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November/December 2018

photo courtesy Ronald A. Schroeder
Honored in Obscurity: A Vietnam Veteran Struggles with Invisibility

Last April the VFW in Oxford, Mississippi, hosted a ceremony to recognize the service of local military veterans who had served in Vietnam. The Mississippi Department of Veterans Affairs and the VFW presented these individuals a commemorative coffee-table book: Vietnam War 50th Commemoration: A Time to Honor: Stories of Service, Duty, and Sacrifice. It is a handsome volume with hundreds of photographs, a little history, and scores of brief articles written by Mississippians who had been to Vietnam. It is a serious and well-intended tribute to veterans of that war.

When I learned of the ceremony and that I qualified to receive a copy of the book, I was uncertain I would attend. For almost fifty years I had been mostly silent about my status as a Vietnam vet. I did not deny it, but I scrupulously avoided drawing attention to it. I have lived in Oxford for more than forty years, and only a few close friends know I had served in Vietnam. I knew that at the ceremony, my name would be called and I would have to step forward. I was not accustomed to revealing publicly that I had been involved in that war. In light of my prior reticence, I wondered what other vets would think of me. I did not know any local Vietnam veterans. I had become a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, but that was a private, not a public, matter.

For years after I was discharged from the Army, I thought little of what Vietnam meant to me. I became an English professor, so not surprisingly I considered writing something about the war. I lacked the conviction to follow through, though, and before long my interest in a writing project and, so I deluded myself, my interest in Vietnam itself waned. I packed up my slides and photographs and stored them on a shelf in a closet, and I filed away the journals and the letters I had written in the Army. What dreams I had about Vietnam were benign: no nightmares, no flashbacks, no PTSD, just as I suffered no physical wounds, scars, or disabilities. Eventually even those dreams ended. I thought I had “put Vietnam behind me.” That’s what a well-adjusted veteran was expected to do.

Then, a couple of years ago, I realized that, in one way or another, I thought about Vietnam every day. These memories did not interfere with my ability to function more or less normally, yet I saw that in some usually unobtrusive way, the idea of Vietnam passed through my consciousness daily. Without my taking note of how or why, Vietnam had become a shadowy presence in my life. Before, I just had not recognized that it was. That’s when I began to think seriously and more systematically about the role Vietnam played in my life; that is when I began to feel that I shared something with other Vietnam veterans; that is when I started to re-examine what being a veteran meant to me.

As it turned out, the book ceremony was a casual mixture of near-formality and informality, brief and friendly. There were no politicians, and no patriotic nonsense about defending American freedom. No deference to rank, no saluting. We were civilians who had all earned the same rank: veteran. No one called us heroes.

Despite the friendly, generally low-key atmosphere, not many veterans showed up. We appeared to be a mostly homogenous group of men. No one seemed to have exaggerated expectations of the ceremony. Except for one man in a suit and tie, we all approached this meeting as a casual affair. I wore a sport coat but no tie. Everyone else was dressed in jeans and a sport shirt.

My fellow veterans looked like ordinary citizens. Besides the fact that all of us had served in some capacity in Vietnam, what we shared was our age: We were all old and it showed in a variety of ways. Some appeared more tired than others; a few had physical problems.

We looked like middle-class or prosperous working-class types. We might have been factory workers, farmers, insurance salesmen, teachers, small business owners, or mechanics, but neither paupers nor the privileged one percent.

I did not know any of the other honorees. If I had passed any of them on the street in Oxford, I never would have recognized that they were veterans of Vietnam. Nor would anyone else see them as veterans. The men and women returning from our more recent wars define the prevailing popular image of veterans. They are much younger, often young enough to be parents of small children. They are frequently in uniform. Perhaps they have been crippled by an IED, or they are struggling with PTSD, or they are suffering from head traumas caused by multiple explosions.

I wasn’t alone being a stranger to the other Vietnam veterans, and I heard some introduce themselves to each other. The group was quiet and respectful; I had expected a more boisterous sense of camaraderie. I saw no rush to share reminiscences of Nam, no exchanging of stories. Maybe this wasn’t the place or the occasion to share stories, though ironically the book we all received is an anthology of veterans’ recollections. Or maybe it is just too late in the day for trading stories.

All in all, the ceremony went smoothly—and quickly. We received our books, and everyone appeared satisfied. Then people left. The vets did not seem to expect anything more than what they received—a book. I lingered after most had left the hall. I was glad that I had participated, despite my earlier apprehensions, but I was also saddened.

After fifty years a small group of us who had left home and families to be part of that controversial conflict finally received a material token of gratitude, yet few were there to witness it. The public had been invited, but didn’t show up. The local paper had been notified of the event, but the editors sent neither reporter nor photographer.

And so we were all honored in obscurity, in a ceremony that was not visible to the rest of the community. I was saddened because that is the way it has always been. Fifty years ago troops sent to Vietnam did not embark from public airports, where civilians could see them; they left at night from a military staging facility, virtually shrouded in secrecy. In the 1960s veterans coming home from Vietnam and even military personnel on active duty in the United States were cautioned not to wear their uniforms in public—not to make themselves visible to a population that did not want to see them. When I came home, I let my hair and sideburns grow; I substituted wire-rim glasses for the Army’s standard-issue gray plastic frames; I bought bell-bottoms; I never wore green. I did what I could to make myself invisible.

Almost fifty years later, I am beginning to understand and appreciate the value of veterans’ reunions, whether they involve a whole military unit or just a few former GIs who became close friends in Vietnam. They get together not so much to rehash old stories, but to escape their invisibility.

The Vietnam War will not be forgotten. The Wall is sacred, enduring, very tangible, and very visible. The cohort of Vietnam veterans continues to age, and its members are dying. Daily we are becoming even more invisible, on our way to becoming ghosts. Soon enough our numbers will dwindle to 25,000, then 10,000, and then someone will start tracking the “oldest living survivor of the Vietnam War.”

As we disappear, our voices become harder to hear, more difficult to understand. In a way, that may be an appropriate fate for the men and women whom this country, fifty years ago, was so unwilling to welcome home.





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