Memorial Day is coming up in two days and I decided, I guess in memory of the many lives lost in the Vietnam War and because it was the war that impacted me the most, that I would settle in for a movie I’d dodged for some time. It somehow seemed apropos.
The movie was “Born on the Fourth of July”. It wasn’t long before I realized why I had avoided it all these years. A third of the way through, it was all I could take. As a screenwriter, I felt it was important to get through this highly acclaimed film that won so many awards when it came out. I failed miserably. I could only bear the first hour and a few minutes before I started to experience hot flashes and an eminent panic attack. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t watch.
Seeing what some of these guys went through after they returned was as daunting as imagining what they endured while in Vietnam; what they went through and how some must have felt getting that dreaded draft letter in the mail saying, “Uncle Sam Needs You!”. It was a bad time.
I know there were countless young men that either got married, stayed in school, fled the country (including a past president), claimed a religious exemption or spent time in jail rather than fight a war they didn’t agree with, and who somehow managed to dodge the bullet so to speak, but this isn’t about them.
This is also not about those who died. Instead it’s about the ones who came home, the ones who suffered upon their return, those who were spat on, cursed and dealt with poorly.
Growing up, I was pretty sheltered from the world and it’s politics because at the time, I belonged to a religion that abstained from politics. I was not a strong participant but it was the religion of my mother and I lived at home. Was it easy? No and Yes. Did I know there was a war? Of course, but only one person in our religion that I knew of went to Vietnam. He died.
Later, I would date a guy in college who hoped he wouldn’t get called up and another who eventually did. I would later lose classmates to the war, some would never taste battle because they were picked off one by one parachuting down, like sitting ducks. Another got hooked on drugs unable to cope with the horror of the war and the rejection at home. I never knew about what these crippled and maimed soldiers would experience in the facilities they were put in when they were recovering, nor that they were treated like so much trash. The depiction was overwhelming.
Did Hollywood embellish? Perhaps. They are famous for their “creative license” but in this case, I seriously don’t think so. Perhaps not all places were the same, but I do know that today they have suicide watches in some facilities for both soldiers and their families. That’s another story.
I first came face to face with the realities of the war while I worked as a flight attendant. One day, in about 1968, our captain told us that we would be picking up soldiers in San Francisco and bringing them home to L.A. I am grateful to say I never felt loathing for these young men nor was I a protester, ever. That perhaps, was the saving grace of my religion.
So when I saw our cargo, I felt only compassion for each and every one of them. Each one had been seriously injured and/or missing limbs. The more serious of the group was a personable, but very nervous young man missing opposite limbs. He was seated in the front row and he told me that he was afraid of how his mother would take it. He’d not told her how badly he’d been maimed and was wishing he’d prepared her. The others had. I thought, what was he thinking? He was young though and I think of my son the Marine and know he would have done the same thing. In any case, here he was. Afraid of how she would react, he asked to disembark last, which we honored.
I watched as his parents approached the plane and waited at the foot of the stairs as the agents carried him down to the chair waiting for him. Upon seeing him, I caught a brief start from his mother and the pain in hers and his fathers face. Amazingly they bravely kept it together and greeted him lovingly. At the top of the stairs tears were forcing their way through as we, the crew and I, stood watching solemnly, keeping it together until they were gone. And yes, we later cried or I should say I bawled but not until we’d said our good-bye’s.
At some point and before he had gotten too far, he turned and waved at us and his family thanked us for bringing him home. We waved back. I look back on that day realizing the honor and privilege it was to have been a part of their homecoming. I know my flight crew, having been veterans themselves, felt it as well.
I have often thought about that young man and about all those young men, wondering what ever happened to them? I guess that’s why this film touched me so deeply. Could that have been them? What was their experience? Every now and again, I see a vet on the street holding a sign, begging and I wonder.
A dear friend is always saying, “Why can’t we just get along?” I know he says it in sincerity and with passion. I agree. It’s an age old question. Why can’t we?
When I belonged to my other religion, we often quoted the scripture that states:
Luke 12:51 “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” Granted it had more to do with warning those who would take up the banner for Christ to expect to be ostracized, persecuted and suffer oppression. Yet…
That has become a global reality . There are many who say all wars are religious. In the early days they may have been territorial, but isn’t that what we see now in the Middle East, is it not in the name of religion, in the name of their god that there is so much killing?
“Why can’t we just get along?”
I realize that Monday we honor veterans on “Memorial Day, not just those who died in Vietnam, but those who’ve died in all wars and perhaps if nothing else, remember them and say a prayer for their families and for those who are still living to have peace and be peaceable.