I was a little surprised the two didn’t know each other, although from the first few minutes they formed their own band of brothers from a world only those who have been there can truly understand.
It was lunchtime, and we were over at 220 East on Davis Islands (great fish and chips and outstanding soups).
I don’t want to use their names, but I’d known one for years and the other for about 10 minutes over the phone. I’ll call one Army (A) and the other Air Force (AF). Both have Vietnam as the common denominator.
Air Force had come down from Spring Hill. He comes down weekly, but instead of lunch goes over to James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital to an anger management class. He deals with post-traumatic stress disorder. He read a recent column I did on a new book by Dana Chwan called “The Reluctant Sorority,” about the years when she didn’t know whether her husband, Mike, was alive or had perished when his F-4 Phantom was shot down in North Vietnam while he was attacking a bridge.
AF knew. He was in another F-4 when the missile slammed into Chwan’s jet.
“There was nothing left. It just seemed to disappear,” he says. Chwan was shot down in September 1965. His remains were recovered in April 1985, and he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
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The retired Army officer, a man who had spent much of his time leading his men in the jungles, said, “I think, ultimately, my primary mission was to get them out of there alive.”
Today, both men deal daily with PTSD, making frequent trips to Haley and adjusting their lives to a world that, after almost half a century, still doesn’t always seem in sync.
Both believe their country hasn’t done nearly enough for its military and its veterans.
“It is a disgrace,” says AF, “that we send these young people on repeated tours into combat operations. I think a great deal of the problem is that the wars we have been in continuously for 15 years now are ignored by the media and by most Americans.”
“A” nodded in agreement and suggested we would be better off if there were some kind of draft or national service program that would require young people to go into the military or perform national service work.
“I get sick,” said AF, “when I go to Haley and see those young men with broken bones and terrible disabilities. They still have great attitudes, but they also are going to have to fight for their medical needs and the assistance their families are going to have to have for the rest of their lives.
“You know,” he went on, “I didn’t question why I was in Vietnam, but today I do. And I question what we are accomplishing in the Middle East today. I do know it’s not worth the life of a single American.”
We went on with lunch, mostly talking about the fog of war where victories are so often achieved by the ones who make the least mistakes than by any strategic planning.
But it was that other fog, the one where the tens of thousands who have given their all and who now exist — many emotionally as well as physically shattered — with so little recognition from a nation that has asked so much.