The year I graduated from high school, President Lyndon Johnson began ratcheting up the Vietnam “conflict” in earnest. Since the draft was still in effect back then (1964), many of the 250+ boys (50% of 500+ seniors) I had graduated with were drafted and sent to Vietnam. And, the next year, there were even more, and the next, even more . . . until by the end of the decade the country had become a dichotomy of “pro” and “anti” -war protagonists with the “anti’s” gaining in number and volume with passing time. When these boys, my compatriots, came back after serving their country (whether they wanted to, or not), they were literally spit on, disdained, blamed for the war, marginalized and generally treated like shit – certainly, not like someone who had put his or her life on the line for this country.
It still makes me cry when I think about it – that we could be so horrible to our own young people, most of whom we demanded go to war on our behalf. They came home with all the detritus of war: missing limbs, missing organs, the effects of agent orange, mysterious tropical infections and some horrible scars that we couldn’t see (and didn’t have names for).
It makes me cry because when one of my own sons went to Iraq (albeit voluntarily) twice, and I could not greet him on his return, a woman who was friends with his commander’s wife was there, called his name, and gave him a hug “from his mom.” She was there every time a group returned to Fort Campbell, no matter what time of day or night. If you e-mailed her your child’s name, she hugged them on your behalf. If she didn’t have a soldier’s name, she hugged them on her own behalf. She worked for one of Kentucky’s congressmen, and I’m ashamed to say that I do not recall her name. But, when she sent me an e-mail telling me that she’d found Brady, and that he was safe and sound, I wanted to nominate her for a Congressional Medal of Honor.
It is this difference – in how we have treated our returning soldiers that now makes me want to throw myself on the mercy of my 1960s compatriots and beg their forgiveness. There were some – a lot of them in politics today – who got one deferment after another until they aged out of the draft, and some – too many – who came back in body bags. But, for those who went and made it back, we as a nation shamed ourselves in our treatment of them. To those not-so-young men today, I say, “I am so sorry that I did not do more on your behalf. You are a hero and deserve the best. I hope you can forgive me.”