Ann McFeatters: How you can honor our Vietnam vets
Guest Post from the Dallas Morning News:
By ANN MCFEATTERS email@example.com.
Published: 05 March 2015 07:27 PM
The man who said his name was Danny arrived at my door with a huge floral box. Inside was one of the most beautiful bouquets I’d ever seen.
Danny was with the Maryland highway department, supervising a crew installing new curbs on my street. He was also a Vietnam veteran who had seen the small blue star in my window, indicating two family members were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Danny came from a generation that provided 9.2 million people who served in the military during the Vietnam era, many of whom came home from war reviled, not thanked for what they gave their country. Like most of his fellow veterans, Danny vowed to show only gratitude to those in military service, no matter what the politics of any current war that service members are called on to fight. Flowers to a stranger were to thank my family.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival of 3,500 Marines in Da Nang, South Vietnam, beginning 10 years of a terrible conflict that would sear and scar this nation.
In the “lessons learned” department, perhaps the most important is to separate the warrior from the war. Today Americans of all political stripes express sincere appreciation for what the men and women of the armed forces are called on to do for their country, whether the mission is popular or not.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the mall in the nation’s capital, with its awesome wall designed by Maya Lin, engraved with the names of 58,300 people who gave their lives in the jungles of Southeast Asia, was meant as one way toward healing a divided, bitter country.
It has worked. The three-acre memorial with its gardens, wall, Vietnam Women’s Memorial and The Three Servicemen statue, is visited by 4.5 million people a year. Its website, with photos and information on veterans and messages from their friends and families, draws 4 million virtual visitors annually.
The veteran behind the memorial, Jan Scruggs, a man of enormous personality and drive who raised the $8 million needed to begin implementation of it, is retiring this year.
One way the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund plans to honor him and all the war’s veterans is to raise money for a $116 million underground education center to display some of the 400,000 personal items left at the wall by visitors, a unique occurrence which stunned the memorial’s founders.
From teddy bears to tear-stained letters, the items, stored in boxes maintained by the National Park Service, which owns the memorial, tell powerful stories.
Approved by Congress with no funding, the education center needs donations from the public if it is to be ready for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2020. Most of all, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund wants future generations to learn about the Vietnam era, how decisions were made and what they meant to the nation.
Tomorrow’s fifth-graders must learn they owe a debt to those who came before them and that they, too, must leave a legacy of service, the best way they are able. Technology will give them access to such things as digital oral histories from veterans and TV footage of the first war played out in the nation’s living rooms.
There are 7 million living Vietnam War veterans. Beyond those who died or went missing there, Vietnam veterans are still dying of injuries sustained in the war, such as exposure to Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress disorder. The fund’s CEO, Jim Knotts, a Desert Storm veteran, stresses that these veterans must be honored, and that good health care for all veterans must be a national priority.
Because of space restrictions, the education center will be the last major memorial built on the National Mall. Fifty years after the start of the Vietnam War, it is time to take the next step in honoring those who fought it, whether they wanted to or not.
Here’s to you, Danny, and all those like you.
SundayReview | Opinion
How We Learned to Kill
By TIMOTHY KUDO FEB. 27, 2015
THE voice on the other end of the radio said: “There are two people digging by the side of the road. Can we shoot them?”
It was the middle of the night during my first week in Afghanistan in 2010, on the northern edge of American operations in Helmand Province, and they were directing the question to me. Were the men in their sights irrigating their farmland or planting a roadside bomb? The Marines reported seeing them digging and what appeared to be packages in their possession. Farmers in the valley work from sunrise to sundown, and seeing anyone out after dark was largely unheard-of.
My initial reaction was to ask the question to someone higher up the chain of command. I looked around our combat operations center for someone more senior and all I saw were young Marines looking back at me to see what I would do.
I wanted confirmation from a higher authority to do the abhorrent, something I’d spent my entire life believing was evil. With no higher power around, I realized it was my role as an officer to provide that validation to the Marine on the other end who would pull the trigger.
