Decades of Shame

I’ve mentioned several times in this blog the shame I felt when I came back from my many trips to Vietnam during the war and was greeted by crowds who spat on me and called me “baby killer” and “butcher.” But the shame went beyond the end of the Vietnam war.

When I finally got back to the states in May 1975 after the fall of Saigon, I was physically ill with ear damage from the shelling of Saigon, amoebic dysentery, and pneumonia due to inadequate diet, sleep deprivation, and muscle fatigue. Worse, I was suffering from a spiritual-psychological ailment we had no name for. Now we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). It was the result of the unspeakable events I’d witnessed and participated in while in combat and during the final days of Saigon. I had nightmares, panic attacks, irrational rages, and flashbacks.

Damaged as I was, I returned to NSA, my employer. I was a pariah, a man deeply involved in a shameful war that no one wanted to talk about. People treated me as if I smelled bad. It was, I can say looking back over a long life, the worst time I have ever lived through.

The shame lasted for more than three decades. I moved on in my career, worked at a variety of jobs, rose as a manager until I eventually achieved executive rank. But I never spoke of Vietnam. It was an infamous war. All involved in it were tainted.

Then, about six years ago—as I have related earlier in this blog—I was invited to something I’d never before heard of: a welcome-home party for Vietnam veterans. Once I was there, young people, not even born when Saigon fell, shook my hand and said to me those words I had so yearned to hear: “Welcome home. And thank you for your service.”

I cried.

In the years since, I have met more and more Vietnam veterans who have put aside their shame and have justly taken pride in their service. I do, too. I put my life on the line for the good of my country. I’ve suffered mental and physical wounds. I grieve over the men who died at my side. But I’d do it again if duty called.

Most of all, I am no longer shamed. I’m proud.

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