Mary Bahr - Vietnam 1969
Who Do We Remember on Memorial Day?
Memorial Day was established in 1868 to remember the war dead. Its official observance arose from the practice after the Civil War for towns across the US to go out and decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. My neighbors in Northern Minnesota still observe that practice, cleaning the grave stones of their loved ones and leaving flowers.
Today we observe Memorial day in Gainesville in many ways, one being Vets for Peace’s Memorial Mile on 8th Ave and 34th street by West Side Park. This display of tombstones commemorating the dead from Iraq and Afghanistan has exceeded a mile in length this year and comes back up the avenue on the North side. A blank space is marked there for the tombstones we will have to add next year. Also on the North side is the ribbon project commemorating both soldier and civilian deaths in Iraq. Civilian deaths are estimated (because there are no official counts that are comprehensive) at 1.3 million, based on a lancet epidemiological study and trends established from reported deaths since that study was completed. American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan stand at 4,975 this morning. But these are not the only losses we remember on Memorial Day. There is, for instance, the suicide rate for GIs who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan which Army statistics show has doubled since 2003. The Army does not keep track of suicides in the States from returning soldiers, but in 2005 CBS news did a survey of 45 states who reported there were at least 6,256 suicides among veterans that year. Many of these were Iraq and Afghan vets. That’s 120 each and every week, in just one year. Some estimates for 2003 – 2008 put the total number of suicides amongst veterans at 13,000, far exceeding the deaths from combat.
A group of Iraq vets met in Silver Springs Maryland last year for Winter Soldier II where testimony was given by the soldiers themselves about what they experienced in Iraq. I attended and blogged about the meeting for VFP. After their often harrowing presentations these soldiers were debriefed by health care professionals. This was done because of strong concerns about suicide and mental health amongst this group of young people who I found to be exceptionally intelligent and strong individuals. One of them reported to me that during a debriefing of the entire group of about 250 soldiers at the end of the three day conference a question was asked: How many of you have thoughts of suicide? And the entire group raised their hands.
It is clear that those who survive conflict and its traumas come back changed forever. Some come back to a life they had never planned or dreamed of where it is a constant struggle to continue a normal life and to survive. The stories about the struggles of families ranging from suicide, murder and domestic abuse to personality changes witnessed by loved ones are numerous. We are indeed fighting the war over here. But this phenomenon is not limited to our present day wars. It extends back in time 40 years and more to other conflicts including Vietnam which is my war. I spent my war working in the headquarters at Tan Son Nhut Air Base far from the traumas of the jungle that fellow soldiers, including my brother and friends in VFP experienced. We did come under regular rocket attacks and my quarters were sandbagged. I had friends on base killed by rockets and the air crews I worked with suffered great losses. But the real sacrifice was made on the ground in the rice paddies and jungles by both soldiers and civilians. The civilian loss in Vietnam is estimated at 3.5 million. Our soldiers on the ground came face to face with this constant loss of buddies who they loved as much or more than their family members and of civilians including the women and children caught in and often participating in the guerilla war to defend their homes. We got glimpses of the daily horrors in the news such as the 1968 My Lai story in which a whole village was gunned down and left in the ditches by the rice paddies by an American army unit. My personal memory of the real war in Vietnam came from a visit to the med-Evac on base one day where I participated in a party for a young man who was celebrating his 21st birthday. The lights were turned out and the cake with 21 candles was the only light in the room. Other patients and nurses gathered around his bedside with his nurse urging him to the blow out the candles on the tray in front of him. He hesitated and she encouraged him again. The candle light reflected off the bandages that covered his face which has been obliterated by a grenade. I stood wondering what the fate of this young man would be. I still wonder.
Our Government learned from Vietnam to control the news coming from the battle field. Winter Soldier is a look past that control into the real horrors of war for our soldiers and for civilians. Their testimony is available on the web. There is a link to it on the side bar on the Vets for Peace blog. We need to remember and try to understand these looks past the censors so that we do not repeat our past and present mistakes. So our grand children do not have to deal with the pain and suffering of war all over again.
