UNKNOWN SOLDIERS - A TRIBUTE TO VIETNAM WAR VETERANS
By: Jodi Block
Eight hundred thousand hearts pounded to the same beat. The source of the rhythm came from overhead as the USAF Thunderbirds' F-16s flew above us in perfect formation. Peering over the heads of others, I caught a glimpse of Schwarzkopf preceding the 8,800 veterans on Constitution Avenue. The rugged 61311 four-star general emerged from the colorful flags and harmonious bands to lead the parade, just as he had led his 500,000 troops of Desert Shield/Desert Storm to an American victory in the Persian Gulf. Our feet then quivered under the command of the M1A1/Abrams tank and the Patriot missile launcher that were encored by masses of proud Americans.
The sound of silence dominated the airwaves as we stood in awe of the precision and accuracy of the Marine Corps Silent Drill Team. A chill ran up my spine as I listened to a host of voices rise as a unified choir proclaiming the lyrics of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA." I squinted into the D.C. sun to watch men dressed in a collage of shades of desert brown march to the cadence of the cheers of the audience. Women serenaded by the cries of the multitudes blew kisses to nameless admirers. I eyed homemade banners wave in the breeze as the wind carried the shouts of their creators across the city. Red, white, and blue now accented a world consisting of various shades of gray.
Our troops were finally home. At the conclusion of the parade, people started to slowly break up. Earlier in the day, appropriately at Arlington National Cemetery amidst the thousands of symmetrically placed white crosses, tears were shed for the 378 men and women who did not return from the Gulf War. But now most of the crowd stayed in the Mall area; a seven-block display of military hardware magnetized armies of civilians who inspected the hi-tech equipment that had quickly become so familiar. Vans and trailers lined the streets, vending T-shirts and souvenirs. Hot dogs and Diet Coke in Desert Storm cups were the hottest items in the burning Washington heat. A twelve-foot Uncle Sam made his rounds on stilts, while a clown faithfully distributed starred and striped balloons to kids.
We made our way down to the Lincoln Memorial. The polished marble eyes of this revered President observed the crowd and commotion as people sat at his feet to reserve their seats for the evening fireworks display.
The Washington Monument stretched upward, grasping the sky. Hours of tourists waited to climb the stairs of the tall obelisk. The Reflecting Pool was thrown as a rectangular rug between those two memorials. Just north of the Pool stood the Vietnam Memorial Wall, a black slab of darkness slicing a manicured hill. Upon the wall, etched in the smooth granite, are the 58,132 names of the boy soldiers who died in that war. Three bronzed soldiers stood looking into that great mirror, as if expecting their reflections to be projected from the Wall itself.
Clusters of Vietnam veterans were scattered all throughout the Mall. One small group stood at the trough of the hill. They talked amongst themselves, as if in their own world. Sometimes a passerby would be briefly admitted to the platoon, and then would walk away. One of the men was dressed in camouflage with a black T-shirt bearing the Airborne insignia. "Vietnam Veteran" read boldly across his cap, which was decorated with a half dozen pins. The paralyzed soldier only moved his upper body as he sat in his chariot, confined to a wheelchair. Aside from this, there were no visible physical scars. A thick beard covered his face, concealing the evidence of a 70-year-old face on a 42-year-old man with an 18-year-old mind. His harrowing eyes, the mirrors of his soul, were shallow, with no depth, no hope lingering there. Behind the dull helplessness, I could see the torment of all he had witnessed in his lifetime and the struggle that was constantly within him. He sat near the Wall of the Vietnam Memorial, somehow lost, as if this was the only place to find security.
