September 23, 2009
Last Saturday I was honored to participate in the Annual Vietnam Veteran Appreciation Gathering in Altoona. Veterans from around northern and western Wisconsin gathered to share camaraderie and memories. The day, sponsored by Thuy Smith and her husband Steve, was particularly special as we celebrated the creation of a new law to honor and remember Vietnam Veterans.
All who attended were invited to speak about their experiences. Listening to each other was an opportunity to share and to heal. As I listened, I learned the internet and DNA samples have become useful tools in finding fellow veterans, locating Amerasian children and finding those still missing or killed in action.
But mostly I learned making connections and telling stories can heal.
One veteran described how, upon his return home, his family was instructed to always change the subject when he brought up Vietnam. “They treated me like I was on a fishing trip,” he said. Years later, the man finally had the opportunity to share his experiences.
Another vet talked about how he loved to hunt and fish. “When I returned,” he said, “I found I could never kill any thing again.”
Many of the men were Army veterans. But one man who spoke served in the United States Air Force. “For years I felt guilty,” he choked on his words. “You guys were down there fighting and dying. I was high above you. So far removed.”
One of his Army brothers stood up and said, “Don’t you feel guilty man! You and your Air Force buddies saved my life so many times. I was never so happy as to hear you in the air!”
Several men shared their struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. One said “My shrink told me my mind was a more dangerous place than any neighborhood he had ever been in.”
Another vet who served as a medic and used to listen for incoming helicopters told a story about how, during a visit to Seattle, he thought he was doing well when he heard helicopters and could continue what he was doing. “But by the fourth helicopter I was thrown back into a most terrible flashback.”
After the veterans and their families shared their stories I was invited to speak. I spoke about the Native American Tradition of the Talking Circle.
The Talking Circle goes back to the ancient Native tradition of gathering around the fire and sharing stories. The Veterans Talking Circle brings together veterans of all eras and branches of service to share their experiences and concerns in a safe, compassionate and respectful setting. By listening and sharing from the heart, each veteran gives and receives affirmation of their valuable service contributions and begins to heal in mind, body and spirit.
After sharing the story of the Talking Circle, I spent time with the veterans including a few Native Americans. The Tribal Service Officer from the Ho Chunk Nation, Bob Mann pointed to all around us and said “this is a Talking Circle!”
Groups had formed as veterans from different time periods and places in Vietnam found each other. They listened to each other’s memories and shared their feelings – the tears and pain along with the profound courage and patriotism – and they began to heal.
As I was leaving, one fellow in a wheel chair wanted to tell his story, “you know when I came home, they threw me a big party at the Legion. In my town, the people really did thank me.”
But for all those who didn’t get a proper welcome home, there is no time like the present to say…
Thank you for performing your duty with the same courage and valor for which we honor veterans of other wars;
Thank you for joining the ranks of Americans in every generation that we recognize as true patriots;
And thank you for having patience with your countrymen who now respectfully stand ready to aid in healing.