By Charlie Melton
Today in church, the preacher had me stand up. If he was going to use me as a bad example, it would be well deserved. If he was going to make fun of my height (or lack of it), I had plenty of G-rated responses that are probably okay at church. The preacher wanted to thank me for being a veteran. Even though I never served in a war zone, and never faced much danger, he was gushing in his gratitude and I ate it up. My church family gave me a big round of applause, and I liked it.
After church, we were doing the customary visit in the parking lot and a young family invited us to lunch for Veterans day. Considering that they’re young and incredibly busy, it was greatly appreciated. We took them up on the invitation, and we had a great meal on their dime, and a great time. They even attended to my old-man stories and amusing anecdotes. I loved it.
In one of my stories, I attempted to explain how, when I was a young 2-striper, the public didn’t accept military members. News anchors and ambitious politicians orchestrated the public hate of military members and anyone that supported them. The Vietnam war divided the country more than anything since the civil war. Even in redneck south Georgia, we had dozens of places that were off-limits to GIs. Some bars and restaurants had signs saying “No GIs”. Landlords wouldn’t rent to us. Because of the media manipulation, we were called “baby killers” and most girls wanted nothing to do with us.
That story, while marginally entertaining, isn’t even significant when compared to the real warriors from that era. The men and women that went to war, when many would not, suffered enormously in Southeast Asia. They suffered when they came home. Many still suffer today. To my generation, that’s a given. We remember the daily reports on the evening news. We remember the body counts. We remember seeing the flag covered coffins. We remember the demonstrations, the civil unrest, and the internal strife in our country. Along with the anti-war front, the Black Panthers, the Students for a Democratic Society, and others rattled sabers and planted bombs to tear apart the country these GIs served.
We remember GIs coming home in boxes, coming home hurt, or addicted, or “shell-shocked”, or otherwise unable to reintegrate to society. Some were MIA (missing in action). The people the government trained to kill people and break things no longer belonged. Now, half a century later, some still don’t belong.
By “Desert Storm” in 1990, the public perception changed. Maybe it was because the mainstream media found new prey. Maybe after seeing the tens of thousands of names on the Vietnam Wall at the Capital, we learned that these represented real people that died. Maybe we, as a country, felt guilty for what we had done to these patriots.
Whatever the reason, in 1990, you would get stopped and thanked for serving. Lots of restaurants gave free meals to military members. Girls liked GIs again. It seems to be that way still. I was invited to dinner. Frequently people thanks veterans for their service. We’re accepted, for now.
The biggest thing that bothers me about this is that anyone under 60 or so has no memory of what the country, and its military, went through. I have 30-something friends that have never learned anything about the Vietnam war.
My friend Brandie caught up with me one day. “I saw a PBS special on the Vietnam war”, she said. “Why didn’t I know about this?” I can’t answer why our education system omitted the pivotal, painful era. I only know that we need to know what happened and not let it happen again. We can’t let the media, and the politicians, manipulate us again.
Do you want to thank a Veteran? Learn what they endured, and why, and keep it from ever happening again. That will be thanks enough.