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Aging & Society

From Paul's Perspective: Five Ways the Vietnam War Shaped My Life

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Fifty years ago, I lay in a pool of my own blood on a jungle floor.

August 19, 1969, Central Highlands, Republic of Vietnam – half a world away from Omaha, NE, where I grew up. 

Minutes earlier, I’d been struck by shrapnel from an enemy grenade. Engulfed by an earsplitting noise and a blazing white light, I felt as though I was whirling through space like a giant spring unwinding, slowly. “If this is death, it’s not so bad,” I thought. 

When I came to, I realized how bad it really was. Immobilized and in shock, vision and hearing blurred, I felt not pain but fear, a very specific fear – that an enemy soldier might get through our lines, stand over me, and end my life as I watched.  But the lines held, and hours later, I was evacuated to safety by helicopter. 

The events of that day – and the consequences – are never far from my mind. Although one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, it was also the most defining. On this important personal anniversary, I reflect on five key ways the war shaped my life.

Relationships.  In war, young men and women forge bonds as powerful as those in any family.  Francis, a Lakota Sioux from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, was our medic. Fearless in combat, his mere presence reassured the men, including me.  Stuck on a nearby mountaintop on the night of my wounding, Francis wept because he couldn’t get down in time to help his besieged brothers-in-arms. Through all these years, we’ve stayed in close touch; our families visit each other. This kind of relationship forms a measure for all other friendships. Who do you want in your foxhole?

Family.  It was many years before I could really talk to my wife, Patty, about the war.  For one thing, much of society remained hostile toward those who had fought. For another, I carried lingering guilt that I had somehow left my men behind. Working to excess – and drinking to excess – kept unwelcome feelings at bay. Which often meant my family came third. In 2000, the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, at Patty’s urging, we joined other veterans and spouses on an emotional trip back to the battlefield, and I began to open up.  A healing process began. Today, I’m happy to say, family always comes first.

Career.  My experience in combat lent a helpful perspective to every job I held. In Vietnam, it began with duty to the nation and ended with looking out for my men – always, a cause larger than myself. In journalism, seeking the truth; government, serving the people; business, building a great brand. It reminded me to focus on the objective, separating emotionalism from what needed to be done.  And it was a steadying force – in the hardest of times, a reminder that things could be much worse; in the best of times, not to get too full of myself. 

Sorrows.  There are thousands of them, their names engraved on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.  Some I knew personally, others by name. One in particular lives on deep in my heart: Roland was my roommate during training at Fort Benning, GA.  On weekend leaves, we hitchhiked to his home in Crestview, FL, where his mom waited with homemade meals.  At 19, he was like a younger brother to me. One month after arriving in Vietnam, Roland was killed by mortar fire. Through this loss, I learned that one of the best ways to cope with one’s own sorrows is to comfort others in theirs; I corresponded with Roland’s mother for years until she died in 2006.      

Joys.  In 2000, on my return to Vietnam, we travelled north to Hanoi. There, I met a colonel, the commander of the division that had lain siege to my company 31 years earlier. Through a translator, we talked about our lives, our families and, finally, the battle. I showed him the scars on my arm; he lifted his shirt and pointed to the scars on his torso. Same battle, he exclaimed.  It was bittersweet and thrilling.  Before parting, we embraced and cried together. Hardly the face of the mortal enemy I’d expected.

“He’s just a man,” I thought.  “Just a man, like me.” 

The truth is, I don’t regret for a minute my military experiences, even being wounded. Perhaps sorrow and joy are linked; joy, the best antidote to sorrow. Daily, I’m so grateful, even exhilarated, for the life I have. And for understanding what’s important, and what isn’t. 

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