Raymond Bechard pays tribute to the men who hardly received any while they fought for our country.
Lately, I’ve been watching the much-deserved reception of American soldiers returning home from war. I was a media embed in Iraq a few years ago. In Baghdad and surrounding areas I saw up close the dedication, professionalism, and difficulties faced by everyone serving in hostile environments. It was inspiring to see people half my age taking on enormous responsibilities and making lonely sacrifices so far from home and for such long periods of time. They have a courage I’ll never know. There is no way we can thank them enough.
But I’m old enough to remember when soldiers came home from Vietnam. I remember how they and their experiences were shunned and ignored. Like cowards, we loaded our shame unjustifiably onto them. Then we tried to put them and our defeat behind us, or more accurately, beneath us. We didn’t thank them. Didn’t welcome them. Didn’t heal them. And certainly, we didn’t understand them. We never tried.
The lack of respect and gratitude we gave our returning Vietnam Vets 40 years ago seems even more deplorable when compared to how deeply we embrace those returning from Iraq, Afghanistan, and all other places of military service around the world today.
Were they heroes? Yes. Did they sacrifice their lives for others? Yes – over 58,000 of them.* Did they serve with honor, bravery, and courage under impossible circumstances? Yes. Did war change, even destroy, their lives, their families, their careers, and their dreams back home? Absolutely. And all this can be said of our soldiers for the past 236 years.
But Vietnam Vets are a different kind of hero than the rest. In many ways they are heroes above the rest.
Here’s why. In 1910 a very soft spoken woman named Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, today the capital of the Republic of Macedonia. From the beginning it looked like Agnes was going to have a very mediocre life. Then she decided to become a Roman Catholic nun. That’s when her life got much more interesting – and complex.
From the moment Agnes decided to dedicate herself to God, she faced a very serious problem, one she would hide from the world for the rest of her life. This note, which she wrote to a friend many years ago – and revealed only after she died – illustrates the terrible dilemma Agnes faced. “I call, I cling, I want – and there is no One to answer – no One on Whom I can cling – no, No One. Alone. Where is my Faith? Even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness. My God. How painful is this unknown pain. I have no Faith. I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart and make me suffer untold agony. I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
This poor little nun had lost her faith in God. And from her letters we know she questioned the very existence of God for over 50 years, until her death in 1997.
Did her lack of faith in the God to whom she had devoted her eternal soul kill her dedication to her duty as a nun? Nope. In fact, at the time of her death the order of nuns she built had over 4,000 sisters, an associated brotherhood of 300 priests, and over 100,000 lay volunteers, operating 610 missions in 123 countries. These included hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, soup kitchens, children’s and family counseling programs, orphanages, and schools.
Yet, along with having won the Nobel Peace Prize, Agnes – known to the world as Mother Teresa – didn’t believe in God.**
And that’s why she is one of my greatest heroes. Not because of her religious devotion, or her work, or the countless lives she saved. No. It’s because even though her faith in God faded away, she did the work anyway. She put herself aside and did the job that had to be done – no matter what hardships she was facing. She did it anyway.
And for the same reason, Vietnam Vets are our greatest heroes. They were thrown into the worst shit imaginable then they got shit thrown on them when they came home. But, they did it anyway.
The Vietnam War was a mess. It was initiated by and fought for reasons only the most cynical Washington politicians could understand or justify. It divided America unlike any issue since the Civil War. It destroyed at least one generation’s faith in the worthiness of our government. It not only left permanent scars on our nation, but especially on those who rotted away in the jungles. No one really wanted them there in the first place; poor leadership let the entire conflict get completely out of control. Then, no one could figure out how to bring them home without losing our precious global standing which, by that point, had been lost. It was a filthy proxy war with Russia that could never have ended in anything but tragedy, loss, and humiliation.
Yet, despite all the wretched inevitability and with everything telling them not to go, those young men went and fought. Unlike all our other wars, the American men who sacrificed themselves in Vietnam carried the added burden of fighting and dying in war without faith. Our national heart was not in it. We didn’t believe in the fight. We were never willing to win, only to throw young, expendable bodies at an enemy who eluded us.
It is not difficult to imagine one of those lost soldiers, waiting through the night and rain in some far off swamp, uttering the same words as Mother Teresa, “there is no One to answer – no One on Whom I can cling – no, No One. Alone. Even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness.”
Yet, he waited there anyway. He desperately held onto his gun while his friends back home called him a baby killer. He went on endless patrols while Americans protested in anger against him. He got trench foot and diarrhea while his classmates got degrees. He looked into the dying eyes of his buddy while his high school sweetheart avoided the eyes of the next nameless guy she was banging.
The Vietnam Veteran is our greatest hero because he fought two enemies: the North Vietnamese and us.
Even though we blamed him for something that was our fault, like Agnes, he carried on because of something greater; some need to help where and when no one else was willing to. He served because he was noble. He sacrificed because of the friends next to him in the trenches. He did his duty because his nation – a nation he so badly wanted to believe in – told him to.
And just like that little nun, he struggled every day to wade past all the obstacles and do the right thing. In the face of disease, death, and defeat, he somehow put aside the petty selfishness of the world – along with his own doubts – and fought the good fight.
* For a list of fascinating list of statistics on Vietnam, go to: http://www.mrfa.org/vnstats.htm
** I know that’s a tough fact to swallow. You don’t have to believe me. Read the words of the great lady herself in the book, “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light – The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta.”