November 7, 2013 | Vol. 117 -- No. 29

Strength of our veterans is everywhere around us

Guest Commentary

“It was 4:30 a.m. January 30th 1968. We began taking fire, from all directions in Lai Khe, Vietnam. I was in my underwear and made it into a bunker just behind another soldier. 

As another rocket came in my friend Harvey was diving into the bunker. The rocket hit a tree and the shrapnel took Harvey’s leg off at the hip and put numerous holes in his back. He was fully conscious and telling me he couldn’t breathe and kept trying to sit up. 

I knew there wasn’t anything we could do for him. We had no medical supplies or bandages. He looked at me and said ‘I am dead’ I carried him to the medical tent amidst all the shelling.

I haven’t told this story to anyone in 43 years. When I first mentioned it to someone after the incident they just told me to get over it.”

I sat in silence as this Vietnam veteran told me his story.

Ken lives on the Palouse with no wife, no kids, and one sibling on the East Coast. In the weeks since I have met Ken, I have learned he receives meals on wheels as a elderly shut in. I have done all I can to be friends with Ken. 

His account is shortened here for brevity. The emotion he shared had abject survivor’s guilt written all over his face. I am not a counselor, but I had to sit across from this man I had just met, and tell him it was OK he had survived and Harvey did not. Long story short, Ken and I got each other wound up quickly, the basic consequences of war have never changed since man first picked up a rock.

It is nearly impossible for those non-veterans to understand what was happening to the two of us during this exchange. Perhaps you have had similar difficulties, with your husband, or son since they came home.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can have and does have ugly consequences. Divorce, suicide, risky behavior, trouble with law enforcement, broken spirits. All of this and more can result from PTSD.

In this instance I had allowed a fellow veteran an opportunity to speak to someone about an experience lost to history for 40 years.  

Our encounter had started out innocent enough; I had seen his Vietnam Veterans hat. We spoke about our military experiences, when he had asked me if I wanted to hear about the Tet offensive. I said yes enthusiastically.

But now I was wound up, and so was he. As he sat across from me weeping, it was becoming harder by the minute for me to keep it together. I excused myself and went outside to call a fellow veteran who lives in New York and is recently retired from the Army.

When I got him on the phone my first words were “Jim, I need you to talk me in off of the ledge.” That is our shared code for “dude I am having issues and I need help right now from someone who understands.” I was in over my head with Ken.

I was doubting that allowing him to tell his story to me was the right decision. What if he parked his car on the train tracks on his way home?

His existence begs the question. How many more Vietnam veterans are there like him? One thousand and fifty residents of Washington state were killed in Vietnam. Thousands more here and across the country were treated with disdain and contempt upon their return.

I have learned that a quick way to get Ken fired up is to mention President Johnson or Secretary McNamara. The spit and spittle spews quickly and easily. How many more stories of survival and death are locked up inside the minds of people like Ken?

As time puts itself between our involvement in Iraq, and soon Afghanistan, a new generation of veterans struggling to deal with issues of war service time immemorial are amongst us. On this Veterans Day I ask you to look within your own families and civic groups for these forgotten veterans. We don’t just owe them our thanks we owe them everything. 

Phil Kiver is a CHS and EWU graduate and an Iraq/Afghanistan war veteran.

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