A column revisited, an era remembered

Note: It has been 10 years since the Vietnam Traveling Tribute was last in Union Township – in 2003. At that time, I was a reporter for the Community Press and was asked by my editor to write a column from a “historical” point of view. While jokingly offended, I set to work to write the column that I recreate here, with the permission of the Community Press.

Last weekend, we finally brought our boys home.

That's what I felt as I watched streams of people search the names on the Vietnam Memorial Traveling Wall that was on display in Veterans' Memorial Park in Union Township.

I think it's difficult to reflect on the Vietnam War and its relevance without considering the cultural revolution that exploded at the same time.

I came of age during the height of the war and I was an ardent conservative.

My belief that we should be there was unwavering. By virtue of that fact, the revolution that was taking place on college campuses alarmed me: The sit-ins, the marches, the vociferous opposition to the war. It was so prevalent, so in-your-face. Just as I surrounded myself with friends of similar philosophies, the “other side” had done the same, and I silently condemned them for their sheep-like tendencies and undisciplined ways.

Where was the patriotism? It seemed the whole country had run amok.

And our boys, tens of thousands of them, were coming home in physical and mental pieces at best, and body bags at worst. Or, some of them didn't come home at all.

The blind patriotism I had was not an option for them. They were given numbers, and the balance of their lives hung on those numbers.

I think of the families who gave up these boys. I cannot imagine the heartache that clouded their good-byes as they sent their kids off to war, even as their smiles tried to show hope and support. From that moment on, I think, their lives must have moved in slow motion, each moment a Herculean effort to prepare for the news.

And what awaited our soldiers upon their return home? A country torn apart by opposing theories. To me, the veterans had every right to feel anything they felt – from defiant pride to boiling anger. In their losses, they had earned that right. They had fought their fight on real ground, while those of us here were in a safe house those guys helped build.

I've had some years to contemplate the devastation that war wrought. I've spoken to veterans of that war, and I am humbled in their presence. They have met with profound experiences I can only glimpse in word and still pictures.

In a way, the protesters displayed a sort of patriotism that I would not fully understand for many years. They fought to participate in their country's decisions and even in their own, and in the end, their voices were heard.

Even so, I cannot help feel we all sent others to do the dirty work.

Two doors down from me, the American flag is flown from a tall pole right smack dab in the middle of the front yard. Flanking its foot is a small plaque, dedicated to the son of the family who lives there. That soldier was cut down at age 20, shortly after he arrived in Vietnam.

The family is no doubt proud of the ultimate sacrifice their son made, of the powerful courage he must have had to face the possibility of his impending death while still a boy.

Yet, almost always, when I drive by and look at that flag, I think to myself – surely they still grieve.

We all do.

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