“Take the shot,” I responded. It was dialogue from the movies that I’d grown up with, but I spoke the words without irony. I summarily ordered the killing of two men. I wanted the Marine on the other end to give me a reason to change my decision, but the only sound I heard was the radio affirmative for an understood order: “Roger, out.” Shots rang out across the narrow river. A part of me wanted the rounds to miss their target, but they struck flesh and the men fell dead.
When I originally became an infantry officer, increasing my Marines’ ability to kill was my mission, and it was my primary focus as I led them to Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, as a young lieutenant, I had faith in my Marines; I trusted them and looked up to them. But in the back of my mind, I always wondered whether they would follow my orders in the moment of truth. As the echoes of gunfire reverberated and faded, I received my answer. Yes, they would follow me. I also received affirmation to a more sinister question: Yes, I could kill.
The primary factors that affect an individual’s ability to kill are the demands of authority, group absolution, the predisposition of the killer, the distance from the victim and the target attractiveness of the victim.
So began the essay I wrote during my Marine Corps infantry officer training in 2008. The assignment said, “Discuss the factors that affect an individual’s ability to kill.” I focused on lessons I had learned reading Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book “On Killing,” which deconstructs the psychology of taking human life. It explains how, throughout the past century, military social systems and training evolved to make humans less reluctant to take a life. But while Mr. Grossman’s work was descriptive, my training was prescriptive.
Before I was given the authority to order a kill, I trained to do it by hand. I practiced the techniques of killing for more than a year before taking command of a platoon. I became the master of my rifle, thrust my bayonet through human-shaped dummies, and only then learned the more advanced methods of modern warfare: how to maneuver a platoon of 40 Marines and call for artillery barrages and aerial bombardments. But mastering the tactics of killing would have been useless if I wasn’t willing to kill.
In war, of course, there are many ways to kill. I did so by giving orders. I never fired my weapon in combat, but I ordered countless others to fire theirs. It was a disorienting sort of power to have: I would speak a few words, and a few seconds, minutes or hours later people would die. Of course, our snipers became the celebrities of our deployment because they were the best killers. They would perch in their hide, watching the villagers through high-powered optics that allowed them to see faces from hundreds of yards away. They would watch and wait until the moment when they could identify an enemy among the civilians. The fighters would fall before the echo of the shot reached their dead bodies. They would truly never know what hit them.
Before killing the first time there’s a reluctance that tempers the desire to know whether you are capable of doing it. It is not unlike teenagers longing to lose their virginity but also wanting to wait for the right time to do it. But once killing loses its mystique, it no longer becomes a tool of last resort.
In Marine officer training we were taught to be decisive. Even a bad decision, I was told, is better than no decision at all. But the combination of imperfect judgment, the confidence of authority and absolute decisiveness does not produce measured outcomes.
For a while after I ordered the Marine to take that first shot, everything we did seemed acceptable. It revealed that killing could be banal. Each day would bring a new threat that needed to be eliminated. Bombs would drop, Marines would fire and artillery would blanket hills with explosions. I had a rough estimate of how many people we killed, but I stopped counting after a while.
I spent every day of my seven-month deployment in Afghanistan trying to figure out how to kill the Taliban commander in my area. He lived and operated to our north and every day would send his soldiers down to plant bombs, terrorize the villages and wrestle with us for control of the area. Our mission was to secure the villages and provide economic and political development, but that was slow work with intangible results. Killing the Taliban commander would be an objective measure of success.
I never killed him. Instead, each day we would kill his soldiers or his soldiers would kill our Marines. The longer I lived among the Afghans, the more I realized that neither the Taliban nor we were fighting for the reasons I expected. Despite the rhetoric I internalized from the newspapers back home about why we were in Afghanistan, I ended up fighting for different reasons once I got on the ground — a mix of loyalty to my Marines, habit and the urge to survive.
The enemy fighters were often young men raised alongside poppy fields in small farms set up like latticework along the river. They must have been too young and too isolated to understand anything outside of their section of the valley, never mind something global like the 9/11 attacks. These villagers fought us because that’s what they always did when foreigners came to their village. Perhaps they just wanted to be left alone.
