We Remember to Honor Those Who Served Us
By JONATHAN BURKE
Monday is not a day off for veterans. It is a day when they recall the cruelty of war.
"It stirs up a lot of the emotions. A lot of people are not aware of some of the feelings that vets have. We fought for our freedom, but also so we could come back home," said a two-tour Army veteran of Vietnam during a Wednesday evening interview. "Sometimes people can be very cruel."
"For me, it's a day of the dead. It's the day the bodies come back," said a two-tour Marine veteran.
Both men are members of a counseling group for Vietnam combat veterans run by the Island Counseling Center (ICC), an agency of Martha's Vineyard Community Services. Thirty years after Vietnam, both men are still in many ways living the reality that became a part of their lives when their country asked for their service at the ages of 18 and 19.
You will find no people more patriotic and willing to sacrifice, and none more aware of war's truths.
"Somebody lives and somebody dies. My emotions get stirred up. I think about the guys that didn't make it back," said the Army vet, who served as door-gunner on a helicopter gunship. His job was to prep landing zones for incoming troops. He came home alive, he said, because he killed people before they killed him.
"You'd be dropping guys 10 feet in front of you," said the Marine veteran, who stopped counting at five enemy killed. He lived with his squad in a hamlet. Their job was to keep the Viet Cong (VC) out. The VC recruited new fighters from the hamlets and came for food and rest.
These were not experiences that could easily be filed away when they returned home. Vietnam, said the Marine, is like television with a picture in the picture. It constantly plays through his mind.
The thoughts of the two veterans are constantly infused with their experience in Vietnam.
On Veterans Day, they said, "People should understand that every day someone's out there patrolling your perimeter," and "People in the United States need to be aware of what they have around them. What they have is what the vets allowed them to have."
They want America to understand them. They want them to know why they hit the bottle when they returned from Vietnam, why they could not cope with their return to society.
They said they think that Sept. 11, the sniper attacks and the threat of Iraq have clued America in to what is real for them.
"A lot of people escaped that building, but they brought those memories out with them. They're going to be frightful," said the Army veteran.
"The people in this country have lived so well for so long. They don't know what it's like," said the Marine.
About 15 combat veterans belong to the Island support group. Tom Bennett, program director for ICC and a litter bearer for the wounded during Vietnam, said his job is to help the veterans move forward in life.
"When somebody is traumatized by the war experience, they develop certain habits that prevent them from being able to fully experience life," he said.
Things they understand all too well are anger and the motivation to kill for extremist views, he said.
Members of the support group who spoke with the Gazette indicated an inner withdrawal. But that is the opposite of what is needed to move forward, said Mr. Bennett.
His advice to people traumatized by war: "People need to be there for each other. A lot of contact with people you trust and feel safe with. The second most important thing is to do something and do it with others. Do something that makes meaning out of the experience, like make a donation to a family of a victim of a tragedy."
A example, he said, was how the community rallied around the families of the two young men who drowned in Sengekontacket last month. "To me, that represents the Vineyard," he said.
Mr. Bennett said he hoped the nation would reflect on Veterans Day. "I think we should be reflecting on how much all the men and women who have served have meant and mean to us, and how necessary it is to have that protection," he said. And he suggested that a sense of gratitude is essential.
"Life is precious. It's not infinite," he said.