I was trying to figure out how to celebrate Veterans' Day today. After deciding against a parade [too rainy] and a 21-gun salute [too noisy] I briefly considered offering "aid and comfort" to the platoon of military men I've consorted with over the years. Despite my willingness to skip down memory lane, I realized my generosity would also require several exhumations, so I decided just to call up any survivors with my personal thank you.
Easier said than done. According to my Google searches, Bill was arrested for terrorist threats against his wife, so, apparently life after S.E.A.L. Team One hasn't been a bed of roses. Ever the optimist, I pressed on, only to discover that Peter ["Captain Midnight" in Vietnam, Marine I-Corps] punched out another lawyer in court, according to one account. Unfortunately, he's been disbarred. Think I'll pass. Sounds like Fred is putting his Green Beret training to good use and living a survivalist's life somewhere in Montana, according to his ex, who says his children haven't heard from him in years. Mike, who was a jet jockey on a carrier, retired as a two-star admiral, but I napalmed that relationship years ago, so I settled for reading about his latest career as a motivational speaker. My search was not going well.
Until I remembered someone I've known since we were in our early twenties. After graduating from college, he got a low number in the draft lottery. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, he enlisted in the Navy. After OCS he went to Vietnam to be a Sitting Duck, more commonly known as a Swift Boat Commander, driving tin cans up and down the Mekong Delta for Charlie to shoot at. He came back, began his career, got married, had kids, got divorced, the same stuff the rest of us do. Vietnam lay dormant for forty years. Then, two years ago, I was astonished to learn that he had won a Bronze star and several commendations. I believe our conversation went something like, "How come you never told me?" "You never asked."
Twice bullets left skidmarks as they whizzed by his head. Twice he could have flown home in a body bag.
Talking to other women, I've heard about decorated soldiers who haven't told their wives about the medals they've received. I used to think it was because they were humble heroes. But lately I think that they simply refuse to relive those moments of terror again, which would surely be required if they were to show us their hard earned hardware.
So I called up my forty year friend, who had originally returned from Vietnam intending to write a book about his experiences over there, but put the project aside, deciding to let the luxury of having a life to live distract him from recording the memories of some very unpleasant times.
The subject of Vietnam has almost never come up. In fact, I rarely remember that he was ever in Southeast Asia.
I have never told him how much his safe return meant to me. I have never told him how much I appreciate the simple act of being able to call him whenever I feel like it to have a laugh, hear a good story, or just chat about our children.
At nine thirty this morning I rang him up.
"Hiya. I was wondering who I could call to wish a Happy Veterans' Day. And I realized I could call YOU!. Everyone else is dead. So Happy Veterans' Day!!"
"Well, thank you. I've been sitting around in my uniform just waiting for someone to call." Mr. Comedy.
We chatted for a good fifteen minutes. About everything and nothing, like friends do. I never got around to thanking him for being in my life for the last forty years. I never told him how glad I am that he came home. How much I would have missed him. How sad I would have been.
Or how hard it is to tell him. Especially on days like today.
Thank you, my longtime friend.