When my husband returned to Vicenza, Italy after his first deployment to Iraq, back when the war was new, Vietnam veterans were there to greet him and his fellow 173rd Airborne paratroopers. They had taken off work to fly all the way from their homes in the United States to be there when our soldiers got off the plane — because they knew what it was like to return from a war without support from your fellow veterans.
When my husband’s best friend, SSG Michael W. Schafer, was killed in Afghanistan on the next deployment, Vietnam veterans on motorcycles rode in front of the funeral procession. At the cemetery, they helped the World War II vets who had come to stand at attention in the Florida sun as we said our final goodbyes to this man we loved so much. After the funeral, the Vietnam vets stayed with us all day, somehow managing to be everywhere we needed them at every moment. They talked with our partners, including mine, who would be returning to Afghanistan a few days later. Their sturdy presence and genuine, practical support at this time — when every moment seemed unbearable — meant everything to us.
After his fifth deployment to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division, when my husband returned to Fort Drum, New York, the Rotary Club of Webster, which includes many Vietnam veterans, brought his platoon through town in a parade the likes of which I thought only happened in movies. People lined the streets waving flags, and when we reached the Rotary Club building, a hearty chicken dinner and a huge cake decorated with the platoon’s symbols awaited us. They had sent letters and care packages to our soldiers throughout that deployment, and after the parade and dinner, they sent the platoon back to Fort Drum with more gifts — and two boxes of homemade chocolate chip cookies.
We knew that they had never gotten anything like this on their own return home from war.
As anyone who watched the recent Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary knows, veterans of the Vietnam War came home to little support, and sometimes active abuse from strangers. Their emotional wounds were not yet recognized as a normal response to extended trauma, and the movement against the war itself sometimes spilled over into vitriol against the servicemembers who fought it. The way they were treated upon their return was unforgivable. And it would have been so easy for them to become bitter and treat our generation of soldiers with disdain because, in so many ways, we have more support from the country and greater understanding from the medical community.
But they didn’t become bitter. Instead, the Vietnam Veterans of America lived their motto: “Never again.” The full motto is, “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.” In the fourteen years I have been married to an enlisted infantryman, I have seen so many Vietnam veterans — whether they were VVA members or not — live that motto for us. They have traveled to meet us at airports, come to our funerals, organized our celebrations, given us advice about navigating the Veterans Administration maze, told us jokes and stories, and have taken our calls in the middle of the night when we needed someone older and wiser to tell us that it gets better — or to tell us that finding help when you need it is not weakness. In short, they have given us everything they never had, and I don’t know how we can ever repay them.
My mother-in-law is the daughter of a World War II veteran, the wife of a Vietnam veteran, and the mother of a Global War on Terror veteran. She has lived through a lot of war and its aftermath. Like so many veteran spouses, she, too, has been there for us current military wives — especially me. The Vietnam spouses understand what it’s like to love someone through a long war and its scars.
They teach us by example to love ourselves and our veterans with grace and humor.
She has pictures of my husband as a child. He was constantly dressed up as Vietnam soldier. He patrolled around his family’s home in rural Oklahoma, training for the day he would be like his heroes. And he did grow up to fight a very long war, like they did. Now he is about to finish his time in the Army, and who is there to help us with the transition? Vietnam veterans, of course. As role models, as mentors, as everything they have been to us all along. Because they are there, we know we will be alright.
I hope this war ends soon, and I hope another doesn’t follow it. But if it does, I hope we can follow your example, Vietnam veterans, and be for the next generation what you have been for us. We could do this without you, like you did it without those who should have supported you…but we don’t have to. You make sure of that. And you do it without fanfare or attention, always so cool and casual. On this Veterans Day, I just want to say that we see and appreciate you more than we can possibly express.