When I was at lunch today, I had the honor of speaking with 2 Vietnam veterans who were sitting at the counter. I thanked them for their service and one of them – George C – told me that he was in the 1st batch of military members who were hit by Agent Orange. He has lived through 6 heart attacks and a recent surgery on his jugular vein. An amazing man who seemed more amazed that I didn’t recoil at the sight of his scars. His friend, George C II, was also struck with Agent Orange and has health issues as a result. He said he felt that his biggest scars are the ones no one sees. The mental scars of PTSD and being a prisoner of his own mind at times and having flashbacks while he was driving that the cars were not vehicles, but rather trees in the jungle of Vietnam. He has given up driving.
When we parted, they asked me what I do for work. I told them and then George C asked me what I do for life (for joy). I told him that I am a writer and photographer and said that if I’d had my camera with me, I would have asked to take their photos. I paid for their meals, thanked them again for their service and the conversation and they invited me for coffee next Friday afternoon and told me to bring the camera. They would like their stories told through photos and essays. How amazing is that? Simply because I took an interest. I am so amazed at where these encounters are leading me these days and the way my art helps me to interact with the world around me.
I wrote the following piece as part of my eulogy for a friend, a Vietnam veteran I’d known for 35 of my 45 years who committed suicide to escape his demons.
A soldier died today. Not in combat on some foreign soil but in combat on the battlefield of the mind. A soldier died today. He took his own life. Some will call him a coward.
Whether we agree with the reasons our country is at war or not, the fact still remains that we have people fighting for our right to play Monday morning quarterback over it all. Those who would say that our soldiers are stupid and that’s why they’re in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else in the world they’re needed are naive.
The soldier who serves our country is not evil, self-serving, or looking for glory. Some were given a choice: the military or jail. Others were drafted, still others joined voluntarily after some heinous act jeopardized the safety of our country and its citizens.
These men and women have seen things in the performance of their duties that most of us haven’t even dreamed of in our worst nightmares. Decades after their service, what they did because their country asked them to or because their own life was threatened during combat, still haunts their minds and hearts. Many have never forgiven themselves and believe they can never atone enough for the lives taken, damage caused, and peace of mind taken, even though those lives were of the “enemy”. They weep for the loss of humanity.
Even those who did not die, lose limbs, or see comrades die lost something. The years and months away from family, freedoms, and easy going spirits were lost. Innocence was lost. Simply because the pain cannot be readily observed does not negate its existence. José Narosky has said “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”
It takes people with courage to stand up for the weak, less fortunate, and humanity to allow us our freedoms. The right to raise our families and sleep safely in our beds each night rests on their weary shoulders. Hold them up, thank them, and most of all, honor them.
Paulissa Kipp 2011