I’ve never really liked it when people come up and tell me thank you or try to shake my hand. I can’t prove it, and maybe I’m being too harsh, but I think a lot of them are condescending. Somehow, thanking me “makes it all better” or something. And with a lot of them, you can tell that they’re not thanking you because they’re thankful at all. They’re shaking your hand because they feel so badly for how the Vietnam veterans were treated. They’re trying to get over their guilt. So supposedly shaking my hand just erases the abuses endured by an entire generation of veterans? No way. I actually don’t usually even talk about being in the military. It’s my private life, and my private story – not something I’m trying to get attention for doing.
On Veterans Day one year, I did wear my desert digital trousers and a USMC hoodie with my ribbons on it, but that’s because it’s sort of our day. Besides, the VA director encouraged veterans to wear our medals proudly. I just wore the ribbons to class that day – stuck on my sweatshirt. I walked into class I little late that day so everybody was already there. As I stepped in the door, everybody fell deathly silent and stared at me. And you know, not a single person in that class talked to me for five weeks. Nobody. That sort of bothered me.
Usually, though, I’m minding my own business and things just happen to me. There was a student protest one day on campus – the one where they draw chalk outlines of bodies on the concrete to represent innocent people killed in war. They held this thing two days after my buddy Troy was killed in Iraq, too, so I was pretty frustrated when I saw it. But I was polite. I went up to the lady in charge and told her that while I do understand they message they’re trying to convey, it’s one of the unfortunate aspects of war. People die, innocent people, too. It doesn’t make it right, obviously, but it’s the way war works. She looked pretty annoyed at me for a second, but then I told her that one of my good friends was just killed by an IED over there two days ago. To my surprise, she told me she’s sorry and hugged me, which I thought was pretty respectable.
Then she offered me a piece of chalk and asked if I wanted to write something for him on the sidewalk, so I did. I wrote out his name, “KIA,” and “OIF.” Just as I was finishing, some dude wandered up and asked, “is that your friend?” I told him it was; that he was just killed in Iraq. “Good, I’m glad he’s dead, and your other friends, too. They’re killing innocent women and children.” My friend dragged me away before I could do anything stupid. As we were walking away, he said to me, “Dave, we took an oath to protect these people, even if they’re ignorant, stupid and unappreciative.” As much as it hurts to admit it, he’s right. We served so they could stay innocent.
We had a Veterans Day parade once in town, but there were protesters all over the place waving signs and yelling about all these war crimes we’ve supposedly committed. A bunch of us went over to them and politely asked if they could just leave us alone for ONE day, so they started hollering and chanting at us even louder. Eventually, they just wandered away. I guess their cause is one they get bored of quickly.
A lady told me once that she supported the troops, but not the war. I told her that, since we all volunteered for this, that most of us knew that we’d be going to war, if she was supporting us, she was also supporting our decision to play a part in the war. She rolled her eyes and told me, “you don’t get it.” I didn’t know what else to say. Either you’re for us, or you’re against us.
My professors weren’t much better, either. I was discussing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam with one of them and telling him how even though it was horrible and by no means right, sometimes guys just snap. They lose so many friends and it starts to get to them. Not that it made it acceptable, though. It didn’t. It was still completely wrong. This professor said, “well, it SHOULDN’T happen. And it CAN’T happen.” I told but yeah, but it does. So he glares at me and says, “I know more about war than you do,” which baffled me. How, I asked him… He told me he’s studied war a lot. Right. But I went through one.
Another professor told our class that all the troops joined because they came from economically disadvantaged families and they couldn’t do anything else. Their choices were either poverty, or the alternative of the military. Never mind you’re required to have a college degree to be an officer. Apparently it’s the best we can do. We were all forced in – that’s what he said.
One professor, who was a self-described Marxist, told the whole class that he supports the troops because, like he, they’re the working class. They’re like brothers to him, he says. But then he announces, “I just don’t want them to fight and die in a war based on lies and misinformation. The government is taking advantage of them.” I told him we all volunteered, but he still insisted we’re being fed a bunch of lies and sent off to do the government’s bidding.
There was a girl in one of my classes who said that all the Guantanamo detainees should be released because they’re POWs and the Geneva Conventions say we have to let them go. I pointed out that the Geneva Conventions state that POWs are released at the END of the war and that this one is still going on. “You’d want OUR guys released, wouldn’t you?” Sure, I told her, but they’re not taking POWs. They’re beheading our guys, burning their bodies, and hanging their desecrated corpses in the cities. They don’t have any POWs to exchange. “Well, we still support our POWs,” she said. “We wear bracelets and say prayers for them.” I told her, “how about you send our guys some socks, or something. Bracelets aren’t going to bring us home. How about you write your congressman and demand that they give us better armor. Something like that.” She rolled her eyes at me.
You know, the person that’s been the nicest to me was actually my yoga instructor. A few weeks after I had a seizure, passed out, and screamed some stuff about Iraq, she invited me to Thanksgiving at her house with a bunch of other people. I was flattered, so I figured I’d stop by. We were sitting there alone and she asked me, “you were in the military, weren’t you?” I told her I was. Then she gently asks if she could ask me a few questions about my service; I said she could.
She didn’t ask me anything rude like did I kill anybody. She didn’t ask me about weapons of mass destruction, or about politics. She just asked about my experiences. She noticed that I was getting tense as I answered, so she sat behind me, wrapped me carefully in a bear hug, and quietly told me to breathe with her – slowly and deeply. It worked, actually, and I talked to her for a long time. It felt good to just have somebody listen.
When I was done talking, she simply said, “my opinions on the war aren’t important. I know you followed your heart, that you believe in what you did, and I also know that you’re a good man. You have a good heart. That’s all that really matters. You did a good thing.” I think that was the first time somebody had actually listened to me. It’s all I really wanted.
I don’t want people to feel sorry for us, or to apologize like the government or the military dealt us some great injustice. They didn’t. We volunteered to do what we did, and we believed in it. All we want, all I want is for somebody to listen to my story and not judge me. But it only happens rarely. It’s like we have to fight another war when we get back – one just to be heard.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved