Vietnam Veterans and “the Hard Work of Healing”

“Don’t forget | The Vietnam Vet” reads the large, round orange enameled lapel pin I found recently in a bin of era-specific military pins at the Cleveland VA recently. I wear it more and more these days, I guess because I’m concerned we already have forgotten the Vietnam vet — and I absolutely do not want us to.

There’s something that’s been bothering me ever since I attended the otherwise excellent and certainly one-of-a-kind “Vietnam War Summit,” a three-day summit held at the LBJ Library on the University of Texas at Austin campus recently. The conference featured three days of keynote speeches and all-star panel discussions on everything from war correspondents to activism to “lessons learned,” and yet the one important element it omitted, strangely, was any reference to healing from the war, which kept feeling like the elephant in the room.

I heard the need for it every time a speaker’s voice snagged on an emotional moment — whether it was Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, gently positioning commemorative pins on veterans’ lapels, and asking that we remember the families left behind, who also sacrificed — or John Kerry, who broke the rhythm of his keynote address when he paused, looked away and teared up, and then returned to his speech, with breaking voice, to describe needing Vietnam to be “more than a bitter memory” for those who served. Moments like these indicated the fertile ground I only wish we could have explored further.

Conference organizers said that by holding the summit, they hoped to “open a conversation” around the Vietnam war. Undoubtedly, they managed to do that. There certainly was a wide spectrum of Vietnam-evocative elements to experience, right down to antiwar protesters who arrived to picket Henry Kissinger, folk singers from the era, and really, almost everybody who was anybody from that momentous era.

But what struck me, despite the richness and inherent interest of the content, was how much I missed any reference to what I’d call “the hard work of healing.” Many Vietnam-era veterans have been involved in that process, overtly or otherwise, for decades now — and it might have been quite fruitful to see what progress they’ve made in healing from the war, and learn what they believe has worked for them, or others. Frankly, I would have been thrilled with even one panel discussion devoted to this topic, during which the speakers might not have been compelled to produce only success stories, or even necessarily to talk about themselves as successes along the path — but by addressing the overall topic, at whatever level they felt comfortable, somehow spur that essential synergistic reflection from the discussion. Such an experience might have proved beneficial indeed for panelists, veterans, even audience members, to experience..

There’s a great quote from theologian Paul Tillich, who said that “the first duty of love is to listen.” I often wonder whether we did a very good listening to the Vietnam veterans at all — whether then, or now. I want them to feel heard, and cared about. I want our neglect of them to end.

As someone who grew up in the shadow of the Vietnam War, I was too young to have peers who actually fought in it, but I was very aware and conscious of the war and the difficulty it presented for those who served. I guess I developed compassion, in a generalized sense, by coming through my childhood knowing that there were many who were tasked in extraordinary ways to fight in a war that was often strongly opposed at home. While I appreciated the point of view of protesters who could exercise their freedom of speech and try to demand answers for why we were fighting in Vietnam in the first place, my sympathies were always much more with those who served. Even as a child it seemed, they’re in a tough place. They’re doing what they were called to do, but many times, with mixed feelings, and little compassion for what they’re going through.

It was a relief when the war “ended,” and maybe I stopped wearing my commemorative POW/MIA bracelet with a soldier’s name on it to junior high — but in many ways, that war really never went away. And we, as Americans, have benefited from what these veterans learned, but we’ve never really turned around and thanked them for their service — or perhaps more importantly acknowledged our deficit, in not caring enough for them at the time, for neglecting them and allowing them to suffer when they came home.

As someone who feels like in my lifetime I have bridged the eras between then (Vietnam) and now (Iraq and Afghanistan), when I started my website, the first website about combat veterans and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”), I very consciously wanted to include Vietnam veterans in the conversation about healing. I also hoped that conversation would be ongoing.

Along the way, I’ve gotten to know some neat Vietnam veterans. But I’ve also been conscious of the ways in which they, and sadly our neglect of them, has paved the way for what has seemed to be better treatment of our current era of veterans. What bothers me though is that I don’t think we have stopped and acknowledged their pain and admitted our fault in that. Instead, we’ve chosen to improve our treatment of later generations — which ends up feeling like we’re glossing over what we did to Vietnam veterans, and hoping everyone can “just move on.”

Now, I don’t really know what was in the conference organizers’ plans when they omitted a segment that directly addressed healing from the war. All I can suggest is there is a handful of Vietnam veterans who have stayed involved in a continuous way in helping veterans heal from the war, and it would have been fantastic to see them involved in this discussion. I think of veterans like Shad Meshad and Ray Scurfield, DSW, LCSW, ACSW, and Artie Egendorf, Ph.D., and Claude Anshin Thomas — and I’m sure there are more I don’t even know about. Ican’t help thinking how fruitful it might have been to hear from these caring individuals, about what they have learned in the decades since the war.

Recently, I was in Los Angeles and was able to meet with one of these heroes, Shad Meshad, an Army captain and psychiatric social worker in Vietnam who co-founded the Vet Centers and then created the National Veterans Foundation, an organization he continues to lead. The NVF offices are filled with artwork, memorabilia and testimonials to their work over the years, and the “Lifeline for Vets” hotline buzzes with calls from veterans of every era, seeking help and support.

Meshad and NVF have continued to care about veterans around whom other organizations aren’t necessarily flocking to help — the homeless, the incarcerated, even women veterans (who can often be invisible in their own ways), just to name a few. It’s hard to put into words how meaningful it was to me to meet someone like Shad Meshad.

“His commitment to veterans is off the charts,” says Ray Scurfield, a longtime friend and colleague. What I appreciated the most is the sense that this commitment has been unwavering since the war, through good times and bad. He’s been a consistent “throughline” in the conversation we could be having. Veterans need friends like this. Later generations of veterans are going to need friends like this too of their own.

So what does Shad Meshad know about healing that he can pass on to others, who will be consumed with this same mission for future generations? What does Ray Scurfield know, and Artie Egendorf, and Claude Anshin Thomas, just to name a few who come immediately to mind — and how can we both benefit from their wisdom, as well as let them know we appreciate what they’ve already done?

We don’t learn more from history, as Bob Kerrey observed at the summit, because it’s hard work. So is healing, and so is talking about healing, apparently. Let’s hope the next time we broach the conversation, we bring those veterans who’ve spent a lifetime working on this topic into the fold, and ask them what they know.

I can’t be the only person who feels we have an unparalleled opportunity to learn from these wise servants and compassionate healers while we can.


Note: If you’d like to see any of the 19 videos produced at the Vietnam War Summit, and made available on YouTube by the LBJ Library, click here.

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