On a cool September morning in 1966, I stood outside my Catholic high school, waiting for my best friend to hop off the bus. She did, crying.
My eyes welled up, and I marked the day in my mind as the one on which I lost my first friend to Vietnam.
We lived in a military town, Chicopee, Massachusetts, then home to Westover Air Force base and the 99th Bomb Wing. Westover remains even today the place from which C5A’s still deploy, and is the only Northeastern base with a runway large enough to land the space shuttle. Soldiers and their families made up a healthy percentage of that city’s population, and businesses marked the ebb and flow of their balance sheets by the months or years the 99th was overseas.
As for me, I just wanted to see the guys who left return intact and relatively unscathed. I was naïve; I did not yet know about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), trauma or the brutal reality of guerilla warfare, thing that would leave so many fighting wars of the spirit when the battlefields were long since gone.
In the next five years, I added 16 more names to The Wall — friends I met through the service, and boys from my hometown who were drafted, who enlisted; many who simply never came home, or came home in one of those flag draped boxes.
By the time I reached 18, I was a war protester. I cared about my “flyboy” friends, and wanted them alive and well. Of my protests, my friends said, “Don’t rock the boat,” but I was always a bit left of center, so I rocked away.
The based closed a few years after the failure of the Vietnam War. Chicopee took about ten years to regain its footing with a smaller Reserve and National Guard contingent, and the businesses and realtors adjusted to the loss of thousands of families who used to spend money on groceries, housing, and entertainment.
In the late 1990’s, I worked in social services in Massachusetts, specifically with housing and homeless issues. I found that the post-war neglect of our servicemen left many with untreated substance abuse problems and PTSD issues correlated with wartime service. Many were homeless, or at best, living on the edge.
I moved to Clarksville in 2004, landing less than a mile from the Tennessee gates of Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne. Déjà vu.
I’m forty years older, and, hopefully, 40 years wiser. Wise enough to know that we are once again in an untenable war. Our troops are not to blame for the bad decisions, the lies and the misinformation from our leaders in Washington. Many enlisted because they needed a job; they got one, and it is costing many their very lives.
I am once again living in a military town where my liberal views are the minority voice (but one that is increasingly if not visibly becoming a majority). I want nothing but the best for our troops, which means I want them alive, and home.
By the time I reached 56, I was, to my dismay, a war protestor — again. I proudly numbered myself in the 50% of the country that did not vote for George Bush, that does not support the bulk of his foreign and domestic policies. I stood in the front ranks of an increasing number of people, activists, and grassroots organizations disillusioned with the Iraqi War and our country’s leadership. Now I watch as my daughter recognizes names from the Fort Campbell roster of “killed in action.” She wasn’t around for Vietnam; she is all too aware of Iraq.
I’ve spent two years in Tennessee espousing the opposing point of view to the Iraq War, and will continue to do so until there is a reason not to: namely, the end of the war. Déjà vu. Who needs it?