Salute the Vietnam Warriors

While recently thumbing through my old Tennessee and Georgia high school yearbooks, tears pooled in my eyes.  Yes, they were all there, young men with hope in their eyes and their youth on the edge of disappearing. I wonder what they would have accomplished in their lives if they had the promise of a future.

 Would they laugh as I do at the silly antics of a grandchild?  Would they still possess the impish grin the camera caught in the 60s? Maybe Howard would have made it onto the big screen with his good looks.  Perhaps Bobby would be a renowned physician today, and Larry would have climbed up the ranks in his beloved army before retiring to Florida. 

However, the maybe’s left when they all boarded a military bus to serve our nation while a war escalated in Vietnam.  They, like so many, returned only to be laid to rest in their hometown cemeteries before they had a chance to see what could have been.

Bearing a scar

These young men joined the service as so many do to become soldiers of war.  They are the elite among us who, I believe, God anoints with an extra dose or more of courage.  These soldiers go blindly into battle to defend the land they love.  They steadfastly look out for each other and often give their lives to save their comrades.

The Vietnam warriors were no different in character and honor as those who bravely fought for our Independence.  They held the same gritty spirit as those who battled before them in the Revolutionary War or World War I and II, as well as all other conflicts.  Thousands of soldiers have responded to the call to serve, but the warriors of Vietnam bear a scar.

By the time our troops were pulled from Vietnam in 1973, over 52,000 young soldiers had perished.  Between 1964 and 1975, 2,709,918 men and women wore an American military uniform in Nam.  240 of them were awarded the Medal of Honor as Bobby Ray was for saving many lives, except his own. Of those killed in combat, 61% were younger than 21. Just out of school, just beginning to dream, just starting a future.   

Also, in 1973, America’s electorate was deeply divided, and some say the military was demoralized.  So, for those who returned from the rice paddies and trenches, ships, the skies, and prisons of Vietnam, there were no homecoming parades or bands of screaming, happy folks in Times Square to greet them. Instead, Vietnam was simply over for America.

Never blame the warrior

Today, those fallen Vietnam soldiers are immortalized on a wall in Washington, D.C.  For those who lost friends or loved ones whose names are etched in this wall, the war is not forgotten, nor is the sacrifice.   We are the older generation now, and our young faces are alongside those in the yearbooks who remain ageless. 

Today, 610,000 courageous Vietnam Veterans are still walking among us.  Of those who risked their lives in Southeast Asia, 97% were honorable discharged even though many were drafted for service.

Even after hearing countless stories of the heroism and bravery shown by our American troops during the second-longest war in our history, they returned home to be treated harshly by many for just doing what they were asked to do. Unfortunately, this response created a loss of self-esteem and grief for many young soldiers, leading to future deep-seated problems.  

Our worst divisive behavior is the scar of Vietnam.  The wound was not caused by the soldiers.  The injury was inflicted by the free citizens who remained on American soil that turned their anger toward those sent to battle.  

We can fairly charge those in government or politics for most anything but not the bravest, best, and the most elite among us. So we should never blame the warrior, nor the ones who suffer and give the most.  Nor the over 150,000 who were wounded in Vietnam, or the prisoners of war, or those missing in action.

Take the time to notice the brave soldiers

I look into the eyes of my framed Vietnamese doll my brother sent me in 1965.  She has my POW/MIA bracelet around her waist to remember another pilot whose remains were finally located a few years ago.   My brother lived until 1998, but his time spent in Vietnam was always fresh in his heart.  I, too, vow to honor those who gave so much to receive so little.  

Memorial Days will come and go, but this year stop for a moment, look around, and notice the brave soldiers of long ago and celebrate them.

Maybe it will help heal the scar a divided nation caused and remind us never to produce such a wound again.  

“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died.  Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.”  General George S. Patton, Jr.

The Music Just Beyond the Doors

Years ago, shortly before my mother passed away, she described a vivid dream she experienced one night that prepared us both for what was to come.   

In the Tennessee mountain town where she and I were born, the vacant old Imperial Hotel stands frozen in time as if passing years dare to touch it.  The brick three-story building next to the train depot was built in 1909.  Weary rail passengers would spend the night, enjoy a good meal, and feel the cool air as it whirled around the mountain.  The Imperial boasted 30 rooms and indoor plumbing, which in 1909 was quite extraordinary in the hills of Tennessee.    

When I was a small child, the old hotel was a magical place where I could imagine myself as a traveler on the Tennessee railway or attending a gala in the main ballroom.  However, in the late 50s, the passenger trains discontinued their service to stop at the depot just below the hotel. As a result, the Imperial closed its doors to guests, and silence filled the halls.   

The once-thriving resort town and tourist destination withered.  All other inns and hotels succumbed to the ravages of time.  But the Imperial still stands today determined not to be forgotten.  It is as if she is still waiting to greet her visitors when they walk through her doors once again.

The dream

“Lynn, I dreamed I was at the Imperial last night.  I stood in the foyer hall alone, and the doors to the ballroom were locked.  A band was playing and people were laughing as if they were attending a fine party.  I wanted to join them, so I knocked and then banged on the old wooden doors.  The noise inside grew louder, and my attempts to be heard were useless.  I begin to weep with frustration because I desperately desired to see everyone, but I could not.  I woke up this morning with the dream still fresh and to find my pillowcase was damp with tears.  So strange.”  Mom declared after detailing her dream.

When Mother passed away a few months later, we took her home to the little mountain town to rest beside Dad.  A day after the service, I drove toward the Imperial and wondered if I could somehow get inside.  After parking my car, I found, to my surprise, the front door was unlocked, and I discovered I was alone in the foyer. 

Wooden doors were open to reveal a large room perfect for hosting a huge celebration complete with a band. But, unfortunately, the hotel was void of sound. Yet, I could feel the beat of the music as I envisioned my parents dancing as they always loved to do.

The unwritten messages

While standing among the spirits still alive in the Imperial, I understood how Mom’s dream prepared us for her departure from this world.  In the end, Mother was ready to join the others who await her just beyond the doors to eternity.  Her frustration was over.

We receive images and messages of eternal life all the time.  Either we decide to pay attention to them or ignore them completely.  Usually, when we don’t trust what we hear or see, we deem ourselves more intelligent than the Divine, causing us to not be very intelligent.  

People call such events everything from God-Winks to bizarre coincidences to hogwash, but I call them gifts.  Precious connections to unite us with God and those we have lost from this life.  They remind me of a small present tied with a satin ribbon.  Once you untie the bow, the box reveals glimpses of forever.

Listen with your soul

Today, the depot near the hotel is now a museum run by its cultural administrator, a young man new to the area.  Mr. Cleary fell in love with the town’s history and the under 3000 people who call Monterey, Tennessee, home.   I met him for the first time when I visited a few weeks ago. 

He had just purchased his first house.  “Where is your new home?” I asked.  After a brief conversation, I knew exactly where it was. It was the house where I was born.

 I looked up to the hill just beyond the depot to the old brick Imperial and smiled.  There is no music flowing from the rooms, nor sounds of laughter, nor trains that stop to deboard weary travelers seeking rest.  Yet somehow, the magic that makes life whirl like the wind in the mountains reminds me that we all remain connected to the past, to those we love, and not even death can stop the dance.

Sometimes, when we are caught up in the noise of life, it is vitally important to become quiet and listen to the music just beyond the doors.