It was the 70’s. This was long before we met. Nixon was president and international foreign policy was a mess. Americans hated the war and could see no possibility of winning. We fought fair. They did not. The national attitude was that we were wasting the lives of the young men we were sending over there. The people we were fighting for were not particularly interested in capitalism and did not seem to be equipped to handle the concept of freedom. The international turmoil left a bad taste in Americans’ mouths for the U.S. military. You were a proud Army veteran, and this annoyed you. Well, it more than annoyed you. It made you furious.
You told me about the day when you returned from Vietnam. Your first experience was landing in Anchorage, Alaska. All you had on were fatigues with no jacket. For a Southern boy, this was far too little clothing and you were freezing. You told me about thanking God for allowing you to come back to America and that you were blessed to live through the war experience. In spite of your exposure to danger as an Infantry Officer, you were never wounded. You were expressing gratitude of your safe journey as you departed the plane and put your feet on American soil for the first time in a very long time. You were peaceful.
This was prior to the days of tight airport security and far before the terror of 9/11. The passenger concourses were open to all with no screening for weapons or hand lotion. As you left your gate, you could see crowds of people lining the concourse waiting for the soldiers to disembark. You were proud to have served and these citizens lined up to welcome you and your fellow soldiers home. Or so you thought.
You gathered your duffle bag in preparation of walking to your connecting flight and to be on your way home. You were no longer in danger. No longer had to watch for bullets or bombs or small children boobytrapped to kill. You were safe. You walked on to the concourse and to the awaiting citizens with a proud smile on your face and your back just a little bit straighter. They were there safely because of the sacrifices made by you and your fellow soldiers.
And then it began. “Baby killers”, “Monsters”, “Killer, killer, killer” and then they began to spit. They spit on you and threw things toward you and your fellow returning soldiers. You were humiliated and angry. It was not your war and you did not ask for it, but it was your duty and you served. How could it be that these people did not get it? Blame the politicians, not the soldiers! The soldiers were the heroes. They kept American safe. The politicians created this mess, and no one was spitting on them!
After we got married, when you spoke of your military experience, you focused on the lifelong friends you made and the places you visited. You never addressed the political side of this very unpopular war. You, and all of your soldier buddies, were well aware that this war was not a place where most Americans wanted us to be. We did not win, and 58,000 young Americans lost their lives there. For what? Although you were proud of your service and considered it the best work you had done to that point in your life, the reaction from Americans to the entire subject of Vietnam infuriated you.
I saw you pack that little black bag and take it out to the trunk of your car. “Let’s take a ride,” you said. I did not ask. You had a look on your face that I had never seen before and I knew there was something on your mind of deep concern. Riding is good. We will talk. You will tell me. We will talk it through and at least you will get to voice your concern. This is how we did it and it worked for us.
We rode. You were silent and I my heart was breaking for the pain that I saw on your face. You told me everything. We shared everything. Not now, though. Baby, what is it? Tell me so I can hold you through this. Allow me this one time to be the strong one. Let me do this for you.
Then you stopped. I have no idea where we were, but you found a field with a very high fence. You got out of the car and opened the truck. You pulled out that little bag and opened it up and I got a glimpse of what you had packed. In the bag were all of your Army medals, ribbons and insignia. You reached into the bag and without a word, one by one, hurled them over the fence. You were angry and ready to be done with this chapter. I remember begging you not to do this and realizing that I was wasting my breathe. This was your purging and you had to do it. I stood next to you with tears of empathy rolling down my cheeks both proud and ashamed at the same time. Proud of you! Ashamed of those who did not understand and how they treated our heroes.
You threw them all one by one over the fence then you dropped the bag, leaned back onto the car and looked over at me. “I had to, Baby”. You wiped the tears from my face and embraced me. We stood together like this on the side of the road and I felt the tension and anger leave your body. You had purged the demons you intended to purge, and you were done.
As the years went on, the pride and honor of our military was properly restored. Americans now said, “Thank you for your service, sir” and “Airborne!”. I would see small packages arrive on your desk as you assembled a new shadow box with your military insignia, medals and honors. Pictures of you parachuting appeared on your wall. Your plaques and honors were displayed with honor in your office. Every day you wore a shirt with the logo of the 509th or Airborne insignia. Once again, you were a proud soldier.
When you got sick, the theory was that you were suffering from Agent Orange exposure. You had been exposed on may occasions and had told me stories of being blanketed with it while on missions. In the end when you died, in part for your country, the VA sent me a check for $300.00 to transport you from Houston to come home for your funeral. After all the fighting you did, they denied all of your claims of Agent Orange exposure and closed your case.
Now I am the angry one.