Veterans Day – What It Really Means

As a female who has never served, nor has the desire to serve in the army, it’s tough for me to sometimes try to imagine the sense of duty that comes over some people to serve their country.  I feel that this might be more of a male thing, although I do not deny that many women also feel this call.  But the point is, I must remember to honor veterans who have served.  For if this country has no army, then it has nothing.  I have the utmost respect for people who give their lives for their country.  It’s something we kind of take for granted.  But – our lives are essentially the biggest thing we can EVER give, and these people have given it.  I think our culture has kind of forgotten this in these years of peacetime.

It’s interesting to note the difference in treatment of Vietnam vets vs. Civil War, WWI, and WWII vets.

The scene is repeated many times a day at Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a V-shaped wall of polished black granite. A visitor searches through the wall’s listing of 58,022 names of U.S. servicemen who died in Vietnam. Then a name is found, and the tears begin.

“It was like the Wall was alive,” one veteran said. “I could touch it and it was warm, and I saw my reflection in it. I was among the names, looking out.”

Veterans call it, simply, “the Wall.” It is a magnet to the 2.7 million Vietnam veterans who came home alive. For many of these men, now middle-aged, it is a symbol of the attention and understanding they are receiving after years of painful neglect. “Veterans are feeling better,” said Tom Dineen, a former Army Ranger, during Veterans Day ceremonies at the memorial last year. “They are more open. People are treating them better.” A DOUBLE BURDEN

No men who fought under the U.S. flag have ever had to bear the Vietnam veterans’ double burden. They endured physical combat plus the mental stress of having taken part in an unpopular and losing war. Even veterans of World War II and Korea were slow to welcome them home. Then movies depicted them as unstable, drug-dependent misfits, prone to violence.

For most Vietnam veterans, time has been a healer. “Most have gone on with their lives, building families and careers,” says Ken Berez of Vietnam Veterans of America. Veterans are now moving into positions of responsibility in business, the professions, and politics.

But the war still haunts many veterans. “Time may be running out for the significant minority of veterans who have emotional, financial, and career problems,” says Berez, himself a veteran.

Growing numbers are seeking help. The U.S. Veterans Administration reports 6,300 new cases a month at its 145 counseling centers. About half have emotional problems. Many suffer from nightmares, vivid flashbacks of painful memories, panic attacks, and aggressiveness.

Doctors describe the most severe cases as “post-traumatic stress disorder,” or PTSD. Since 1969, about 150,000 Vietnam Vets have sought help for PTSD. Up to 250,000 others are estimated to suffer from the disorder.

A much higher proportion of Vietnam veterans suffer from PTSD than did soldiers from past wars. The reason, psychologists say, was the soldiers’ youth. The average age of soldiers in World War II was 26. In Vietnam, it was 19. “That’s the time of life when people put their identities together,” says Dr. John P. Wilson of Cleveland State University. Wilson is an expert on PTSD.

Most veterans never had help in readjusting to civilian life. “Homecoming occurred under the worst possible conditions,” Wilson says. They were rotated “out of the jungle with no counseling. Society expected them to pick up the pieces of their lives and start over as if nothing had happened.”

The outrage and frustration of many veterans peaked in the bitter legal battle over Agent Orange, a herbicide the military used in Vietnam to clear away millions of acres of jungle. An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 servicemen were exposed to it. “We bathed in it, drank it, and slept in it,” one veteran said.

We must take the time to realize that these people have given their lives, and they often are not the same when they return home from war even if they have not entirely given their lives.  It’s something to think about.