“WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER….”
By D. “Bing” Bingham
The Soldier Son was in a hurry to get off the plane. More than anything in the world, he wanted to get out of the military service, disappear into the background, and return to his desert home.
The Viet Nam war was the Grim Reaper of nineteen year-old men across the nation, the Soldier Son knew his time had come.
His draft selection number in the lottery was six—out of more than three hundred—that year. He had no deferrals. Marriage and fatherhood weren’t available, college wasn’t affordable and his family wasn’t politically connected. He could slip over the border and hide in Canada; however, he’d been taught by his World War II father never to run from a service obligation.
Basic training was intense, lessons came fast and furious. He recalled little of military courtesy, history or tactics. Other experiences seemed more important—like learning to sleep with a folding shovel in his hand for defense against racially motivated attacks by members of big-city gangs.
The war effort was a great, grinding machine and military police were in demand. First one company was sent, en masse, to the jungles of Southeast Asia. Then the following one would be cast like grass seed to military bases around the world. The next company wound up protecting convoys on dangerous roads in Viet Nam.
The Soldier Son landed in Korea, policing military bases in a city of three million teaming souls. His beat was harsh—heroin, red-light districts and race relations, after the Martin Luther King assassination.
The Viet Nam war was a pond where politicians had dropped a giant boulder. The ripple effect of damaged individuals, both physically and emotionally, washed up on shores around the world. Burns, missing limbs and severe trauma were transferred to high tech medical centers in the U. S. and Germany. Those with emotional damage, now known as Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD), were de-compressed at any available military base.
Many of these men had been in unremitting high-stress situations for so long, they were scarcely capable of functioning as responsible adults. Life, theirs or anyone’s, meant little.
Almost two years after the Soldier Son arrived on the Pacific Rim, he was glad to say good-bye to the friends, military-manufactured sociopaths and other flotsam that’d drifted up on the Army’s beach. He boarded the plane with hope, trotting back to the rest of his life.
A decade later, he’d successfully integrated himself back into the civilian world. Best of all, his nightmares had subsided. However, hyper-vigilance persisted. Not being a combat veteran, he never sought help; there were so many others who needed it worse. When things got bad, he sought solitude in the desert.
Another decade passed. He no longer felt the need to carry concealed weapons, but it was difficult for him to go out in public without shoes that allowed him to either “fight or run for his life.”
Two decades more and the Soldier Son could hide most of his discomfort in public. His solace was still in the outdoors.
However, he watched with a growing sense of disorienting reality as the new wave of patriotism spread over veterans from the Gulf Wars. While important for their sake, he felt as though the prevailing feeling had won a popularity contest and was, perhaps, a bit disingenuous rather than heartfelt.
Then he met a shot-up Viet Nam veteran, one of many. His story was like so many others from back in the day. He’d been ordered into a rice paddy by his commanding officer and left to die when the plan didn’t work. However, the vet had wrestled his PTSD into a manageable form with years of counseling. Then he’d passed the support on to other veterans.
As the Soldier Son turned to go home that day, the shot-up veteran reached out to shake his hand.
“Welcome home, soldier,” the old vet said, “we’re glad you made it.”
The Soldier Son was quiet, knees wobbling and stomach twisting while long suppressed emotions galloped before his mind’s eye.
“Thank you,” he said, moisture prickling behind his eyes, “I’ve never had anyone say that before.”
On the long drive home, the Soldier Son pulled his car to the side of the road and sat, still as a stone, while he watched the sun go down. He thought about kindness and how it can change the world, in this case, his world.
Later that night—a different man, but still very much the same—he pulled into his driveway. Afterwards, he ate a quiet dinner and went to bed.
Bing Bingham is a writer, rancher and storyteller. He says this is for the veterans from a forgotten war. If you’d like to read more stories of the American West, check… http://dustydogcafe.com/