SIX WORDS, SIMPLY: THANK YOU FOR SERVING OUR COUNTRY:

4 Jan

As a photojournalist, I describe myself as an observer walking around the box.  The other day, I stepped inside, drawn to a speaker expressing disdain for media. She was a military nurse thirty or so years ago. Vietnam. She volunteered to serve her country. But her country let her down. I listened. When she would hear me. I said, “That was media then. I am part of media here and now.”

I never got a chance to return to our conversation. Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry brought their Hanoi Jane-Hanoi John banner on stage. Back dropped with Freedom atop the Capitol’s Dome, it was so inspiring. moreso when one recognized one grip was Mike Benge wearing his POW uniform from the Hanoi Hilton, decorated with the number the Vietcong assigned him when they locked him up. Mike works in DC with the Agency for International Development as he has for years, skewing media misinformation Vietnam produced a generation of misfits. Overnight, Vietnam’s war made adults out of youth overnight who answered their country’s call. America should be ashamed it allowed itself to be dissuaded from offering these returning warriors the Badge of Honor I saw proferred upon WWII vets during dedication week for their memorial. Six words. Simply said, “Thank you for serving our country.”

Veterans cite deployment stats the media does not. Like 70% of the youth were volunteer, 30% were drafted. 15% were “of color;” a high percentage were white kids saying funny things like “y’all.” Then as now, military service was their stepping stone to new life tracks in transportation, law, medicine, or more. The woman who learned to distrust media is a nurse.  In Vietnam, she was a Captain.

Dexter Lehtinen became a lawyer, graduating first in his class, a member of the Florida House of Representatives and the Senate and a US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida arguing before the United States Supreme Court. In 1971, Dexter suffered a combat wound while serving as a reconnaissance platoon leader. A hole gaped his face. He was missing a cheekbone. His cheek is sunken, his scars pronounced but the wounds that will not heal are words from another military man, hurting his heart and soul. The man says Dexter, an officer, is one of many guilty for leading his troops into raping, ravaging and razing rampages.

The man said he heard it on good authority. Hearsay. Didn’t see it for himself. Sort of like looking for WMD’s, I guess, on bad intelligence. Dexter told his gathered veterans he does not want this man to be Commander in Chief.

Chaplain Claude Newby, blessed with Ronald Reagan good looks, stands too proud to crumble. He described the man who gave his life so Claude could live. Claude still can be crushed. He gripped the sides of his Lucite speaker’s stand. His memories are too painful. Claude did not speak for long. 

Carol Crowley spoke. Sergeant Jack Earl Gell, the first soldier to arrive back home from Vietnam, in a coffin, is her father. Jack fell at 3e Line 49. His message, “Tell my wife I love her,” is oft repeated by the fallen. Carol makes any father proud, especially the one guiding her from above.

Jim Warner described six years of imprisonment in the Hanoi Hilton. Tortures increased when the man wanting to be Commander in Chief testified in America’s government about the events he did not witness. No one questioned why a Navy man wore fatigues. Jim has good reason not to trust media. A lady reporter interviewing a fellow prisoner complained to Jim’s captors the man wasn’t co-operating. She left. His captors brutalized the prisoner. All for the sake of a headline and a deadline.

Warner’s captor’s increased their torture on prisoners because of the former navy man’s testifying on the Hill said US military deserved to be punished. Warner said his captors showed him a video of his mother in Detroit being interviewed. Her son was a good man. Acknowledging how proud he was of her would have betrayed him and his mates. Raised to respect his mom, God and country, It broke Warner’s heart. So, Warner said, ‘don’t know her. Probably some communist from another town.’ Warner was cut deeply by his own words.

John Seletyn’s wife was bustin’ proud of him standing alongside a Vietnamese family at the rally supporting the veterans. John held a photo of himself as a 19 year old soldier with Vietnamese friends he left behind. His wife wanted to know if I thought he was handsome. “Absolutely,” I said. I think he stood inches taller, right then.

Donna Rowe’s reduced grown men and women to tears. If you don’t know Kathleen’s story Donna will tell you. A true daughter of Massachusetts, a real Irishman, she says, Donna was Captain of the Nurses Army corps responsible for 150 up, 160 down at a time, working in the shadow of the blades. One day her men called in to land with a Vietnamese baby girl found while investigating a town reduced to smoldering rubble by Vietcong. Donna describes how a Mormon, a Catholic, an Irishman and a priest, baptized this child enroute to surgery. Donna described as the priest searched for holy water she told any water in his hand was holy water as far as she was concerned. Somewhere between sure death and the operating theatre in Vietnam, the child of freedom was named Kathleen. “If she had not made it,” Donna said, “I felt my men wouldn’t have either.” Kathleen and her godmother Donna were separated after the child was brought to America. And, as life happens, re-united by chance. Donna, great godmother to Kathleen’s first generation American children, has one named after her. A circle of love.

Steven Pritkin was one of the last to speak. Pritkin sought forgiveness from his band of brothers. He had testified, way back, for the Navy man on the Hill. The “kids,” aged into their mid 50’s plus, gentlemen of valor, embraced him as he alighted from the stage. The older ones, veterans of World War I, World War II and Vietnam, have since passed on.

Despite their country vilifying them when they returned home, it is with great pride and passion the Vietnam soldiers continue to honor God, country and warrior tradition within their sons, daughters. Some, today, are reservists still ready to serve their Commander in Chief. Just not the one responsible for their pain..

 Donna says wiping the tear from her cheek, “Baby killers? We were baby savers.”John promises to scan, for his new Vietnamese friend, the poster of an American soldier running to safety cradling an aged Vietnamese woman in his arms. His new friend promises to help John locate the people he left behind.

Not much has changed in the 30 years. Deadlines and headlines come faster. Newswires and pool reports replace spending a day in the Park opposite the Capitol with men and women still willing to die for our country. When asked, again, to explain why media still gets news wrong, I couldn’t answer, other than “Like Vietnam vets, some of us are good and honorable.”  

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