On behalf of our troops, break the silence

Terry Garlock's picture

In the crowd watching the Peachtree City Fourth of July Parade recently, a young soldier in Army dress greens and a sailor in Navy whites made me wonder how much they know about the war in Iraq.

Considering last year’s TV news frenzy telling our enemies the planned U.S. surge wouldn’t work, I wondered whether that soldier and sailor knew the surge has in fact worked so well that al Qaeda has been squeezed out of all areas save a few remote hidey-holes, and Iraqi citizens are walking formerly lethal streets.

If they know that, I wondered how they feel about the deafening silence on TV news and newspaper headlines about U.S. military success.

I was reminded of another time when TV news not only opposed our war but helped spread hostility to our own troops, and I thought of another parade long ago in Utah, and an older soldier, my friend Norm McDonald.

In the late 1960s, Norm was a beginner college student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, but he gave the hippie counter-culture and the anti-war movement more of his attention than his studies and lost his draft deferment. Norm was drafted and transformed into a machine gunner in the mountain jungles of Vietnam. He returned via hospitals with a badly wounded foot, proud of the difficult job he had done but perplexed by the cold reception because he, too, wished the war would end.

The voices against the war, and our troops, were very loud, while support for our troops seemed to be the silent variety.

Norm said he never really felt any hostility about having served in Vietnam other than the girl who spit in his face in the LA airport, but at home nobody talked about Vietnam or wanted to hear about it, almost as if the war and those who fought it were somehow dirty and unsavory.

At first Norm figured nobody cared, but he came to believe maybe friends and family were reluctant to broach the subject, having been trained by news reports to wonder if vets were brooding and morose, or that we might react in an unpredictable or violent way so don’t talk about it.

In 1985, 14 years after he served in Vietnam, the local vet center asked Norm if he would like to walk with some other Vietnam vets in the Provo, Utah, Fourth of July parade, a huge annual event with over 200,000 spectators lining the parade route.

Norm was more comfortable under the radar, and so he declined until his buddy, big Tom, called him the night before and dared Norm to show up and walk with him.

Tom had lost a leg in Vietnam, was self-conscious and kept his prosthesis hidden under long pants. He joked with Norm, “If you come, I’ll show up in my Hawaiian shirt and short pants wearing my Purple Heart!”

Norm said, “Fine, I’ll be there wearing my Purple Heart!” With Tom’s lost leg and Norm’s bum foot, they would hobble together.

Norm and Tom showed up early where the parade was to begin on the Fourth. There were about 25 vets milling about, nervously and quietly speaking to each other as they waited, wondering how the crowd would react to them.

They started down 9th East, right out front leading the parade, about a mile down to Center Street. Along the way, families began pushing their hesitant veteran husbands, fathers, brothers and sons out of the crowd to the street and now there were about 50 Vietnam vets walking.

Norm said he couldn’t believe it, but the people were all on their feet, clapping and yelling things like, “Welcome home!”

Norm said he nearly lost it when two young soldiers in uniform on the sidelines snapped to attention and saluted the group of Vietnam vets.

They walked down Center Street to University Street, about a half mile, and by then there were 200 to 300 vets spread out about half a block.

Norm told me that, as they turned up University for the last mile of the parade, a girl maybe in her mid-twenties ran up and kissed him on the cheek, gave him a carnation and said, “Welcome home!”

On the way down University Street to the end, more vets joined Norm and the others from the crowd, and he guessed there were over 400 vets walking while the crowd’s roar was deafening. Norm said it was almost as if all the people who had been silent about Vietnam were saying with their cheers, “We don’t understand what you had to endure, but we know it was hard and that it was for us and we thank you.”

Norm says, “That is the day I came home from Vietnam.”

There is a lesson here for all of us.

There has always been and always will be an extreme lunatic fringe on the left and right. In the 1960s, the anti-war left began as the lunatic fringe. As the Vietnam War ground on year after year with no end in sight, good people began to oppose the war, too.

Hoards of self-interested young men who didn’t want to serve publicly opposed the war, and the formerly tiny anti-war lunatic left seemed far larger, especially when magnified by TV news beating the anti-war drum.

Opposing the war became mainstream, and hostility to the war, and even hostility to our own troops, became more and more acceptable behavior over time, while supporting our own military became passé.

Maybe because the war became so unpopular, or maybe because TV news magnified opposition to the war, those who supported our troops no matter what they thought of the war seemed to be silent.

Why does this still matter in 2008?

Some months ago a likeness of an American soldier was burned in effigy in Portland, Ore.; a man defecated on an American flag at an anti-war demonstration in Seattle; the Berkeley, Calif., City Council is trying to run the Marine recruiting station out of town; Columbia and some other universities have banned ROTC from campus; the Pentagon recently warned the armed forces that wearing the uniform has brought hostile treatment in multiple incidents on the Washington, D.C., Metro; and so on.

If such lunatic acts continue, and if public opposition to the war deepens as media reports emphasize the negative and bury the positive, will hostility to our own troops once again become acceptable behavior?

I hope not, because even though I thought taking Iraq was a bad idea before the first trigger was pulled, I also know the 1 percent of Americans in our armed forces are the ones doing our dirty work, the ones taking the risks on our behalf, the ones sacrificing financially and by family separation in tour after tour. We owe them a debt of gratitude we cannot repay.

If the people we elect and send to Washington had any sense, once they were committed to distribute economic stimulus checks, they could have given that money to the families of deployed troops, but of course our politicians don’t have the collective depth of character to do such a thing when spreading money around can help buy votes.

Nevertheless, as individual citizens there is something we can do and it doesn’t cost a thing.

When we see someone in uniform, we can break the silence. If anyone acts or speaks against them we can shout our protest loud and clear. We can shake their hand, look them in the eye and tell them thanks for serving our country. A few simple words can remove any doubt they might have about our support and let them know they are valued and respected, no matter what we personally think of the war.

Instead of being the silent good people, we can tell them their sacrifice will not be forgotten. A short conversation can disclose what is in our heart and might be the reassurance that man or woman in uniform needs to hear. Your words might be the ones they never forget.

[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City. He was a Cobra helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. His email is tgarlock@mindspring.com.]

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SouthernBelle's picture
Submitted by SouthernBelle on Fri, 07/25/2008 - 7:07pm.

Very well said. I make a point of speaking to soldiers. Thanking them for what they do is such a small gesture but it really does mean so much. Considering where I live now, every time I leave the house I thank a soldier. I tell them I'm glad they made it home, and their sacrifice is not lost on me.

SouthernBelle, GRACE is a VIRTUE

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