My father was an Army Helicopter pilot in Vietnam from December of 1968 to July of 1970. As a child I grew up listening to his stories from his adventures during the war. When I was little, that’s what his stories were to me, adventures.
As I grew the stories often changed in intensity. No longer were they silly stories about him dropping a pizza oven into the Mekong River from the belly of his chopper, or glorious images of him soaring through the air with skill and pride. He was on a mission to Search & Destroy. It was kill or be killed. He was exposed to Agent Orange every day. He saved men from death; he watched men die.
When he returned, he possessed many gorgeous medals for bravery, a desire to explore the Rocky Mountains and a life-long burden of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I have written about him extensively, about how PTSD affects, not only the veteran, but the family members. For my father and I, our relationship about the war began with story. And over the years, I believe it is with story that has healed our relationship.
One very important issue that has echoed in my ears over and over, is that when my dad returned from the war no one wanted to hear his story. People were angry about the war; people didn’t want to take the time to listen; people didn’t believe he could have done what he said he did. That a helicopter could fly so low to the ground, drawing out fire. So close they could see the eyes of a man hiding on his back in the rice paddies.
There are many taboo topics in our society, these issues we sweep under the rug, are too afraid to talk about, to listen to. And, even though I don’t think the veterans returning home now are met with the same hostility as Vietnam veterans were, they return carrying many burdens, physical, emotional, psychological, financial. They often have to fight for their benefits, going through appeal after appeal.
My cousin, a Navy veteran, wife, mom to two kids and successful businesswoman, said, “I have a heart for wounded and disabled veterans, and I hate that as a country we don’t do better by them. They should get the star treatment…I wish as a society we did more to honor all who serve.”
I see this as a great and necessary challenge to the American people, to care for our veterans with “gold star treatment.” I honestly believe it is our duty to offer them support, kindness, and a safe place to tell their story.
We must speak our truths, we must be willing to listen and connect and show compassion, that is the only way we will make positive change in the world. We must find a way to show these brave men and women that we are grateful, that we want to take care of them, that we want to hear their stories.
It’s how we connect and how we heal, by sharing our triumphs, our success, our failures, our grief. Forty-four years after my father returned from Vietnam, he organized a reunion with his helicopter buddies. They spent days reminiscing and sharing old photos. One afternoon they sat around a table with a journalist and recorded their experiences. Some of these stories hadn’t been spoken aloud in over forty years. For my father and his friends, I know this was a weekend of healing.
My father, my uncles, my cousins, my father-in-law and so many more defend and fight for freedom and democracy for us here in America and for people around the world. Freedom and democracy, something I take for granted every single day.
There are many ways, as a society, as individuals, we can do more to honor and support our veterans.
You can donate to one of the amazing groups helping veterans. Here are just a few:
- Wounded Warrior Project – Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) takes a holistic approach when serving warriors and their families to nurture the mind and body, and encourage economic empowerment and engagement.
- Homes for Our Troops – Homes for Our Troops (HFOT) is a privately funded 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization that builds mortgage-free, specially adapted homes nationwide for severely injured Veterans Post – 9/11, to enable them to rebuild their lives.
- VietNow – VietNow’s primary focus has always been on the veterans and the families of the veterans.
One thing we can all do that doesn’t cost any money, is listen to their story. Ask them, show them you want to bear witness to their pain, their guilt, their pride, their agony, their horrors, their successes. In An Unspoken Hunger, Terry Tempest Williams writes, “Words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, and set us free. This is the sorcery of literature. We are healed by our stories.”
If their words are too difficult for you to listen to, you can help them find places to share their stories.
- The Deadly Writers Patrol is an online literary magazine in Madison, Wisconsin. They accept submissions from: “Veterans of the Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars, and contributors keenly interested in issues of war & peace, military service, nation building, deployment, readjustment, moral injury, posttraumatic stress, and more.”
- VietNow Magazine National Magazine, is a print magazine covering issues important to all veterans, from Vietnam to now. From their writers guidelines, “If you can write about things of interest to Vietnam veterans and their families, and if you believe in what you’re writing – we’d like to hear from you.”
It’s fitting that Veterans Day falls in November, this season of gratitude, as we show these men and women our gratitude for their service, their bravery, their sacrifices and their wounds, visible and invisible. Thank you to all the veterans out there, especially my dad.