“I got a friend named Whiskey Sam / He was my boonierat buddy for a year in ‘Nam / He said my country got just a little off track /Took ’em twenty-five years to welcome me back.”
Drive On – Johnny Cash
The flight attendant gently tapped my shoulder, “Sir, we’re about to make our decent,” she paused for just a second, “need you to raise your seat please.”
I stared at her for a minute not sure where I was, thinking I was still back there, “No,” I told myself, “that was just a dream.”
I sat up, straightened out my uniform, buckled my seat belt and prepared to touch down in Atlanta, but I was still, in my head, in Iraq.
The plane landed, we debarked, almost home but still a long way to go and then something odd happened.
“ ‘Scuse me corporal,” a cigarette aged voice called out.
I looked around to see who was calling out to me — granted there were plenty of other Soldiers walking off the plane with me but I was the only corporal. And then my eyes locked with his. Older guy, long hair, had the ragged look of a biker; the leather vest with POW/MIA pins, and the hat. The hat caught my attention – Vietnam Veteran.
“Just wanted to thank you for your service and welcome you home,” he said as he extended his hand.
As our hands clasped, I instantly thought of my father, a two-tour Vietnam vet. Dad never talked much about his experience except to say that he and his brothers were never treated right when they came home.
“No brother, thank you,” I replied back to him. “You guys didn’t get a fair shake … thank you.”
Our hands remained locked for a few minutes and finally the old vet spoke.
“Thank you brother, Godspeed.”
I walked on to my connecting gate and to my home in Ohio. I was only home for two weeks; I was going to enjoy every minute I could with my family. But, to this day, that interaction has stuck with me.
Say what you will about the war in Iraq but let me offer this, and I say this with no scientific data, just my interaction with that old vet in Atlanta and the encounters I’ve had since and continue to witness with regularity. I’m fairly convinced this war, this Iraq War has done more to finally put to rest some of the demons of that other war, the Vietnam War.
Everyday across America Soldiers are coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and right there to greet them along side families and loved ones are the vets from that war. I’ve been on the receiving end of several of those encounters as well as witness to so many more I’ve lost track and it’s always the same. Old warrior welcomes home young warrior, young warrior expresses a gratitude old warrior never got. Somewhere deep down inside old warrior just healed a little bit.
Sitting in a VFW hall in Phoenix I quietly sat down in a darkened corner slowly sipping on a beer. Across the way a group of guys were chatting it up, telling war stories, showing off their scars acquired through hard lives. One of them peered over to take in his surroundings, the automatic, drilled-into-your-fucking-skull situational awareness kicking in. His eyes caught me and sized me up – you know the look.
“Hey young buck,” he called out. “Come over here.”
I picked up the pack of cigarettes in front of me, grabbed my beer and slow walked up to the bar taking the trio in, sizing them up – some habits just never go away.
“Hey guys, how are ya’” I said as I slid into the empty seat next to the group.
“How’d a young buck like you get in here?” one of them asked me. “You a son or something?”
“Nope, Iraq, ’04-’05,” I responded.
And just like that, we were brothers. We talked for hours. They told me their stories, I told them mine. Inevitably the conversation turned to home comings, the raw deal they got.
“But you know young buck,” the old vet said to me. “You guys didn’t get treated wrong, took this country of ours too many years to figure that all out.”
And then he went on to tell me of talking to returning vets, the warmth and grace in which they greeted him and his fellow vets and my suspicion of the healing powers of this war grew.
I’m not a supporter of the Iraq War, never thought it was the right war, never thought it was the right reasons or any and all of the reasons given for not going. But on some level, I’m glad. I’m glad because a generation of veterans is finally getting, even if just from fellow service members the “Welcome Home” they never got.
And then there’s my Dad. Dad never did talk much about Vietnam, not while I was a kid. Not after I joined the Marines, not after I joined the National Guard. And then I came home and Dad started talking.