I wrote most of this letter last Memorial Day to acknowledge my experience as a Viet Nam Marine Corps infantry veteran who attended a “Peace Bridge” event to honor veterans and troops at Fort Lewis, in this, my home state of Washington, where I was born and raised. I am 62 years old.
Early this year I attended a “Peace Bridge” event and held an American flag as I remembered a time in 1967 when I was welcomed home by family and friends, and a neighborhood sign on a rural road near Issaquah, Washington. The sign embraced me as a returning neighborhood kid who had mowed the lawns, fished the streams and gathered moss for our neighbor ladies’ hanging baskets.
As I recalled that sign over the passing years, it seemed like a bridge back to my early life, to my home, to the land that I loved with all I could offer. In my heart the sign for me symbolized a collective welcome for my comrades and lost brothers and sisters, and it stood for our efforts to overcome. I felt that my service was but one part of a bridge that was supported by a history of honored sacrifice, and supported by the principles I assumed we shared as Americans.
My coming home was a gradual process and the many traumas during those Viet Nam years left me disconnected from others. My distrust grew during years when I witnessed our national corruption and manipulations. I put my head down and focused on education and my family.
I watched as self interest and ambiguity within this nation seemed to grow over time. As I saw objective despair and division it re-confirmed my loss of hope and my recognition that my young military comrades…..my friends and brothers and sisters of many races, had died for too little. I feared that their lives were devalued by those who lived in ignorance and disrespect for the pain of those who sacrifice, for those who serve. My skepticism grew as the years passed, and to avoid my grief I avoided things veteran or military, and many things of community.
Over forty years I often thought for myself and my brothers and sisters, “How could this be my homeland? How could we have been so wrong about all of you, at the same time we were so right about each other?”
Then I was invited to the Peace Bridge in March of this year, invited by a valued friend and neighbor to attend a day to “Honor the Troops” at the bridge near Tacoma. It was to be a demonstration on a bridge to support our troops, and I told myself it was time to step forward and be counted again, time to renew my connections.
I told myself that it was time to objectively honor my brothers and sisters in arms, past, present and future. Surely this is what people of principle would do together….so, I agreed to attend. I was optimistic and something more that I could not describe… some other feeling….as I thought this was a bridge that would have meaning to us all and for us all.
My friend drove me there, and then kindly led me to the south side of the bridge where I leaned against the railing and tearfully waved a large American flag…….the first flag I have held in such a manner in over 40 years. The other feeling was now very present. We were all welcomed home, my lost brothers….Ron and Bell and Dave and Swede and their families, we were together again for some few moments; and it was more than a single family sign in a tree in a rural community… more than a sign of survival for a neighborhood kid so long ago.
I felt taller as the traffic passed below, honking, and we waived to the acknowledgments. Perhaps this was a moment of greater agreement. Perhaps it was a moment of community to acknowledge all men and women of service and the families that support them all….their losses were now understood to be losses to us all.
Perhaps, I thought…but then the swearing and abuse began.
It was like a volcanic eruption from my side of the bridge, erupting toward the other side, where others had gathered, without flags. They had gathered there on the other side of the Bridge as a peaceful and respectful counter demonstration about peace. The peaceful side of the bridge was signed with statements that read, “Terrorism is war, and war is terrorism.” “Fund the wounded, not the war.” I agreed. I agreed with them.
The abuse from the south side and flag wavers got worse.
I tried to shut out the yelling and watch the flag of the nation so distant for many decades, the flag that for a moment meant something unifying …. the flag I again held proudly in my arms and hands, as a symbol of agreement, of purpose and of mutual commitment, remembering our losses and my friends. But the moment was brief.
On the flag waving side, there was no listening—only yelling. The flagging was violent now, with taunts and obscene hand gestures and vile and demeaning accusations that were driven by lack of respect for others, and lack of self respect, with the anger, rage, insults, and hostility barely under control, with sides separated by a muscular police presence.
As all of this raged around me, I saw nothing but civility from the other side of the bridge and I told my friend that I was on the wrong side, and I asked what he thought would happen if I walked across to the other side with my flag held high to demonstrate that we are after all one nation. He prudently informed me that I would not be welcomed back and it could make things much worse. And as all of this rage surrounded me, I recognized that he was speaking truth.
I felt resigned that most of our warriors, our brothers and sisters who serve, would live in, or die for, a nation divided and manipulated from within, a nation polarized by individual and political ego, and a nation where they would probably not find a bridge back to their home.
And I wondered then if the greatest threat to our nation comes from within….from the side of the bridge that claims to be respectful and most secure, the side that seeks to dominate and control the opinions of others, the side that has no listening for others and no respect for the sacrifices made to build a bridge for us all.
Now, something extraordinary has happened, and as the noise of the recent election cycle dissipates and we turn to address challenges that are national and international in scope, and on Veteran’s Day November 2008, I see another possibility: A nation that can be sourced from dynamic voices, that relies on the hope of respectful dialogue, listening and not yelling, and the hope of collective actions and a collective will, the hope that the committed interests of our diverse country can equal the collective sacrifices made to create and sustain it through time.
I am listening for what is possible, for hope….