I had cause last week to question three Viet Nam veterans in Easton about their perspectives about Veterans Day on Nov. 11 and its meaning to them. All three are friends of mine who spoke candidly and passionately about a war that forever marked their lives.
Their emotional reactions surprised—and impressed me. I quickly understood that our national holiday, often celebrated with parades and lofty remarks, meant something visceral to them. They openly grieved the loss of young lives in a faraway country scarcely known until the United States committed military forces in an internal civil war.
These three men served commendably and then gained success in their personal and professional lives. More than 58,000 other soldiers left their futures in Southeast Asia. They came home to national and private cemeteries; some who returned exhibited physical and emotional wounds treated by doctors and time.
One of the three— all of whom generously offered me time to query them—talked about a serious hand wound that rendered his right hand almost useless. Shrapnel had invaded his hand. His combat wounds required evacuation and subsequently three weeks in a MASH unit before being flown home.
When this friend, an infantry platoon leader during the war, was rotating out of the Army at Ft. Dix, NJ, a military doctor looked at his damaged hand and offered him a 45 percent disability. He could not even sign his approval. Instead, another soldier, unknown to my friend and working in the clinic, intervened and arranged for my friend to receive three weeks of additional therapy.
He regained use of his hand. His wound was no longer disabling.
This man earned a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart. Another one of the three people whom I interviewed earned two Bronze Stars for valor; he also had been wounded twice. He arrived in Viet Nam as a Private First Class and left 13 months later as a Sergeant.
The latter friend said he thought he was “the only 6’3” guy who could fold himself up and get inside his helmet when things became difficult.” Humorous comment with an edge.
A common theme among the three veterans was the opportunity to serve with, and respect people who came into military service with educational and economic backgrounds far different and detached than theirs. This is a common refrain that I have heard for years.
A third friend, a young officer in Viet Nam, spoke about developing a close relationship with his driver. Of the three veterans, he was the one most animated about serving with men who grew up with none of his advantages. He treasured that experience. He fully appreciated the Army as a great leveler.
Our conversation could easily have veered into a discussion about mandatory national service, including, but not exclusively military service. One of the veterans pointed to Israel as a country that requires mandatory military service, except for the ultra-orthodox.
I have digressed. I have written previously expressing support for mandatory national service, to include civilian projects.
Veterans Day (known as Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom) is a poignant time for those who served, comparable to Memorial Day. If so inclined, they might pause to pay silent homage to young troops who died in combat. The pain still resides in their souls.
In two days, I will think about the three veterans who answered my questions in a way filled with emotion and remembrance. I will thank them again. I will honor their service and bravery.
Wartime angst may diminish but not disappear.
My respect for veterans will be lasting.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.