I gazed at this veteran. He had probably met once a week for 10 years with other Vietnam veterans in VA therapy sessions trying to reconcile his past and present. But beyond rehearsing the painful experiences of war, they encountered only deadends. He was most likely to be one of the one million Vietnam veterans that 20 years later are still suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
He took a swig from the Miller can in his hand. He could have been among the hundreds of thousands that experience chronic flashbacks, nightmares, and substance abuse. He might even have tried to commit suicide. Over 150,000 of his fellow veterans have succeeded in this effort -- nearly three times the number of combatants who died in Southeast Asia. He may have been one out of the 250,000 Vietnam veterans either incarcerated or on parole. I looked at his hands -- no wedding ring. The divorce rate of combat veterans has approached the 90-percentile range.
I stared at this highly decorated soldier. He too, was once a fighter. He served his country when he was asked. He paid for it by giving the use of his legs. His buddies paid for it by giving their lives. He started out in a jungle half a world away, and finished his tour in a decrepit VA hospital.
But this warrior did not receive support letters. His hometown did not finance a parade. No one back home drove around town with "I Support Vietnam" bumper stickers on their cars. No yellow ribbons hung from oak trees. Instead, his disability benefits slowly diminished. He was denied his former employment, and surely did not receive 70% off the price of a "Welcome Home" airline ticket.
The majority of Americans know little of the hellish realities he went through in Vietnam. A whole generation of teenagers has grown up with Rambo and Chuck Norris versions of the war where only the bad guys die. Millions have watched the Hollywood portrayals of Vietnam in graphic detail only to leave the theater with a deeper sense of emptiness than when they entered. As a cripple, he is not depicted as a Steven Seagal counterpart. On the contrary, this retired soldier has been forced to confront people daily, the same people who once protested against him.
I stared at this hurting man, lost with nowhere to turn. I wanted to go up to him and say, "There is hope for you. It may not seem like it, but there is. This hope is not in cosmetic healing. It does not end with aching reflections and painful reminiscing. It goes beyond the surface. It reaches into the heart and soul of us all. The ultimate answer to the pain and grief does not lie within ourselves. It does not come from secular institutions or man-made remedies.
"It comes from He who holds the copyright on reconciliation. The deliverance from guilt and rage and bitterness comes freely through Jesus Christ. He is the Son of God, who was born of a virgin, and lived on this earth. He was loving and gentle, yet fair. He performed miracles, fed the hungry, healed the sick and raised the dead. He was loved by both God and man. Yet He was unjustly accused and was beaten and crucified as a common criminal. He died on a cross, but rose from the dead three days later. He now stands at the right hand of God the Father and has sent the Holy Spirit to be our Comforter. Jesus Christ will one day return for all those who believe in Him. Because of the price He paid, Satan is defeated and your sins can be forgiven.
"When He hung on the cross, wrenched with pain, He looked into the future. Beaten beyond recognition, He saw you. He gave His Life so you might have it. He conquered Death so you might escape it. He did it for you. And He would do it again.
"Your body may still bear the scars of war, but you can also bear His healing in your heart and soul. You are not alone. Many across this nation and around the world have held this hope. Marriages are being put back together, memories healed, and men and women released from the bondage of drugs and alcoholism. They are finding forgiveness of their sins of yesterday, and learning how to forgive the injustices of the past. Multitudes who had long ago given up any hope of feeling can now love and live again.
"They have found this healing through Him who empathizes with the wounded and the betrayed and the misunderstood. He above all knows what it is like to be mocked and spit upon and betrayed by an ungrateful nation, which He loved and sacrificed Himself for. He suffered the same indignities. Yet, His love triumphs over all."
That's what I wanted to say. But I didn't say anything. My friends' voices brought me back to reality. Washington's Heroes "Welcome Home" Celebration was well underway. I turned and walked away from the Wall. As I did, I could feel eyes upon me. Eyes that pierced through my soul. The agonizing eyes of an Unknown Soldier.
Staff Note: Author Jodi Block is the daughter of Mickey Block. Mickey spent three tours in Vietnam, and has written a riveting book about his experiences there, titled: BEFORE THE DAWN. Google it to obtain a copy. (Mickey served with Evangelist Dave Roever in Vietnam. When Dave shares his testimony, and he speaks of "Pervet # 1", he is refering to Mickey).
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