Salute to Veterans: Vets’ reaction to war can be very different

“Listen to what vets say … and what they don’t say.”
I have lived with a veteran all my life — first my father, then my husband. Both men were profoundly affected by their military experiences.
My father, Walter G. Eaton, talked constantly of World War II, living the campaigns of Africa, Italy and France over and over again. Almost 60 years ago, when I was seven, I could recite his stories — and right before he died in 1996, I heard him telling his physician the same ones.
His tank was shelled in Africa and he was awarded a Purple Heart. His hospital ship was bombed in the Mediterranean. He was aboard for transport to Italy for care of his shoulder wound and malaria. Dad survived by catching a piece of floating wood, but scores of men, as well as the ship, were lost. He felt the greatest grief for the nurses who were obviously aboard to provide care for the sick and wounded. They all died.
I heard about the wine and women of France, driving the British “lorry” on the wrong side of the road, selling U.S. Army sheets to the Arabs, and learning to hate camels and Spam. Born in 1921, he also learned to smoke in the Army, because cigarettes were free — and eventually contributed to his death 50 years after the war.
I grew up watching him relive the war via television documentaries, movies and dozens of books with gruesome photographs. The effect of war on my father was visible and the memories never faded for him. Even though he survived the battles, in many respects, his life stopped dead in its tracks at the age of 25.
My husband, David W Lewis, on the other hand, never talks about Vietnam. I know virtually nothing of his experiences there. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1967 to 1973. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam; the first began 10 days after our wedding day in April, 1970, and the second one in 1972 when our son was born
Our mail was often delayed or never received because of communication blackouts, but the letters that did come through only talked of home and family, not of war.
Our first son was born while his Navy ship moved up the Quaviet River. It was years later that I learned what the mission was — picking up bodies. Only one time did he mention to someone else within my hearing that he hated sitting on board the ship listening to the night voices, pleading and crying from shore to be picked up.
He sat absolutely still as we watched a production of “Miss Saigon” in New York City on a special weekend away several years ago. His only comment was, “That was real. It happened just like that.”
When he got out of the Navy, he spoke even less about his six years of service and two tours of duty in Vietnam. “I know what I don’t want to be” is all I can remember him saying on the day he was discharged. Obviously, he wasn’t too sure about that when he went in as an 18-year-old right out of high school. But neither one of us knew who he was when he came out. We both had to rediscover each other as so much had changed. Unlike my father, however, his life was launched by an absolute commitment to personal growth.
Although I have never personally experienced a battle, I have lived with war my whole life. Veterans Day is not a day I ignore. It is a day to give thanks for lives spared from the battlefield but realize those same lives were not spared from internalized battles. I am not peeved that the banks and post offices are closed — this national recognition was earned by greater sacrifices than we will ever know.
I regret that families often use the day off to go to the mall to take advantage of Veterans Day sales rather than participate in Veterans Day ceremonies. It is hard to teach youngsters what the past feels like. Communities need to support public displays of appreciation for our military, so that our children may learn to value the services rendered and sacrifices made.
We as individuals can also offer some measure of thanks through a contribution to a veterans organization, a visit to a Veterans home, or a personal word to a veteran in the neighborhood. Bake a pie, send a card overseas, buy a cup of coffee. And most of all, listen to their story. Listen to what they say — and what they don’t say.
Editor’s note: Patricia Lewis is nurse practitioner at Bristol Internal Medicine and a New have resident.

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