I did not serve in Vietnam, but …
As Veteran’s Day Weekend 2017 comes to a close, memories and connections to this day resurface. This year with the establishment of Finding You Sanctuary, a non-profit that pairs veterans bearing invisible wounds with dogs rescued from euthanasia, I feel compelled to share these memories. I have a story to tell, and it is my hope that you will do the same. No matter which war, or whether or not you served, we all have a story - a unique perspective. I believe it is better to share it, rather than withhold it from everyone, particularly from yourself. I don’t have any expectations about this process except maybe that it helps you as it is helping and even motivating me.
My story begins here.
My father was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Navy during WWII. He enlisted his senior year of college right out of ROTC. After requisite training, he received orders to join a carrier group on a destroyer headed for the Pacific, and ultimately Japan. Just before his deployment, Japan surrendered. When I was in my early twenties, he relayed how disappointed he felt being deprived of the experience and comradery of war. He told me that this quietly defined him for many years after.
There are a series of spectacular events forever etched into my psyche that many of you may recall, from the age of 12, and even earlier. The scene of my mother crying, hunched over on the floor watching little John-John salute his father’s casket as it rolled by in a massive funeral procession. Close friends and supporters looking shocked as they pointed up toward the source of Martin Luther King’s assassin. Officials cradling Bobby Kennedy’s head as he lay on the ground, bleeding from a fatal gunshot wound. There was one event that cemented my distrust in our civil leadership’s ability to care for my prospective, enlisted presence in our military: the long and drawn-out Watergate saga that ended in Nixon’s now famous two-fisted peace sign as he boarded a plane, resigned in disgrace.
Please don’t misunderstand, I had a great upbringing: a loving household, a good education. As the only and sacred son, true to his generation, our dad only gave me a pocket Constitution. You know, the one with the “Golden Trilogy,” The Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. We would often discuss the founding of our country and the many ways that event has influenced the growing free world.
I remember well those years leading up to what I thought was going to be my day of reckoning. Age 13, 14, 15 and especially age 16 were intense times for an American male in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I can still see the weekly Life Magazine photos of the dead soldiers, most close to my own age. We all figured that Vietnam was our destiny, or for some of us, we’d have to make a terrible choice. I would grab the magazine and sit in the living room rocker, poring over the articles. Near the end of the war, there was TV coverage to add to the images cataloged in my mind.
Sure, there were “options,” like college or medical deferments, the dubious 4-F, or even Canada. For some of us the thought of not serving was equally as awful. We didn’t think or even talk about the inequity of a college deferment at the time because to a 15-year-old living in white bread suburbia, it was just another option. Canada seemed safe, but the guilt of abandoning your country or turning your back on those who had already volunteered or had been drafted was gut-wrenching. I also want to acknowledge those who choose to not serve. It’s so easy to look back with the all-knowing 20/20 hindsight and pass judgement, but I do not. There is a cloud that looms over the memory of the Vietnam War and the many types of casualties and to all, I offer genuine respect.
Although I didn’t know those who died from my home town, or anyone in their family, I feel compelled to post the names of the fallen from the Virtual Wall in honor of their memory. Unfortunately, like in most wars, there is no wall or list that I could find to honor those who suffered from severe wounds and physical disability.
PFC Nicholas S Conaxis, Age 20
LCPL Richard Lincoln Desper, Age 22
LCPL Lawrence Elsbrie Garron Jr., Age 19
SGl Alan Wayne Willard, Age 20
My dad confided in me how his memory of Japan’s surrender caused an internal debate that challenged his principles over my upcoming decision regarding Vietnam. There was a great deal of public debate and unrest with riots, Kent State, burning monks and the daily visuals of long hairs burning their draft cards. (For the record, I had long hair too). He didn’t try to influence my decision, but we did discuss the option of a college deferment.
When he finally told me years later just how much Japan’s surrender affected him, and how he was relieved when the Vietnam War was officially declared to be over for US troops only one year before my high school graduation, I saw my father in a whole different light. I realized the potential of dishonoring your family, your country. At that time in high school, I no longer trusted our government. The thought of a civilian leader lording over my life with what seemed like an endless, losing strategy just twisted me up inside. I can still feel that symbolic weight lifting off my shoulders.
This introspective process has been rolling around between my head and my heart since my high school graduation. While quietly thinking about it for most of my life, I never considered it an issue that needed tending, or even mentioning. I can, however, vividly remember the breadth of experiential information that led me to carry my catalog of visual memories that I flip through to this day. I’ve had many private moments during parades, fireworks, and the endless war movies I’ve watched over and over, mostly late at night and alone.
Above all, the thoughts and emotions I quietly manage don’t hold a candle to what those who serve and have served bear. Whether they died in or survived combat; were wounded, disabled, served in a supporting role, or joined the National or State Guard. Not just in the Vietnam War era, but all wars. Even in the brief times of peace. I feel a private sense of kinship with all those who have served. 9/11 expanded my respect to first responders and hospital staff, as well as the security community, although I have some reservations about that concept on occasion. I know it doesn’t compare to the sacred kinship a veteran feels toward his buddies, but the respect I feel is real and it has taken me a long time to allow it to surface. Even to the point where I am finally taking action to honor those who have served, when I did not.
It feels as though I woke up one day and found myself as co-founder, along with my sister, of Finding You Sanctuary, a non-profit that pairs veterans bearing invisible wounds with dogs rescued from euthanasia. This project came to life amidst a business meeting regarding Lynne’s experience as a dog behaviorist. That very conversation propelled me into a creative planning mode that when I stopped for a moment, months later, I saw before me an entirely assembled non-profit entity and board. I knew something inside me had taken over, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it, yet.
Discovering just what that “something” was happened much later, inspired by a comment from one of our advisory Psychiatric Clinicians. After a lengthy conversation, she noted the utilization of language like “restoring souls” was important as to what type of client we would invite. I dutifully followed her advice and read a book called "Warriors Return: Restoring the Soul After War" by Dr. Edward Tick. Immediately upon finishing it, even before the echo of the book closing in my hands subsided, I called his office to schedule a meeting.
Dr. Tick was very generous, giving me an hour of his time. Regardless of my intentions, one hour turned into two. Most of that time, I spent choked up in tears once our dialogue revealed the direct relation between my pent-up, privately-held history as the very catalyst for the drive and deep sense of purpose I have for Finding You Sanctuary & its mission. Since that meeting, throughout every step of this creation process, it has become increasingly clear that my motivation and passion for this project stems from a profound relationship to and reverence for those who have served, are serving and will serve.