March 29, 2018 was a day like any other day, except for the men and women who served our country in Vietnam. There were an estimated 7,500 women who served there in various capacities (eight dead, one killed in action).
President Obama first asked America to honor Vietnam veterans in 2012, and it became an official day of recognition in 2017. National Vietnam War Veterans Day it is officially called.
More than 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam between 1964 and 1973. Vietnam, as the Burns and Novick documentary series reminded us, has never gone away despite the passage of time and the establishment of relations between the countries. I wrote about Vietnam in another blog so I won’t repeat what I said there.
On this day, around the country, there were events and moments to honor those who served in that conflict. Vietnam was not a declared war, our involvement was slow to occur and then with the passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964, the administration had the authority to ramp up the American presence and launch military operations. For all purposes, it was an American war: there was killing and battles, body counts, disrupted families and permanently wounded soldiers. Vietnam was in our living rooms nightly, discussed at the dining room table, and divided the country and families. Our recognition of veterans is not about the politics of the war or even the high human cost of war, it is to honor those who answered the call and service.
Earlier this week, I spent time with three poets. One, the father of a young man who served in Afghanistan but lost his life here in America, a combat doctor who served in Vietnam, and a soldier who was seriously wounded during his service in Vietnam. All three had tremendous perspectives on war and the high cost that war extracts.
One of the poets was John Musgrave, who was interviewed extensively in the Burns and Novak series. He served in the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment. I have heard John speak twice, and each time I am more and more impressed. His voice is soft, almost raspy. He is tall and walks with the aid of a arm brace, his eyes are kind, and his manner is embracing. He is someone who has seen it all, and experienced near death, as he was seriously wounded in an ambush. Marines do not leave Marines behind, so he was removed to safety. He was one of the lucky ones, even though he spent nearly two years in the hospital. John Musgrave was a volunteer, 75 percent of those who served enlisted. His call to service was like many of his generation, to fight communists. On the other side of the war, young Vietnamese answered the call to fight Americans.
John’s poetry comes from the heart, but it penetrates like a hot knife through butter. His poems reflect on his experiences but also search for meaning where there may be none. In his real life, John works with veterans who have served in various conflicts and military actions around the world. He counsels them, connects them with services, and helps them find ways to move forward in life. In addition to being a poet, he has worked with Theater of Way, a theatrical group that travels to military bases and hospitals to read plays written by Greek general preparing their troops for battle.
If you watch the Burns and Novick series, you will hear John relate his experiences in quiet but powerful words. You can sense the ghosts walking through his stories and you can almost see the young man who went to Vietnam full of idealism who morphed into someone who just wanted to survive. He did, barely.
A cousin of mine, as I relate in my other blog, reveled in his war experience but came back to a life in chaos, and who succumbed to the effects of exposure to Agent Orange. He had problems before he went to Vietnam but was wired for disaster when he returned.
I respect John Musgrave, especially for what he has done since returning from Vietnam. Every veteran has their own stories, experiences and perspective on their service and what to make of it. These folks got the fuzzy end of the lollypop when they returned from Vietnam. The country did not welcome them back, in fact a lot of people, including many veterans of other conflicts, turned their backs on them. We sent them to war (not a conflict) and then mostly deserted them when they returned.
In the years since then, the country has reversed field and finally provided them with services and support, but not nearly enough. Programs for veterans are woefully under-funded and under-supported. It is worse than a shame; it is a crime how this country, primarily our federal government, has continued to fail these folks. Private organizations have stepped up to help but there is so much more we should be doing to support them.
Many Vietnam Vets have returned to Vietnam in recent years. For John, it will come with mixed feelings. Many people wanted him to have the opportunity so a go-fund-me fundraiser was started to provide funds for John and his wife to travel to Vietnam. It raised almost $10,000 for that purpose. Read about it here.
“I just think it’s going to do me a lot of good to see that that country has moved on,” he said. He has spent the years following his service coming to grips with his experience and helping others through their own war experiences. After returning from Vietnam he helped raise money for a Vietnam War Memorial on the campus of the University of Kansas. And he started to write. Notes to the Man Who Shot Me: Vietnam War Poems, is a book he published in 2009. He continues to write. The words pour forth. At the poetry reading he premiered several new poems, still written on scraps of paper. While his voice is soft, it strains with the power of his words, punctuating forty year old images that are as fresh as the breath in his lungs. Lungs that bear the truth of scars from the man who shot him. From that hole in his chest one life ended and another began.
The term patriot is overused and misused. In my opinion there are very few deserving of what the word truly means, but John Musgrave is one. He has proven his love of country, served his country in war, and has acted in the true spirit of our country’s ideals through his advocacy and service to veterans.
So on his day, and every day, we should thank our veterans and appreciate their service and sacrifice.