In August of 1966, I saw my husband of two weeks board a plane at Houston's Hobby Airport. It was the first leg of a trip that in six weeks would put him in the rice fields of Vietnam. I knew he would be gone for a year. As the doors of the aircraft closed and it pulled away from the boarding ramp, I was near hysteria, but I never once thought he might be seriously injured or killed. I was very naive.
Edward’s duty, as a machine gun-toting infantryman, was dirty, dangerous, and lonely. It was lonely because he saved his sanity at a time when it wasn't an easy thing to do. He closed in on himself, not letting anyone inside his mental suit of armor. Seven months into his tour, he was injured jumping from a helicopter on the side of a hill, to stand guard over injured crewmembers of a downed helicopter. His injury ultimately saved his life. He found out later many in his company were killed a week after his own injury.
Edward finally got back to the U.S. after a month in Vietnam spent dragging himself around on a homemade crutch, then a month in a hospital in Japan in a body cast. He flew home in a burn patient evacuation plane, glad enough to endure the horror of that flight to be back in "the world". He spent the remainder of his obligation to our government in hospitals and recovering in an army unit at Fort Hood, Texas.
It took thirty years of waiting, piecing together bits of information he volunteered, and gently probing, to get a picture of the horror he endured in those seven wretched months. Since he suffers no flashbacks, or post-traumatic stress, it’s been possible to move on with our lives. We have put that awful time he spent in Vietnam behind us. He suffered, but he came home alive. More than 54,000 men didn’t.
In August 2000, we visited the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, DC. The trip to the capitol was a spur of the moment thing, a side trip from our late summer visit to Tennessee. While Edward stood at one of the catalog directories, looking for the name of a friend, a German tourist with a thick accent and a camera asked him if he was a veteran. The tourist then asked permission to photograph Edward as he examined the book. Edward agreed. I stood back while the photos were taken and thought to myself how lucky I was to be standing by watching my husband examine the book. But for the grace of God, I would have been looking for his name on the wall. The German tourist finished his photo shots, and quietly asked me "Is he okay?" I must have looked at him oddly, because he asked again, "Did he come through it okay?" I nodded “Yes,” with a big knot in my throat.
Today, in light of the U.S. war in Iraq and the horrors our young men and women have endured there, I have to wonder now if we will again memorialize soldiers killed in the line of duty in granite and bronze. Will we again memorialize our young Americans who have died in a foreign land with a memorial? Will there be bronze statuary of young American soldiers handing out food packages from a Hummer while another mans a machine gun atop the vehicle?
Granite and bronze awash in tears are poor substitutes for living, breathing human beings. Can’t we find another way?
Joy N. Vyoral
© October 12, 2003