Alternate Ending

Bringing It All Back Home, my book about Vietnam veterans, went through many editors and was revised numerous times on its way to publication.

I have pasted below a few concluding paragraphs that I personally found meaningful, but were cut in the editorial process.

I’m prompted to post this because of a comment I received on my YouTube page, which has some clips from the interviews I did for the book.

A person clearly had watched my interview with Tony Wallace, in which he tells the story of being wounded on April 15, 1970. The individual wrote, “I met this gentleman while riding on the Q113 bus… I have the so much respect for Vietnam vets. We should all support them.”

***

Over the years that have elapsed since I began this project, Tony Wallace and I have grown close. We have made many trips together on Veterans Day. In 2008 we attended the ceremony at the Wall in DC. We spent the afternoon there, in the cold drizzle of a Washington November day, listening to various speakers tell us of their experiences, and about the meaning of the wall. The green of the Capital Mall lawn was covered with folding chairs and umbrellas, as the afternoon wound down. As we were leaving, Tony sought out a homeless veteran he had met at the Wall earlier in the year, and gave the man a new coat and a new pair of shoes that he had brought from New York just for that purpose. We chatted with him for a while and took photos as the night gathered.

After we got back to the hotel room we shared and prepared for sleep, from the other side of the room, Tony said, “I think it is time for you to see this.”

Already in his pajamas, he knelt down and peeled back the pajama top revealing the deep and ugly scars from the blast that had killed Wolf, Pepe and DiSantis. The blast had changed his life forever. There, on his knees, he exposed his back to me for several moments. It is very hard to describe what I saw. The skin had been torn; it was discolored. There were scars that had not healed properly and you could see the effects of several skin grafts that had been done to try to close the wound. Where the skin was not torn, it was peppered with scars where shrapnel had entered his body. Tony rose and re-buttoned his top.

“Now you know,” was all he said.

I don’t recall that I responded at all.

We went to sleep.

The next morning over breakfast, I said to him that what he had done was enormously powerful for me. He had shown me what only two other people had ever seen; his wife and his doctor. I said that I thought I understood the metaphorical and symbolic significance of showing me his wound on a weekend filled with both memory and celebration. I told him that seeing a black man on his knees in front of me was a humbling experience and a frightening one. The racial symbolism of that moment, so deeply fraught in American history, with its legacy of violence, exploitation, humiliation and fear left me deeply moved. As a result of his bravery, his willingness to share and be vulnerable had seemed to shift me into a subset of people, privileged enough to see first hand one version of how badly damaged a Vietnam veteran could be.

Tony’s response was;

“Yes, I knew that you would see that. But, he continued, I was also thinking of another thing. I was thinking of the way Christ washed the feet of the sinners.”

In Tony’s world, true knowledge and enlightenment can only come about by understanding the significance of the sacrifice Christ made on behalf of all of us. By reenacting, in a symbolic way, Christ’s humility, Tony was offering me a way of understanding both his Vietnam, and his life. He sees himself as a man whose life, in some respects, is not his own. The sacrifice he made on behalf of others is precisely what has made the memory, and the scars, of the Vietnam war bearable for him. He served as Christ served.

It doesn’t matter if we do or do not share Tony’s Christian belief system. What is relevant here is that Tony has developed a way of understanding his life; in academic terms, he has developed a narrative which gives meaning to the events of April 1970.

This book has been an effort to listen to the stories that Vietnam veterans tell about themselves. As they recounted their autobiographies, soldiers and their families incorporated the events of the Vietnam era in to the trajectory of their lives, creating a meaningful explanation of how they came to be the people that they are. Vietnam has profoundly shaped the men and women who served there. By asking them to narrate their entire lives can we begin to see the long term affect of military service.

For those of us that did not experience it, we have very little context for understanding how difficult it can be to revisit, emotionally and psychologically, the trauma they experienced.  There is a cost involved every time they speak out to share their experiences. On the other hand, I have seen that in the process of sharing the burdens can become lighter.

For these interviews, these veterans were willing to pay the price, not for their own glorification, but so that they could continue to educate us. Through them we learn about how this unique time in history created a perfect storm of circumstances that would alter the nation and our view of war forever. We learned how to separate the war and the warrior, and the importance of treating every soldier that we send into battle with respect and honor, regardless of personal opinion about the political merits of the war.

These veterans have never given up hope that they would be recognized for their service, but this does not seem to be what motivates them. This is their true legacy. They have taught us to persevere in the face of adversity, to fight for justice and self respect, to use experiences, no matter how unfair or traumatic, to serve a greater good and whenever possible enable each other to do so.

And to remember.

 

 

Joan Furey

I just stumbled on two YouTube videos related to Joan Furey, whose story I tell in my book, Bringing It All Back Home.

The first is an ABC news segment, recorded in 1969. In it, Joan explains why she took part in a Thanksgiving Day fast — a protest against an on-going war by soldiers in the field. This was an extraordinary moment in U.S. history. It was widely seen as an emblem, a signal, of the growing disaffection of American troops in Vietnam. Joan had gone to Vietnam determined to do her part in the American war effort. However, as her tour of duty progressed, she became increasingly disillusioned with what she saw going on around her.

In the second clip, Joan speaks about the book she co-edited with nurse Linda Van Devanter, entitled Visions of War, Dreams of Peace (1991).

Nice Feature on the Brooklyn College Web Site

The Brooklyn College web site has a nice feature about the book.

“Phillip F. Napoli has logged more than 600 hours in conversations with many of New York City’s Vietnam veterans. So if there was one thing the Brooklyn College history professor knew, it was that the oft-summoned platitudes that involve Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress disorder and the “wacky vet John Rambo,” as he describes it, hardly scratch the surface of the experiences of these men and women.”

PFN

His Living Room’s a Jungle

Victor Giannini, son of Marine Lieutenant Joseph Giannini (who is profiled in my book), writes about the impact of Vietnam decades later. He begins, “We all live in storms of varying strength and speed, with moments that bring intense pain, and at times, vital cleansing. In our case, my father’s internal storms nearly wrecked my family.” I’ve interviewed Victor, and he loves his father deeply. Check out the story for an insight on what it means to “Bring It All Back Home.”

Joe and Victor Giannini

War Trauma and It’s Consequences

john Hamill jump school copy

John Hamill, a medic with the 173 Airborne Brigade (the Herd) in Vietnam in 1967-1968, explained to me the connection between war time trauma and what happens after a veteran returns home:

I think a lot of Vietnam veterans didn’t really start doing themselves in, suicide, drinking themselves to death until five or six years after the war ended. Things got worse for a lot of those guys. After the initial rush of being home they’re so disappointed. I said, “Why?” You come home, you’re safe, you feel good, you have that euphoric burst initially, you know, and then you get married, you get divorced, your fucking job sucks and then you start trying to trace it back and you can’t get any further back than Dac To. And . . you get stuck on that, you know.

It didn’t really kick in, though, immediately. It’s sort of like a traumatic amputation. You get your hand shot off. It doesn’t bleed for an hour because all the muscles spasm and they hold back and then “shww,” and they relax and it starts to come out. Then it comes a gusher. I think that’s what happened to a lot of guys. And there was no interim kind of treatment.

PTSD was not diagnosed until it was too late, just like Agent Orange.

It’s like, ‘Shit.’

John Hamill is profiled in my book Bringing It All Back Home.