Monday, November 12, 2007

Veterans Day, 2007

After being shot down during a reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam in 1966, Captain Gerald Coffee was captured and held as a POW in Vietnam for seven years. His imprisonment in Vietnam was one of the longest by an American POW, and he managed to survive interrogations, torture and isolation by his captors until he was repatriated to the U.S. in 1973. Captain Coffee subsequently returned to active duty and retired from the Navy nine years later in 1982. Upon his retirement, he became a motivational speaker and it was in that capacity that I heard him share his experiences as a POW at a business conference approximately three years ago. (Captain Coffee also made the news in political circles last year for winning the Republican primary for Senate in Hawaii, but had to be replaced in the election for health reasons).

In my lifetime, Captain Coffee is the only Vietnam POW I have ever heard share his story. Though I grew up surrounded by many members of the hippie generation, including my father and Arlo Guthrie (on the radio), I have only known two Vietnam vets personally, at least that I can recall. One of those vets was my longtime scoutmaster, who used to regal us around the campfire with war stories that he most certainly embellished for our entertainment value.

I can attribute part of my unfamiliarity with Vietnam vets’ stories to the community in which I was raised, where accounts of war were primarily told through the personal narratives of Holocaust survivors, and not through the voices of American soldiers. Nevertheless, I don’t believe my lack of personal exposure to Vietnam vets is exceptional. Because of the negative perception that the war has in our country, soldiers’ experiences in ’Nam have not been widely publicized or well-received. Though the Vietnam memorial, which opened 25 years ago this past weekend, is a moving testament to the men and women who lost their lives in the Vietnam War, it is also at bottom, a wall of stone that memorializes but does not speak. This country’s seeming antipathy towards hearing the stories that came out of Vietnam is also reflected in its particularly abysmal record providing for Vietnam vets’ long term medical care.

History books have already been written to help clear away the fog of the Vietnam war for students in a classroom and allow them to relive the action on the battlefield from a bird’s eye view. The books also neatly capture the political and strategic decisions that determined the final body count each side suffered. Yet, those same history books do not satisfy the need for history, especially the history of war, to be learned through personal and eye witness accounts which expose the intimate stories of lives lost or injured, the physical and emotional upheaval that took place in and around the battle field, and the stories of how war-weary veterans returned home to a world that had moved on in their absence.