Presentations and Veterans (5)

So, in summary, the audience I most want to reach with my presentations are the young. They need to know and understand what happened in Vietnam. But my favorite listeners are the veterans, especially those of Vietnam. I share with them the bond that men have with others who have fought by their side. That’s the strongest human bond I’ve ever known.

Most of the veterans I talk to are not much like me. I spent my career as a spy. I’m highly educated, with a Ph.D. I’m a writer of literary fiction. I’m a linguist competent in seven languages. Most of the veterans are the most ordinary men you can imagine—high school graduates, maybe with some college. The majority are blue-collar kinds of guys who worked with their hands. But many, like me, are now retired and dote on their grandchildren.

The differences among us don’t matter. We share that bond I spoke of. We don’t say much to one another. It’s a look in the eyes, maybe a handshake or a pat on the back or even a slug to the bicep. We know and recognize each other as brothers who share memories beyond the imagination of those who have not served.

There’s another reason why I feel so close to Vietnam veterans. Ours was the war that failed. We came home to crowds who spat on us and called us baby killers and butchers. Most of us didn’t speak of Vietnam for decades. Everyone except us considered it a shameful war and blamed us. We stayed silent.

And the war ended in disaster. The evacuation from Saigon, during which I nearly lost my life, was a shameful retreat. We abandoned tens of thousands of Vietnamese who had fought at our side. We ran away and made no effort to save them. A shameful war came to an even more shameful end.

Only in the last few years have people started to change their way of seeing Vietnam veterans. We are now accepted along with the veterans of Iraq and Syria. Young people at gatherings come up to me and say, “Thank you. And welcome home”—words I yearned to hear for decades. Now, when I hear them, I cry.

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