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.

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