and every night, echoing the past over and over. The subtle wall is a quiet reminder of these things that we must keep with us. We must help each other, just as the many Vietnamese wanted to help my father while we were there. They wanted the past to be behind him. They wanted him to see the bright future as we continue to learn from the past. We must respect each other and our differences, just as my mother and father immersed themselves in the culture of Vietnam, using chopsticks, bowing in temples. A foreign country is not so foreign when you understand the rich diversity of people and the interrelated family of humanity. We must listen to each other, especially when someone lacks the voice or emotional strength to fully share something important. Speaking can only be productive when actively engaging in listening. We can’t help others unless we listen to them. And we must remember that we are all in this together. The issues that my father has fought through for forty years had an enormous effect on my family and on me from childhood to today. But because I love him more than anything and I know that I am not the only child of a veteran, I take war very seriously. If there is one thing that this whole project has taught me, it’s that we should avoid war at all costs because the costs of war are beyond what any one person can understand or be forced to endure.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

West Virginia

Now back from Vietnam, we’ve had time to digest all that we took in while a half a world away. People have been very supportive the whole way through this project and are very interested in the trip now that we are back. I am often asked how my father handled going back to Vietnam. I tell them that it seems that he needed the last forty years to prepare for his return. And although there were difficult moments, he was able to appreciate all the things he saw this time around and all those people he met. I had no idea how he would take being back in the place of his flashbacks, but I have to say that his ability to achieve what he did is a testament to all the hard work he’s put into his life after his return in 1970. I am also quite often asked if I think he reached some sort of closure. I asked my father the same question, although I knew the basic answer. He said he does not know what closure is. He will always have the memories, the nightmares, and the past can’t be erased. But now he has other images to go along with the war images. I now understand that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not something that can easily go away, it is something that needs to be acknowledged honestly and negotiated with care. It is something that is personal and something that needs family. But it is also something that no one other than someone who has the same experience can truly understand. My father has been working on finding those people he was in the Army with for about five years now. And now only two months after returning from our trip to Vietnam, I was able to take my father on yet another adventure to meet up with a man he hasn’t seen in thirty-nine years.

After returning form Vietnam, I decided to invite my father to travel to Washington D.C. with my son and I. I wanted our three generations to visit the Vietnam Wall. A day before our drive he informed me that someone he was in Vietnam with lives in West Virginia, a state we would be driving through the next day, and wondered if we could visit him. The coincidence was amazing and seemed meant to be. We traveled all day and met whom my father still refers to as “County” in the hotel lobby. The greetings were warm as they stood looking at each other. Right away my father said to the man facing him, “you look just the same.” And Country said the same back to him. My father over the years has spoken quite a bit about Country. In fact he was able to find him just a few years ago and called him on the phone. When they were about to hang up Country said, “I am so glad you called, you made my day.” Now they were face-to-face, thirty-nine years after they last saw each other. They sat down and my father pulled out his photo album with a picture of himself, Country, and a few others. My father pointed at the photo and remarked about how Country always had an apple, then reached in his bag, pulled out an apple, and handed it over. The man next to him gave a smile and their conversation took off. They shared their memories, helped each other remember names and places, and the whole time Country took bites out of his apple. You could see the pieces fitting together. Where my father had forgotten, Country could remember, and vice versa. They sat on that couch together in the hotel lobby for hours that night, sharing back and forth their combined memories. You could see their relief.

Veterans need veterans. I can’t help my father in ways that Country can. I don’t know what those two men went through, even though they shared their stories with me. Their bond is cemented in something very difficult and something that cannot have closure. But I’ve realized that closure or forgetting may not be the answer. There is no answer when your past follows you around. You can’t outrun Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. You can only work through it in your own way, at your own pace, at your own time. It is something very personal and individual and requires patience, respect, and love.