An Overheard Conversation

Just outside of Wilmington, North Carolina I had stopped at a grocery store to pick up a few things before heading to a friend’s house for dinner. It was September of 2023, and I was on the long drive from New England back to my home in the Florida panhandle. The past three days were spent visiting old friends and reminiscing about our families and our time in uniform, but I still had one more stop to make. It was to the home of my former commanding officer, a great leader, and a peerless mentor. We had served together during the early days and years of the War in Iraq, and my visit was long overdue.

As I walked into the market, I noticed two men speaking quietly to one side. Thinking nothing of it, I strode past them but quickly picked up on the subtleties of the conversation. I had, by chance, stumbled into a very private and intimate but somehow public conversation – and in doing so, had unknowingly taken a small step back in time.

Both men donned ball caps, and I noticed the distinctive Republic of Vietnam Service Medal embroidered on both. As I slowed my pace, I heard the energetic voices of young men straining to communicate through the weathered mouths and withered hands of the old men they had become. I paused, feigning to find a cart, and listened more intently. It took me some time to piece together what I was hearing and seeing, but it was clear the two had never met. I listened to them speak softly about their now-distant lives. Spoken in an almost secret code of units, locations, and dates. I heard, “1st Cav, ’69, north of Saigon, and 5th Marines, Phu Bai, ‘68”. Before I realized it was over, the two shook hands, turned, and went their separate ways.

As one of the two stepped towards me, the impact of the conversation was immediately recognizable. In his face, as he looked past and through me, I saw anguish and pain. Something in that simple exchange with another forgotten ghost of the Vietnam War had struck an emotional chord. Whatever senses of loss, frustration, or grief he felt while serving in that war – nearly 50 years after the last helicopters lifted off the US Embassy in Saigon – were still there.

The Value of Service

I was frustrated and somehow embarrassed that I didn’t have something to say to him. Something or anything to let him know I cared without seeming patronizing, but I let him pass without uttering a word. It is difficult, and increasingly frustrating, for me to understand why it has been so hard for the nation to repay its debts to our veterans. How we devalue their service and sacrifice through the underfunding and the sidelining of veterans’ services while simultaneously spending our nation’s wealth, often frivolously, is shameful.

The Veteran’s Administration (VA) has been stressed since its start. The unwieldy and largely underfunded department continues to struggle to support the sixteen million living veterans and their families. America’s history of supporting veterans dates to the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock. The Plymouth Colony authorized benefits for those injured defending the colony, but as the nation grew and conflicts mounted, veterans continued to suffer.

By 1929, the political pressure to support World War I veterans, now suffering under the added stress of the Great Depression, had come to a head. The following year, the modern VA was established under executive order by President Hoover. The combat experiences of the nearly five million World War I veterans were nothing anyone back home could have anticipated – indescribable and unimaginable to anyone except those who saw it firsthand.

World War I was a war like no other. It brought all the innovation and invention of the Industrial Revolution onto the battlefield – industrialized killing on a grand scale, creating terrifying images otherwise never seen or conjured. The use of heavy artillery, tanks, machine guns, poison gas, and aerial bombardment took the lives of one hundred and twenty thousand Americans, leaving another two hundred thousand wounded and untold numbers suffering from “shell shock.” Shell shock can be described as a combination of undiagnosed and untreated post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and/or traumatic brain injury (TBI).