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January/February 2019
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Just Another Warm Summer Night

Any shrink worth his ninety dollars an hour would probably say I should “face the pain and deal with it.” In fact, I’ve heard those words more than once. They even sound like something I might say to the women who come to me for counseling, looking for someone to take away their pain, their voices breaking as they recount the horrors of their own personal hells while I sit there listening, trying to assure them that they are not crazy.

A Few Good Women“I understand,” I say. “You’re not alone. Many of us have seen the same things. Together, we can get past the problems. It’s hard work, but it can be done.”

Occasionally, the words work. But it’s on nights like this that they and I must face the realization that we are alone, that ours is a solitary pain, to be felt in hundreds of 3 a.m.’s when those around us are sleeping peacefully.

There was a time when I didn’t understand that, when I didn’t know how alone I was, how alone we all were. It was a time when I thought I would be able to talk about—exorcise—all the memories of hours spent in the operating rooms of Pleiku and Qui Nhon, working with surgeons as we tried to save the lives of boys who would never again be whole.

I wanted to tell someone I loved—my parents, a friend, a relative, anyone—about the rocket attacks and all the nights I slept under my bunk; about the weeks we had more casualties than we could handle and how hard we worked even when we knew it was hopeless; about the tiny children with their arms and legs blown off; about the terrible oppression of the monsoon and the nights we knew we would die. Vietnam was the worst time of my life, yet it was also, in many ways, the most important and the most intense. For years, I tried to talk about it. Nobody listened.

Who would have wanted to listen? Mine were not nice, neat stories. There was love, but no cute little love stories; heroes, but no grand, heroic war stories; winners, but you had to look hard to tell them from the losers. On our battlefields, there were no knights in shining armor rescuing damsels in distress. The stories, even the funny ones, were all dirty. They were rotten and they stank. The moments, good and bad, were permeated with the stench of death and napalm.

And when that year was over, when the “Freedom Bird” took me back to “the world,” I learned that my war was just beginning.

— From Lynda Van Devanter’s pioneering 1983 memoir,
Home Before Morning: The True Story of an
Army Nurse in Vietnam
, published by Warner Books.

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© Michael KeatingNational Park Service
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  Photo ©Michael KeatingTwo VVA chapters deliver VA holiday cheer.
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