Our second speaker is Stephen Hunter, SSgt. USMC who served 22 months in Vietnam as helicopter electrician and machine gunner. One of his buddies in Vietnam was Rusty Sachs who participated in the original Winter Soldier testimony in 1971 and who threw his combat medals over the wall at the White House to protest the war along with another protestor and Gainesville resident that Stephen and I work with today, creator of the Memorial Mile, Scott Camil. Stephen was on the ground in Vietnam and he is here to give you another window into that war and its effects on the survivors.
Stephen Hunter SSgt USMC, Living With PTSD
I don't have a written speech so I will speak from my heart.
I was a Staff Sergeant in the Marine Corps and spent 22 months in
Almost everyone wanted to fly.
And some were juvenile and stupid. We shot at water buffalo, dropped incendiary grenades on grass huts. That was really dumb, but I remember us doing it.
I met a high school friend at
Another high school friend named Freddy was killed. In our squadron we had crewmen, pilots and co-pilots killed. One co-pilot was hit dead center in his forehead, shot through the windshield of the cockpit while they were flying. A crew chief friend of mine was killed and the rotor wash from the blades blew his blood all over the cabin. I helped clean it up - with av-gas - aviation gasoline. No one smoked... My squadron, during its years in
The last 40 years have not been fun living with some of those memories. It haunts me. Every night when I watch the evening news, I get teary-eyed when they announce the names of the recently killed in the
There were near misses that I can only credit my guardian angels for my survival. Once we were delivering C-rations and ammunition to an artillery outpost on a mountain top. Part of the steep hill top had been leveled off enough to hold a Howitzer, to make a bunker for the gun crew and a large wooden deck built for a helo landing pad. It was precariously hanging off the side of the mountain - a drop-off of about 600 feet straight down until you hit ground to tumble another few hundred feet.
We had a new co-pilot flying us in. All of a sudden there was a crash and a jolt. The pilot quickly grabbed the stick and pulled us up. The tail of the helicopter had been too low. The tail wheel missed and the pylon hit the edge of the deck. We could see daylight through the riveted seam on the pylon part of the fuselage. On our way flying back to the base our wingman could see our tail shaking and radioed to us that we'd better land before we broke apart. We did.
On a search and destroy operation, Operation Union II, our squadron along with about 50-60 other choppers were taking ground troops out in the field to start their operation. It was very "hot" zone! I was the gunner on the port side (the left), shooting out a window. The door was on the other side which put me toward the enemy, The chopper served as cover so the Marines could get out and find cover in the rice paddy. That day was unforgettable. After a few trips in and out dropping off troops, we headed to the base to refuel. The crew chief and I took a quick stroll around the plane looking for damage. We had 27 holes that came in my side of the helicopter. The crew chief and I looked at each other in amazement, eyes wide open, speechless. No one was hit, nothing was hit. No wire bundle, no hydraulic line, no electronic box, not anything was damaged except holes through the skin. As on so many missions I was on, my Guardian Angels were working overtime!
I was a passenger on another helicopter. I don't remember where I was going, just a passenger that day. It was on a CH-53, a very large helicopter from another squadron. There were several passengers and about three crew members in the cabin. The pilot and co-pilot were in the cockpit. They were also transporting prisoners, Viet Cong POWs. They were bound with a stick behind their knees and inside their elbows. Hands were bound together in front of their knees. Two people would pick them up with the stick and pitched them around like a sack of potatoes. It must have been brutal for the prisoners. The handlers thought it was fun.
One of the crew members dragged a prisoner onto the tail ramp that raised and lowered hydraulically. The prisoner was blindfolded and didn't know where he was being taken - until they took his blindfold off. He was precariously teetering on the edge of the ramp. I guess we were flying about 2,000 feet up. The crew member used his controls and lowered and raised the ramp to watch the prisoner shake with fear of falling out. After a while of teasing him and laughing, the ramp was lowered enough so that the prisoner tumbled out... I wanted to do something about that. It was wrong. But, I knew better because I might get killed for talking.
I was flying as gunner one day and we were transporting a female prisoner. As she lay on the floor between the crew chief and myself, I saw her inching toward the crew chief, arms out in front of her and eyeing his pistol hanging on his side. I kicked her in the head. I've never felt good about that except that she would have killed us all if she could have. We had a saying about death - "Better thee than me."
