COLUMNISTS: Emotions bubble up in Traveling Wall speech
I spoke last Sunday morning to the crowd gathered at the New York Mills VFW. They were gathered there to view the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall. I was there for reasons that weren't quite clear to me then. In fact, they're not at all clear to me now.
The Vietnam Memorial Wall stretches out a lot longer than one would ever have thought. So does the traveling Wall. In that way, it accurately represents a war that also stretched out much longer than anyone would have thought. The effects of that war will stretch out for several lifetimes.
I have never been to Washington, DC to view the actual wall. There are no words potent or powerful enough to accurately describe to you how potent and powerful are the emotions that I--and all Vietnam veterans--and in fact all veterans--carry just below the surface. No one for the most part sees them. I've been through counseling. It occurs to me that, since I have put in some hellish years dealing with those emotions when they bubbled up to the surface, it would be best if I leave them where they are, and disrupt them as little as possible. Therefore, I choose not to go to DC.
Most mental health experts would not describe that as a particularly healthy outlook. Most of them might agree though that if it works, maybe it's healthier than the textbooks think it is. That's the way that is for me. That's the way I'd like to keep it. I've wrestled those demons to a draw; let's not volunteer for a rematch.
And yet, when asked to speak at the VFW's memorial, I agreed. Mostly that goes to show that being human isn't a consistent process, isn't always personally conducive to the avoidance of stress and strain, and isn't always rational.
That describes the Vietnam war, I guess.
I showed up at the memorial service with the best intentions of keeping those subsurface emotions in check, thinking that I could. That lasted about two minutes. The Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall, as soon as I saw it, and found the year I spent over there, boiled them up in balloon-sized bubbles. They pushed against my throat; they coated my tongue; they lay in wait for the words that I thought I might speak. At that point, both they and I knew this was going to be far, far more difficult to do that I had even thought.
Why is it? Why do emotions come out stronger with words? Why does remaining silent keep the balance better.
I don't think I got out five words before the fight to control those emotions became one of just plain nip and tuck. Nevertheless, here is mostly what I said. I will put in a bit more of what I wanted to say, but that I was unable to. It was just too overwhelming.
"I stand before you here today at the Traveling Wall with a great sense of honor and integrity. It was with that same sense of honor and integrity that I opened my draft notice, a long time ago. It was with that same sense of honor and integrity that I served my country the best that I could. It was with that sense of honor and integrity that all Vietnam veterans served their country the very best that they could, despite the knowledge that we were often treated with less than honor and integrity.
I first learned about honor and integrity when dad told us how grandpa--his dad--would sit would-be suitors of his daughters--my dad's sisters--down at the kitchen table and lecture them about honor and integrity, as it pertained to their conduct of themselves around his daughters.
I guess that sense of honor and integrity passed down through my aunts to my cousins, because one of them has two purple hearts from Vietnam. It passed down through my dad to my brother too, who is partially disabled because of his service in Vietnam.
It is that sense of honor and integrity that brings us all here today, that brings me here today.
And it is that same sense of honor and integrity that I will leave here today with."
That was pretty much it. I wanted to give some illustrations of how we were treated by the army with less than honor and integrity, but as those stories would have seen the light of day, and despite some of the horror of the worse ones, they are best left unsaid. It is this country's honor and integrity that continues to give us all a sense of pride.
The Vietnam Memorial Wall reminds us of how much that sense of honor and integrity costs; of how much has been paid; and of how grateful we are to be standing there free people, enjoying the sunny day.
It doesn't have to be like that, you know.