Monday, October 31, 2011

A Vietnam Veterans Tribute

The Sedalia Democrat hosted a Tribute in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. Leading up to the event, Latisha Koetting tracked down family member to tell the stories of the men whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial on the courthouse lawn. I’ve been saving the newspaper stories because the stories of these young men tug at my heart.

During the course of the event, three local veterans told their stories. James “Smitty” Smith told about adopting a daughter while serving in Vietnam. He spoke of his struggles to go though different embassies and how surprised he was that he had to take the baby out of the orphanage. He found a place for them to live until eventually he sent the baby home with another soldier. His daughter Teresa, who works for homeland security, was present and spoke about how she owed her existence to the Vietnam War and how grateful she was to her mom and dad.

Jim Clark told a humorous account of his time in Vietnam although he had serious injuries. He said that he liked to tell tall tales sometimes so he told a friend one time about the day he was injured. He was in a field without cover and he spoke of trying to hide behind a watermelon. His story was that he took out his knife and cut the buttons off his shirt. “Why did you do that,” he said his friend asked. Clark’s answer, “So I could get lower to the ground.”

The final speaker, Gregg Davis, spoke of living through the loss of his legs and other injuries. He told of how his men ripped up their shirts to make tourniquets for him and another wounded Marine. Gregg was vocal about the damage caused by Agent Orange and the government’s lack of response. He spoke of the name-calling and how the Vietnam Veteran’s were treated after they came home.

It was Gregg’s story that made me think of Jim. I’m sure Jim would have agreed with Gregg’s views a hundred percent. I can’t remember who said it, but one of the speakers said a veteran told him, “I died in Vietnam; I just didn’t know it.” I believe that is true for a lot of the Veterans. I know the war was a big transition for Jim, and he was a different person when he came back.

Jim’s picture was included in a tribute video along with more than sixty Vietnam Veterans who have died since the war. Latisha Koetting made an observation that it seems like the Vietnam Veterans are dying at a younger age that previous veterans. This agrees with my own thinking. I’m afraid we aren’t going to see many old Vietnam Veterans. I can’t help but wonder what part Agent Orange had to do with Jim’s physical problems, and I know that PSTD had everything to do with his depression and emotional problems. It only leaves the question as to whether the war had anything to do with the rare form of early-onset dementia that Jim had.

These thoughts and the tribute must have been the reason I had a dream about Jim last night. I dreamed Jim wore a brown sweater that was much too big for him. He pulled the sweater across his chest one side over the other. “I don’t feel like me in here,” he said, with his hands over his heart. I straightened the sweater and buttoned it for him. I put my arms around him and held him close to me. “Now do you feel like yourself?” I asked. He smiled and said, “Yes, I do.”

When I awakened from the dream, I felt like I had been holding Jim while he slipped into the world of dementia. The feeling of loss was as strong as ever, but the unbearable thought was his loss of self.

The tribute was sad, but it was also long overdue. Jim would have appreciated the tribute, but he would have left before “Taps.” The sad tune always made him think of funeral duty during the year after he returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam. The war changed everything for Jim and for our family. I think he died there, but just didn’t know it.

Copyright © Oct 2011 L. S. Fisher

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