Some made it home from the war only to die.
My generation is the generation whose brothers and boyfriends went to Vietnam (they were all or mostly men back in those days) whether they wanted to or not. We and the world eventually had to recognize many who made it home had lost too much of themselves to live.
Some were unable to recover from their trauma. Not all those who died because of the war were killed overseas. Many were killed by the enduring effects of that horrible war after they were home. Sometimes very soon after they got home.
They sent the Vietnam veterans back to their wives, children, friends, parents and their communities carrying deep wounds that simply were not conducive to living the “happily ever after” life. Or any life.
I was at the age that if I’d been male would have likely been drafted and sent to Vietnam. Only one from my community, a Green Beret we were all proud to know, died in Vietnam.
I had many friends and acquaintances who died because of that war, but were not — and probably will never be — recognized and memorialized as men and women who gave all they had and paid too much for what it did to them.
On Memorial Day I always think of them when the talk is of soldiers who paid with their lives while serving. Many of my generation paid with their lives when they got home.
One of my classmates made it home, and had even been awarded a Purple Heart. Getting home and being decorated didn’t set things right for him. Once home, he was wilder and more reckless than ever — and he had been a wild kid. He couldn’t be sober. He didn’t care if it was drugs or alcohol or the danger of doing risky things — just whatever helped him forget what he lived through in Vietnam.
He died only months after coming home. He was drunk and driving a car on a treacherous highway at speeds approaching and sometimes exceeding 100 miles per hour. No seatbelt, of course. He got that car to leave the highway and sail into the air and roll end over end before it stopped. I’ll never believe he cared.
He wasn’t in it. He’d been thrown out and was hanging in a tree. He died before they got him to the hospital. Alcohol, drugs and psychiatric illness did not kill him. Vietnam did. He was only 20. So was I and his death was the first time I experienced a friend my age dying. I had thought, I guess, that we were invincible.
Another vet who returned was someone I’d once dated in high school. He lived over in the next town, and had went away a sweet and gentle fun-loving boy. He was drafted. I remember him telling me his daddy cried.
He came home so drug addicted that I hate to admit it, but I avoided him and was ashamed he had been my boyfriend. He acted awful. The last time I saw him was at a football game and he was loudly and embarrassingly trying to start a fight in the end zone during halftime. His friends were trying to get him to leave with them. He left when the cops took him off in handcuffs.
He shot and killed himself not long after that night. His dad, only 48, died the next year. Of heartbreak, people said.
Some ended up in prison. Some, though, returned and rebuilt good lives. Not everyone who served in ‘Nam came home messed up, or if they did, they overcame it. I don’t want to paint them all like that.
Still, there are scars and the wife of one seemingly happy and successful veteran told me he refuses to speak about it and hasn’t said a word about Vietnam to her or to anyone for over 50 years, as far as she knows.
But he cries out in his sleep and wakes sweating and terrified from yet another nightmare. That has have gone on now for 50 years.
The men who died — not in battle in Vietnam — but from the wounds, scars and stress they brought home with them, should also be memorialized. They lived in a nightmarish jungle world where hidden enemies suddenly attacked from nowhere. Children with guns killed their fellow soldiers. They’d never known such misery existed. Their feet rotted from sloshing through the damn jungle water for too long.
All wars are terrible. The men and women who fight in recent wars may come home just as broken and traumatized, but I don’t know many of them. I can only relate what I know of my own time and generation.
God bless all the men and women of the armed services. They are amazing and worthy of our greatest respect.
It is those who died in the course of protecting us and keeping our freedoms we honor on Memorial Day. They gave all. They were in the dawn of their lives.
But I always remember, too, those who made it home alive, but were killed by their service in war just the same.They were injured physically and psychically and died of war. Just not on the battlegrounds or in foreign soil. So many came home to then die.
Them, too, I remember on Memorial Day.
Rest easy, heroes.