Veterans Day, 2003
I’m of an age that when I came out of high school I could have been called to military service in Vietnam. But I wasn’t called and didn’t offer to go.
The Vietnam War ended while I was in college. Like some of you, I remember the film of those last Americans being lifted by helicopter off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon while hundreds of Vietnamese stayed below, hoping that other copters might come and rescue them. No more copters came and those people suffered terribly for their support of the United States.
But as we also know, they weren’t the only ones who suffered. By 1973, U.S. military personnel—most of them Navy aviators—began to be released from North Vietnamese prisons. The wife of one such young officer lived a couple of doors away from me at the time. We’d all kept our fingers crossed that her husband would return unharmed.
He did return, and was one of the lucky ones so far as physical problems go. But it’s probably safe to say that no one returned from the “Hanoi Hilton” unscarred.
I’ve since gotten to know several former POWs of that era. Even those who came home with few physical manifestations carry deep emotional and psychological injuries.
A few years ago I started noticing an elderly man driving a van in our neighborhood. He’s a survivor of a North Vietnamese POW prison. I know this because his license plate says so. I used to find his license plate to be a little uncomfortable. Of course, I respect what he went through. But I’m no sure how he expected people to react to his license plate.
The Vietnam-era POWs I’ve known tend to be smart and strong-willed, but also somewhat reserved. They’re uncomfortable being treated as heroes and when they came home they just wanted to get on with lives that look ahead rather than behind.
This past Saturday morning while I was out for a walk in the neighborhood the former POW with the van stopped at a corner to let me cross. We nodded at each other in acknowledgement. A few minutes later he pulled into a driveway just ahead of me. Seeing me again as he stepped out of the van, he made a comment about the beautiful morning. I stopped to acknowledge the comment and, thinking that this was as good a moment as any, decided to see what I could learn about this man that I’d thought might be something of a showboat.
I told the man I’d noticed his license plate and thanked him for his service to the country. I asked if he knew my former neighbor from Richmond. He said that they had served together and were in the same North Vietnamese prison camp.
Keep in mind, this conversation was taking place at 6:30 a.m. I asked why he was up so early. He explained that he checks on several of his war buddies each morning. “Some I can call. But some of the guys don’t hear so good any more. So I go by and check on them in person.”
Boy, did I feel like a jerk for having thought him pretentious to have the POW license plate.
When I got home I happened to see a picture of some Tea Party tax protesters who’d held a rally the day before at a local office complex. They’d waved flags and banners that proclaimed, “God Bless America,” and “Don’t Tread on Me.”
I couldn’t help but believe that these people who wrap themselves in the folds of the American flag and the pages of the Bible while advocating the withdrawal of support for the poor and the sick are no more Christian than my dog. And I knew for sure that when I’d been chatting with the former POW who gets up each morning before sunrise to check on his buddies that I was closer to the true spirit of American decency and patriotism than I was when I saw the picture of those self-styled “real Americans” standing on a curb yelling about “fair taxes.”