Stories of Grief, Love and Penance Live Among What’s Left at the Vietnam Wall

This poignant article appeared in today’s Washington Post.  With well restrained pain I read it aloud to my VN Veteran group. Reactions were personal and painful- recalling lost friends, seeing the reflective marble, reflecting on a journey to a foreign land without meaning, or moral clarity. They reacted with pain to some of the items described in the article, particularly the care package returned to a mom whose son was KIA. We discussed the raw pain, the problem of forgiveness, for not being able to save lives, for taking lives on a mission or in a rageful state or state of terror. We discussed the body count, the indifference of decision makers, the myriad of causes and explanations for the war, which even the most ardent now see as folly. We discussed who profited, who lost, and how their sense of self was injured in a war that inflicted incalculable pain, well beyond body counts. They also reacted with pain to the picture the NVA soldiers mentioned in the artcle locked in the veterans closet. They all have locked away memories and emotions, not yet spoken. They are all working on letting go of the self loathing and irrational expectations they carried in a crcumstance that demanded numbness, insensitivity and unnatural violence. One veteran expressed the rage that politics precluded a win but also admitted we should never have gone there. They envied the moral clarity of WWII but quickly agreed that did not protect many of their fathers from the same emotional fate. They all carry deep injury for being tools of a war where as one observed “there was no win and nobody won”. They all saw or were part of horrors as bad or worse than the painful expiation left behind by the soldier featured in the article.  They are all struggling with forgiveness and need to be reminded they were instruments of war – ‘the tip of the spear’ who should not carry the sole burden of failing to maintain fairness, control or justice in the midst of mayhem. One member had to be reminded that the father and daughter he ‘took out’ were killing Americans. As so many still wrestle with -the core moral conundrum- everyone in theater was a victim, an instrument, human and inhuman, culpable and innocent. We had quietly travelled the usual path- I articulated it with them: “Was it (the war) right” and the even more difficult question “was I right”? We discussed the experience of a group member, not present today who became a pacifist 9 months into his tour- leaving him with a dilemma while still in the field. We also discussed the fear they had not done enough to save others. They reviewed some of the injustices, carnage and rage they experienced and witnessed. They cried silently, almost invisibly at times as they tortured themselves with doubt about what they had done, failed to do or did not do well enough. One retired career soldier who served as a drill Seargent before the Iraq war tearfully stated ” I hope I trained them well and none of them died because I left out something or didn’t do my job right”. As we came to a close I asked them to summarize what they will tell their wives or significant others what was discussed in today’s group – my standard question. In today’s meeting I ‘cheated’ and gave them the answer: “We did the best that we could.”