What Can You Do to Help Our Vietnam Veterans?

I’ve visited the Vietnam Memorial several times, with Vietnam vets or alone. It’s always struck me as a very somber, dignified place. There are others who see it, or what it stands for, in a different way. The story of Jeff Davis, and his reaction to it, is heartbreaking:

Jeff Davis committed suicide years after he returned from Vietnam

On Sept. 15, 1984, Jeffery Davis left his shift as a Washington, D.C., plainclothes police officer and, as he often did, went drinking. After midnight he ended up at the Wall he had described as “foreboding.” Later, the Bronze Star winner walked away into the night and shot himself with his service revolver.

He was 36, and he left behind Alice and their two children, Kelly, 6, and Scott, 3.

Fellow Vietnam vets holding a vigil at the memorial, which had been dedicated two years earlier, found his body the next morning.

I alluded in an earlier post that I’d had a run-in with two other Vietnam vets. In the interest of privacy, I am going to greatly anonymize the details of the first one. (The second I shall save for another time.)

A gentlemen sat down loudly next to me on a return flight from DC two months ago. He was friendly with some of the other folks in our row, but I was neck deep in work (call me a nerd) and I just powered through my project. About halfway through the flight, we started chatting. He wore an expensive watch of a brand I’d never seen before. He was an Army vet, he told me, who grew up in Compton, back before Compton was Compton. (The hoodiest of the hoods.)

And he went through a tour of duty in Vietnam and returned to the States for special forces training. I should say I am usually adept at picking up on bs. The con-men need you to swallow their nonsense. He merely told me his story and did not care if I believed him or not. He shared that he had to move out of California when he returned from his second hitch in ‘Nam  because the kind folks in LA would pick fights with him. And he could not very well let an insult stand. The VA suggested he move out of state and he did. To Texas.

As is the case (sometimes) with the land of the Longhorns, he struck it rich. He called himself a stupid man with a lot of common-sense. He bought up land around a major city that was being used for farming. And when the city stretched out he made a killing. He now works in real estate development and house construction. He rattled off the who’s-who in Texas and I knew them all, public figures who used his business.

I thanked him for his service and he seemed to find that strange. He could not accept what I was saying, or it seemed apart from him. Perhaps I am not explaining it well. But that was my impression. I shared some of my stories and he was very keen on labeling me a hero. And I was a linguist, far from the heroics he had encountered. It was odd, but when I gave him my in-the-rear-with-the-gear stories, he told me he “was getting goosebumps.” (Several times I was tip of the spear, but still those were not for tactical reasons but for intelligence ones. And high above the battle, in a plane, does not compare to traipsing through the jungle.)

People are put in our paths for a reason and we chatted more at the baggage claim. He introduced me to his wife, a “good Christian lady” as he referred to her. I thought he was going to cry when his bag came, so I gave him hug. I am not much of a hugger with either dudes or strangers, but I called him brother and did it none-the-less. He had told me he was the last of his unit still alive. And I hope it stays that way for a long time. One day, maybe, he will see himself as the heroic guy.

I told a friend later about meeting him. My only regret, I told my friend, was that I did not tell his wife what a hero her husband was. My friend shook her head, and told me: she knows. A wife knows. 

I have a dream of getting a novel published one day and, when I retire from the Navy, running workshops for vets like my Texas friend. To help them tell and write their stories. But then, I still got some seas to sail before I hang up the aquaflage and maybe someone will have taken the idea and run with it. Please do. These guys, like Jeff Davis, like my Texas friend, are our brothers and they need a good listening to. And perhaps a good reading of as well.