The more I thought about the enemy, the harder it was to view them as evil or subhuman. But killing requires a motivation, so the concept of self-defense becomes the defining principle of target attractiveness. If someone is shooting at me, I have a right to fire back. But this is a legal justification, not a moral one. The comic Louis C.K. brilliantly pointed out this absurdity: “Maybe if you pick up a gun and go to another country and you get shot, it’s not that weird. Maybe if you get shot by the dude you were just shooting at, it’s a tiny bit your fault.”
My worst fear before deploying was what, in training, we called “good shoot, bad result.” But there is no way in the chaos and uncertainty of war to make the right decision all the time. On one occasion, the Taliban had been shooting at us and we thought two men approaching in the distance were armed and intended to kill us. We warned them off, but it did no good. They continued to approach, and so my Marines fired. What possible reason could two men have to approach a squad of armed Marines in a firefight? When it was over and the two men lay dead we saw that they were unarmed, just two men trying to go home, who never made it.
On most occasions, when ordnance would destroy the enemy or a sniper would kill a Taliban fighter, we would engage in the professional congratulations of a job well done like businessmen after a successful client meeting. Nothing of the sort happened after killing a civilian. And in this absence of group absolution, I saw for the first time how critical it actually was for my soul and my sanity..
Nobody ever talked about the accidental killing. There was paperwork, a brief investigation and silence. You can’t tell someone who has killed an innocent person that he did the right thing even if he followed all the proper procedures before shooting.
When I returned home this group absolution was supposed to take the form of a welcoming society, unlike the one Vietnam veterans returned to. But the only affirmation of my actions came through the ubiquitous “Thank you for your service.” Beyond that, nobody wanted to, or wants to, talk about what occurred overseas.
The first Marine to be grievously injured on our deployment was shot in the neck during a firefight exactly nine years and nine days after the Sept. 11 attacks. He was a 19-year-old from Mississippi on his first tour after enlisting straight out of high school. Under enemy fire, the Navy corpsman and Marines in his squad gave him medical care as the evacuation helicopter raced to get him to the field hospital in the critical “golden hour.”
When he was transported onto the helicopter 40 minutes later, the squad reported that he seemed in good spirits. He would make it to the hospital, receive emergency surgery and then be transported through Germany back to America for a long recovery at Bethesda. Except that didn’t happen. Ten minutes later the call came through the radio that he had died.
Until that moment, our deployment in Afghanistan had been exhilarating because we felt invulnerable. This invulnerability in an environment of death was the most powerful sensation I’d ever experienced. I felt favored and possessed with the power to do anything. Instantly, those feelings were replaced by uncertainty and impotency. The initial report that we lost our first Marine stunned everyone who heard it, but soon after came another call about men planting a bomb on a nearby road.
Seeing the enemy so quickly after our Marine was killed was the perfect opportunity for revenge. I watched the missile strike the men’s car on the gritty gray-and-white footage of a surveillance drone’s camera and then watched one of them run away on fire and collapse. This was accompanied by the exultation of everyone around me. High-fives. Cheers. Fist pumps. If we couldn’t bring our Marine back to life, at least we could take a life. The power returned to us a little bit. It was an illogical equation but in the moment it rang true.
I could look you in the eye and tell you I’m sure that the two men we killed right after our Marine died were planting a bomb. I remember watching the drone surveillance video as they dug and appeared to drop an explosive device by the side of the road. At the same time, doubt creeps in. The emotions surrounding loss and revenge can distort reality. Maybe it’s too convenient to believe that after losing our first Marine we just happened to find a couple of members of the Taliban planting a bomb. The fog of war doesn’t just limit what you can know; it creates doubt about everything you’re certain that you know.
The madness of war is that while this system is in place to kill people, it may actually be necessary for the greater good. We live in a dangerous world where killing and torture exist and where the persecution of the weak by the powerful is closer to the norm than the civil society where we get our Starbucks. Ensuring our own safety and the defense of a peaceful world may require training boys and girls to kill, creating technology that allows us to destroy anyone on the planet instantly, dehumanizing large segments of the global population and then claiming there is a moral sanctity in killing. To fathom this system and accept its use for the greater good is to understand that we still live in a state of nature.
