Americans are taking another look at the Vietnam War. It has, for example, attracted the gaze of acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns. A 10-part, 18-hour documentary series directed by Burns and Lynn Novick airs in September on PBS stations nationwide.
Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, ending the war. The 2008 National Defense Authorization Act authorized the Secretary of Defense to mark that 50th anniversary with commemorations that began across the country in 2012 and are to culminate on Veterans Day in 2025.
All this talk of Vietnam has me thinking of the veterans of that conflict I had the privilege to meet as I worked on a book that I initially thought would be only about our current war, the one set into motion by the 9/11 attacks.
In a 21st century edition of his best-selling 1976 Vietnam memoirs, Ron Kovic wrote in a new forward of the empathy he felt for Iraq and Afghanistan vets:
“For some, the agony and suffering, the sleepless nights, anxiety attacks, and some awful bouts of insomnia, loneliness, alienation, anger, and rage, will last for decades, if not their whole lives. They will be trapped in a permanent nightmare of that war, of killing another man, a child, watching a friend die … fighting against an enemy that can never be seen, while at any moment someone _ a child, a woman, an old man, anyone _ might kill you.”
Kovic, whose “Born on the Fourth of July” was also made into a movie starring Tom Cruise, isn’t the only Vietnam veteran to see parallels between the Southeast Asian conflagration and the war on terror. In Montrose, Colorado I met Vietnam vets who were inspired by a sense of camaraderie to make a special commitment to a grassroots project founded with Iraq and Afghanistan vets in mind.
Melanie Kline, who started the project known as Welcome Home Montrose, notes three Vietnam vets were on her founding board of directors. Others are behind outreach efforts like a tai chi class or have led PTSD support groups.
“As I met with organizations and service groups, mostly it was the Vietnam veterans and their wives who volunteered and gave their time,” Kline told me.
Frank Anderson was among the three Vietnam vets on the founding board of Welcome Home Montrose.
“You have these guys who see their buddies blown up, they see friends who lose limbs and in the end they say, ‘What did we accomplish?”’ Anderson told me, adding that the violent deaths and dismemberments of friends and a haunting sense of failure “weigh on vets’ minds.”
“War on terror?” said 27-year Marine veteran Gary Gratton, who fought in Vietnam. He paused to expel a hard breath, a venting of powerful, complex emotions.
“There’s no way to win that,” he told me, resuming his critique of America’s latest war. “You’re not fighting a country. You’re fighting radicals in that country. How can you win that?”
Gratton is at the Welcome Home Montrose drop-in center several days a week. He puts to work the expertise at navigating red tape that he honed during his years of active duty. He helps vets sign up for VA health and pension benefits, learn about the GI Bill and look for jobs. And he talks to them from his own experience about the benefits of mental health counseling.
He got an Afghanistan vet to participate in a project Welcome Home Montrose has championed to provide walking sticks with hand-carved eagle heads to vets as a way to honor them. The younger vet told Gratton, a man who understands postwar anger and anxiety, that when he is carving, he doesn’t think about his rage.
“He is so excited that he is doing something for someone else,” Gratton said.
“Some of these veterans are showing up at homeless shelters around our country while others have begun to courageously speak out against the senselessness and insanity of this war and the leaders who sent them there.” –Ron Kovic
Vietnam vet Lee Burkins believes that part of what vets can contribute to their community is an understanding of the toll of war that might slow any rush to possible new conflicts.
“It’s society that leads us into wars. We, especially as combat veterans, we have a lot we can say,” he told. “War is such a big part of our life. It’s just terrible. And we all accept it.”
Burkins said he once wrote a letter to a newspaper editor proposing that Middle East leaders be given LSD when they come together to talk about making peace. Newspaper readers may have thought it was a counter-culturalist rant. I saw it as a commentary on just how radically mankind would have to change to reject war. But Burkins said he wasn’t ranting or playing with metaphors. He truly wonders why skeptics would reject the idea of using drugs to change our idea of one another when we so desperately need to change perceptions.
For all his counter-culture ideas, Burkins is accepted and respected in conservative Montrose. In part that is because of his service.
Among his students is Mike Bronner, a Vietnam vet who for decades hid the anger war and returning from war had fired in him. When he finally let the anger show, it scared him and his family. He now comes to Welcome Home Montrose for a PTSD support group and for tai chi classes that Burkins leads.
“Lee’s been through some crap in his day. He has a way of calming you down,” Bronner said.
“I now believe I have suffered for a reason, and in many ways I have found that reason in my commitment to peace and non-violence.” –Ron Kovic
Bronner tries to set a good example for the younger old soldiers. In thinking of them, he helps himself. He and so many of the vets I met in Montrose have a fierce desire to serve.
Edward Tick, a psychotherapist based in New York state who has worked with vets from several wars since the 1970s, has urged civilians to emulate the commitment to service he has seen in veterans, and express it by listening without judgment to their stories and recognizing they have sacrificed for society. Most importantly, Tick has written, Americans must acknowledge veterans’ need to continue to contribute.
Welcome Home Montrose volunteers may lack Tick’s training and experience. But they have proven to be compassionate and close observers. They have come to conclusions similar to Tick’s about the efficacy of creating a place where veterans feel safe to gather and talk. They have brought generations together for mentoring and mutual support. They have offered those who have served a chance to continue contributing.