These experiences and many, many others have stayed with me over the last 40-plus years. They can lay dormant for years, then they pop up their heads again. I call them my
I recently read an article written by an Army Staff Sergeant from the
After all the years and now that PTSD is recognized as being a serious wartime issue, the VA is taking a very active approach to provide care for all who need it. I have two counselors and a Psychiatrist whom I see almost weekly. Despite what you may read about the shortcomings of the VA, a lot of positive changes have taken place in the VA medical system since I first used them 40 years ago.
David Henderson is a student of history and spoke on how to use that knowledge to change our repeated rush to war. His words echo those of General Smedley Butler, Marine Corp commander and author of the book War is a Racket - A few profit, Many Pay.
Dave Henderson The Cost and Profit of War
First: a disclaimer:
I am not a combat veteran, I served in the Navy during the brief period of peace between the Korean police action and Viet Nam; something I am grateful for every time I think of it. I know that if I were of the right age, I might now be in the middle of Iraq or Afghanistan, and the sad part of this is that if I were now in Iraq or Afghanistan, I would have no more insights or better understanding of what is going on now than I did 50 years ago.
I will start this rant with a quotation from an unlikely source, Hermann Goerring, the head of the German air force during WW II. He was interviewed while awaiting trial at Nuremberg.
'Why of course the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament.’ .......... The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing a country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
From our own recent history we have seen this principle in action. I want to further note that we now while we are involved in a devastating economy, that enlistments in the armed forces are up. Our young men and women, now faced with few options for jobs and careers are enlisting in record numbers.
As Mary noted, Memorial day was started as a day to honor the victims of the Civil War, but it has morphed into an occasion where all veterans are honored for their service to their country. The problem that I have with Memorial Day, the conundrum that I think we all face is that by observing this national holiday, we are endorsing and affirming the policies and lies that took us to war in the first place.
And why has our nation engaged in almost continuous war. War is the most profitable enterprise invented by man. (All nations of necessity borrow money to go to war) and we have been warned for years about the Military-Industrial Complex.
It is worth noting the part money plays in controlling the everyday political life of our country. After losing a recent committee vote, Democratic Senator Richard Durbin from Illinois said ”And the banks-hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created- are still the most powerful lobby on Capital Hill. “And they frankly own the place.”
Paul Craig Roberts, an economist and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the first Reagan administration, also at one time, an Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal and he has held numerous academic appointments; started off a recent article with these words: “What do you suppose it is like to be elected president of the United States only to find that your power is restricted to the service of powerful interest groups?”
“A president who does a good job for the ruling interest groups is paid off with corporate directorships, outrageous speaking fees, and a lucrative book contract. “If he is young when he assumes office, like Bill Clinton and Obama, it means a life of luxurious leisure.
And he starts off the next paragraph: “Fighting the special interests doesn’t pay and doesn’t succeed.”
What can we as UU’s and people who would like to make a difference do?
I would suggest several things: Study, discuss, learn about how our country and the world really works. We must understand what is wrong before we can correct it. Then don’t dwell on what is wrong. Rather, form a vision of how the world might be, not one founded in fiction or by blindly adopting some existing ‘..ism’, but a world of peace and justice where our young people can grow and fulfill their lives. Hold this vision in your minds and hearts and when the number of people who share a similar vision reaches a critical mass, things will change.
There are other things you can do. As quickly as possible, stop paying money to the “Banks”. Bank locally. I was with Barnett Bank and then the Bank of America for 25 years. I have recently moved to a credit union owned by its members in only five counties. Buy locally. Trade locally. Plant a garden. Minimize the use of credit cards. Remember, the banks get 2-6 percent of each transaction even if you avoid the interest and fees. Where you can, pay off any bank loans and borrow locally.
Above all, remember Memorial Day. Remember the victims. Our service men have been sent into harms way where it may have been kill or be killed. In many cases those who have returned have been abandoned by our Government. They need our help to recover and live fulfilling lives just as do the millions and millions of other victims around the world.
Those are my thoughts about Memorial Day!