If this era of war ever ends, and we emerge from the slumber of automated killing to the daylight of moral questioning, we will face a reckoning. If we are honest with ourselves, the answers won’t be simple. I don’t blame Presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama for these wars. Our elected leaders, after all, are just following orders, no different from the Marine who asks if he can kill a man digging by the side of the road.
Timothy Kudo is a Marine captain and graduate student at New York University who was deployed to Iraq in 2009 and to Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011.
by Janet J. Seahorn, Ph.D
What is it that keeps someone going when everyone else seems to be giving up? We hear about such individuals on television, read about them in magazines, and if we are really lucky, we even know a few personally. When trying to put together some common traits of these resolute beings, it is interesting to see what it is that keeps them going.
For some it is religion; a deep faith in a higher source that is walking the journey of a demanding life with them. For others it is more about spirit than religion – spirit being defined as the vital force that characterizes a human being as being alive or a sense of self and energy. Yet, for many it is as simple as living for a cause that is greater than the personal comfort of the self. The vast amount of veterans we have been around have a profound abundance of this trait. Perhaps living beyond oneself came as a result of serving their country even when it meant the possibility of death, bodily injuries, and emotional distress.
In combat, soldiers woke up every morning to face a foe that was ever present. Seeing the price of war and dealing daily with personal losses was a constant of their battle experience. There was no such thing as giving-up or giving-in because it meant that it would let their fellow troops down.
Perhaps the greatest battle for many is when they return home. The challenge of trying to reintegrate into a community which has essentially been isolated from war. Families, spouses, children, friends, coworker – most are truly grateful for the warrior’s sacrifice. We try to understand, to be patient and encouraging, yet, there is absolutely no way any of us who have not been in a combat situation can fully comprehend such devastating experiences.
Therefore, choosing persistence is an option that allows the person to move forward. It is a choice that the vet must make every day. It is a choice that spouses, children, families, and friends must make every day. And it is a choice that Winston Churchill proposed in his statement… “Never give in, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small —- never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
And this is the true essence of persistence. And last, a very special quote from Winnie the Pooh,
Promise me you’ll always remember: You are braver than you believe,
And Stronger than you seem,
And smarter than you think.
by Janet J. Seahorn, Ph.D
Recently, Tony and I visited with a group of veterans from the Military Order of Purple Heart. Attending were vets from WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the current conflicts. While discussing our book, Tears of a Warrior and the issues of PTSD, we got on the topic of how challenging it is for veterans returning from war to find a job. Only in recent times has the issue of work for veterans become clearer.
Many of us thought veterans who came home from serving in WWII were greeted with big parades and wonderful new career opportunities. For years I was under such an assumption. Then I talked with several WWII veterans and what they described was something much simpler. For most, once they returned home they did what historically other veterans had done before them… they went home, tried to find a suitable job and raise a family. Little was written or said about the struggle in finding employment or integrating back into civilian life. For many, there were no parades, no bands welcoming them home, only the test of getting on with life.
Eric Jensen explains in his book about his father, Forever and a Day: The World War II Odyssey of an American Family, how hard it was to find work after the war. As he wrote, many of the jobs were already filled by civilians who had those positions during the war. When the veterans returned there were not as many opportunities for employment as we first believed. Jensen wrote how frustrating it was for his father to have spent so many years away from his family only to return to another struggle – finding a job that would pay enough to support his young family.
Today, too many employers believe erroneously that vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan may be suffering from PTSD or TBI and are reluctant to hire someone who may be emotionally compromised. We have written on several occasions how this is simply not the case for the majority of combat personnel. Military personnel have proven over and over again that they are bright, committed and competent employees. Given a task, they will make sure it gets completed in a satisfactory manner. They will show up daily, even when they are tired or under the weather. Veterans are some of the most proficient and capable members of an organization.
Part of the healing process of our soldiers, both young and old is to value their sacrifice for our country by honoring them with suitable jobs. One struggle we can help them avoid is a struggle to find work. As a country and as a community perhaps offering employment can be a step of vast significance.
In addition to mending them, “If we send them, let’s then employ them” when they return.
by Deborah A Maffucci
This blog was sent via an e-mail letter last week. Deborah has kindly allowed us to share her comments with our readers.
Growing up, my knowledge of my dad’s war experience went no further than, “My dad was in WW II and I think he was stationed in England.”
