May 29, 2012 3:20:17 PM
I've never been to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. I've gotten near it several times on the Mall but have never had the strength to venture in. There are emotions I've locked securely inside me that I fear will erupt if I actually enter. I may eventually go, but alone, so no one I know will see me fall apart, Starship Trooper on his knees sobbing into his hands. So many names, so many dead, and for what?
I can only imagine the sorrow felt by those who fought down-and-dirty in the rice paddies who had their compatriots killed next to them, or who came back maimed or horribly traumatized. If I am so fragile at the prospect of visiting the Memorial, I applaud the strength of those with much heavier burdens than I, who can stand it.
As a group, the reception we received upon our return compounds the angst we feel. I had seen myself as an avenging American warrior traveling across the Pacific to fight the Red menace, and we did the best we could. Yet, upon our return, my compatriots and I seemed to bear responsibility for the calamity the war had become in the eyes of other Americans. I never experienced the reported spectacles of being spat upon or vilified upon arrival at a State-side airport since I landed at Travis AFB, Calif., but I bear the indirect scars nonetheless.
Fifteen years after the Vietnam War ended, and immediately after the first Gulf War, C-5 aircrews, and the troops their aircraft carried, received a marvelous welcome home upon landing at Westover AFB, Mass., in 1991. An entire hangar full of local town folk, perhaps 500 strong, formed a hundred-yard long, horseshoe shaped, welcome line as the troops entered to booming cheers and applause. Walking the reception line they found eager hands reaching for them as if they were Super Bowl quarterbacks. All were very appreciative, but one memorable feature stands out.
It wasn't the younger troops who often broke down emotionally on the line; it was the crusty older troops and crew members, probably Vietnam veterans, who proved fragile.
When they reached a group of 50ish-aged "military mothers," the women smiled, hugged them, and held on for a few moments. That is all it took. At frequent intervals, the older troops would dissolve emotionally at this display of gratitude, shoulders heaving, perhaps from a long suppressed hurt they thought no longer existed until the arms went around them.
From somewhere deep within them the knot of past emotional injury would erupt and would not be stifled by any measure of self-control. Some tried to break free to escape the rampaging emotions but the mothers held them fast and, once the struggle ceased, would guide them behind partitions to allow the tears to flow and the wound to heal. Finally the jungle troopers had received their welcome home that released 20 years of repressed sorrow.
I know this because I, too, walked that line and felt the arms go around me.
Jay Lacklen is a retired Air Force Reserve pilot, who flew missions in Vietnam and Iraq. Presently he is simulator instructor at CAFB and is writing a book about his experiences in the Air Force.