May 1, 2000
I was 6-years old when my brother went to Vietnam, and 14 when the war ended. I came of age in the conservative groves of Orange County, California about as far from the battlefield and from the age of reason as one could be. In school we had regular "Duck and Cover" exercises in which the school siren would sound and we jumped under our desks and crossed our arms over our head, and then evacuated to the playground in an orderly manner. It wasn't until adulthood that I understood we were practicing for the communist attack, and not for the next earthquake. I never fathomed the perceived enemy and it was never defined. I carry only a vague sense of the tension of the evening news; the anger, the fear, the tears that shaped the mood of my parents every night. I did not understand the source of their emotions, and doubt that it was even explained.
My brother was 18-years old when I was 6, and I remember travelling to San Diego for his graduation from boot camp. We sat in the bleachers watching the impressive formation of white uniforms pass by in perfect blocks, we went aboard his ship, and we went again to watch it pull out to sea, going....somewhere. My father had been in the Navy, too, and he explained things to me about the ship and the uniforms. I barely comprehended having an 18-year old brother, let alone that there was a war, to which he was headed.
From there began my memory of his grand adventure. He created for me a fantasy world, or perhaps invited me into his. He sent letters home and included for me notes and caricatures of his Captain depicted as a peg-legged pirate. He sent me dolls from Hong Kong, with their funny hats and straw hair, and from Japan, with sleek black hair and ornate silk robes. My life seemed as exotic as his did.
My brother received an honorable discharge and there was a big party when he returned. He and I rarely talked about what he did there and what he saw, and life went on.
While I was in graduate school I worked at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego. It was an epidemiologist's dream, having at my finger tips access to databases with medial records on hundreds of thousands of military personnel and only the imagination limiting the hypotheses to be tested. I worked with a psychiatrist who was interested in the consequences of disasters on subsequent health outcomes, and many of our studies utilized data from a Naval hospital in Danang. We analyzed the nature of injuries, the amount of blood used during surgery, post-disaster psychiatric admissions. There was no shortage of data.
My final project was to evaluate survivability in chemical warfare environments given the nature of injuries that occur during ground combat. We used data from casualties during the Tet Offensive. I could not fathom the need for such a study -- there would never again be such a bloody ground war. The year was 1986, when Mutually Assured Destruction was a pervasive threat, and nuclear bombs would mean the beginning and the end of the next and final war.
As part of my research on weapons and injuries, I was given a tour of a warehouse of land mines developed by any number of countries and spanning decades of wars. The human inventions, designed to inflict the most devastating damage possible, were horrifying. I was 25, and I understood where my brother had been, and how fortunate we both were that he returned intact. And still we never talk about it.
Today I laugh and cry at my naivete, for not knowing why he was sailing off in far away lands and what he really experienced, and for actually believing - as an adult, and not as a child -- that it could never happen again. And I wonder how many more ground wars we will have, and if we'll once again think that we can save our children by hiding them under their desks.
I knew of little to write about Vietnam, so in preparation, I timidly asked my brother if he would give me a quote about his feelings on the war. Once again, my nescience got the better of me, and I finally got a true glimpse of the disparity between the reality of a 6-year old girl, and his reality, that of an 18-year old man who lived through something that I can read about, but never fully comprehend.
This is what he had to say: The Trauma of Coming Home
Vietnam: A Retrospective
Introduction - by Gilles d'Aymery
Prism And Touchstone - by Rick Rozoff
The Road to Wisdom - by Aleksandra Priestfield
The Trauma of Coming Home - by Doug Baughman
Reflections on the War in Vietnam - by Mac Lawrence
Making Sense out of Senselessness - by Eileen Rinde
An Uneasy Peace - by Margaret Wyles
Myths and Reality - by Antony Black
Stay Under the Radar Screen - by Milo Clark
Conclusion - by Gilles d'Aymery