On advice from my therapist, I decided to go to the attic and find my dad’s discharge papers. Oh my!!! After hours of online research (which is amazingly complete) for the first time I realized that my dad was right in the “thick of WWII”
He was 22 years old in 1942 when he joined the USAAF to fight in the European Theatre in WW II. He received four medals and a Presidential Unit Citation. He was at Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and Rhineland. He was a Technical Sgt. in the 8th Air Force Fighter Command, 66th Fighter Wing, 339th Fighter Group, 504th Fighting Squadron. Oh my stars !!! He was a soldier.
I needed to read about what it is really like to be a soldier. I found your book, “Tears of a Warrior” at my local library and read it almost in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down. A whole world of understanding and compassion for my dad has been felt in my heart. A sense of awakening and belief that I will feel much more true joy and happiness and conquer my life long feelings of anxiety, fear and depression.
I realize now that I am trying to heal from the secondary PTSD that comes from living with a combat warrior and not knowing it. There was no time for my dad to heal because he died in 1969 from cancer. I realize my dad’s war experiences must have been the true source of our family struggle. It wasn’t because my dad didn’t love us, or because he would rather spend all his time at the firehouse, the VFW or the Elks Club, he was a warrior. I understand why he loved being a fireman, he was draw to the danger, why he abused alcohol, to block out his war memories, why he yelled so much, he was a sergeant. All my childhood memories make sense now. Your book has put my life story in prospective. Thank you for that long awaited insight. !!!
My dad was a combat warrior and I never knew it. I just want to give him the biggest hug right now and tell him how proud I am of him. From 1945 until Dec 7th 1969 when he died, he was fighting WWII in his mind and body.
You have truly helped me to understand what happened to my dad in the war and what he must have struggled with after the war. I hold him in a new and special place in my heart.
God bless you,
P.S. I borrowed your book from the Jesup Library in Bar Harbor, Maine. I believe it was only hours after you so graciously donated a copy to our town. I have recommended it to my counselor to use in her therapy work.
by Janet J. Seahorn, Ph.D
It’s been on the news and in the papers – the latest studies about our military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The studies done by the Pew Research Center were based on two surveys between July and September (Denver Post, Oct. 6, 2011). One survey focused on military individuals who are currently on active duty along with those who have served but are no longer active. The second survey polled over 2000 adults who had never been in the military.
What disturbed me most however was not the report that many of our troops are either “ambivalent” or do not feel the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were “worth the sacrifices”. Nope, what was most unsettling for me was that adults polled who had never served in the military did not give much thought to those serving in combat. Many felt that those who volunteered to serve their country knew what they were getting into.
- 84 percent of these modern-era warriors say the general American public has little or no understanding of the problems they face, with 71 percent of the public agreeing.
- Many Americans agree that since the terror attacks in the U.S., the military and their families have made more sacrifices than the general public. But even among this group, only 26 percent say this gap is “unfair,” while 70 percent say that it’s “just part of being in the military”. (msnbc.com staff and news service reports updated 10/5/2011 5:50:40 AM ET 2011-10-05T09:50:40)
I guess this last research bullet just didn’t sit well with me. Probably because as a family we have lived the aftermath of combat, lived with the ghosts of the dead and dying, and had to cope with the nightmares, anxiety attacks, and flashback memories. It isn’t that any vet or his/her family wants empathy for his/her service, but to read that 70% believe that “it’s just part of being in the military” seems like a really insensitive statement.
I am not sure that any person, young or old, has a true idea of what war and combat is about. I am pretty sure, on the other hand, that none of them had any clue that what they do, see, and experience in hell will stay with them for a lifetime. That the war they fought on foreign soils will follow them home and into their living rooms, relationships, and careers. Few of them had any clue that these things were “just part of being in the military”.
Perhaps, since Vietnam, too many Americans have been too far removed from the sacrifices of war. During WWII everyone on the home front had to give up something for the war. Now, most give up nothing, while those few who serve give up far too much. The very least we at home can do is give two or three minutes each day to say a short prayer for those and their families who serve. Just remembering our military will certainly make us, not merely better people, but a more thoughtful, compassionate nation.