Thursday, November 5, 2015

Veterans Day Reflections

Recently a friend of mine put out a call to his fellow veterans to write about their reactions when people say to them, "Thank you for your service." He has included my response along with diverse others in a section of his website titled Five Simple Words.*  

Here's the way it struck me, along with a few photographs of my encounters with local people in Vietnam, 1971-72.

Four years in the Army. If I'd truly given of myself the words 'Thank-you' would be welcome. Nothing beats hearing thank-you for a sincere and meaningful gift.

Why did I volunteer for Vietnam? There may have been a touch of nobility or sacrifice among my motives. But mainly an adventurous pulse beat within me then. I heard tribal voices calling in the haze. It was my life's chance to rub shoulders with war.

"Possibilities of a hat"
Mortality was never an issue in my youthful mind. Not my own nor toward anyone else. I wasn't capable of considering it. 

Airborne School was a hard-earned lark. At Ranger School I was resourceful enough to match up with tough training. I stuck bayonets into straw dummies screaming "Kill, kill, kill!!!" The classmates who really understood were combat veterans.

There were other things I didn't grasp. I had only a dim awareness of the currents of myth and entitlement that underlie national as well as personal destiny. I remember looking back toward America from an Asian shore wondering if this entire history had happened to teach me something.

After an interesting couple of years as a construction officer in Thailand and Germany I reported in June 1971 to the assignment station at Cam Ranh Bay. I volunteered for combat engineering duty with the 101st Airborne Division. I wound up at a geographical intelligence desk in Saigon. Perhaps it was a miraculous intervention. I do say thank-you for that. 

It was my third time living in Southeast Asia. My Dad had been military attaché to Burma during my teen years. Then the posting to a young man's paradise, for seaport construction in rural Thailand. Now to the capital of French Indo-China, the Pearl of the Orient - in turmoil.
"Weighing Peppers"
I liked the local people. I spent many hours after work wandering the streets of Saigon photographing its citizens. I got around town by bus, spent nights printing portraits and city scenes in the darkroom.

"Two Buddies"
Who knows how close VC sympathizers were to me during these escapades. No one ever bothered me except motorcycle-mounted Saigon cowboys stealing cameras. Once a taxi driver pulled a gun over a disputed fare after curfew. I walked away, he didn't fire.

I figure I had protection, perhaps the protection of innocence. Sometimes you shouldn't look down. 

The first time I reported for night duty officer I tried to load bullets into the .45 cal pistol worn on security patrols. My hands shook with the sudden clarity of what that gun was for. I threw the ammo clip back into the drawer, strapped on the pistol and went out into the night. I never carried a loaded weapon that year.

Yes, it was a year of innocence in the sense of not provoking a bee hive into attack. In other ways, not innocent at all. I tried hard to support the war effort with good intelligence studies. I relished a pat on the back from senior officers. I regarded field grunts as tainted by blood on their hands.

"Funeral music"
I came home unscathed, untroubled except by those shadows of self-discovery and judgment.

I've added my voice and my photographs to the peace movement since 1972. I've pondered the sometimes gratuitous gesture "Thank you for your service." The wars keep on coming.
People want to connect. Many have profound ambivalence, sorrow, confusion about the wars. Maybe they feel guilt. Maybe they understand there's a terrible price for war and its damage to participants on all sides. Maybe they hope to separate the warrior from the war. They offer "Thank you for your service." Maybe they're lock-step patriots. 

I  don't presume to know the burdens of combat vets any more than the average person who says "Thank you for your service." But by surviving they may have gained enviable fraternity with their brothers. They deserve a special chance to share in all the fruits of life available to their fellow citizens.

With Veterans for Peace protesting the troop surge in Afghanistan
at The White House, December 2010

* Five Simple Words can be found online at Marc Levy's website Medic in the Green Time.