Last night after a dear friend who'd been visiting for the weekend returned home, i thought about some of the veterans i've known. Two memories rushed to mind.
I was active in fife and drum for a goodly part of my teenaged years, and one evening after a Christmas parade, three other f&d folks and i piled into a car and headed over to the VFW for a few beers--i was legal by a few months, as the drinking age was 18. Two of the three--R and C-- had served in Vietnam; the third had been too young by a year or so to be called up. I had a few beers, but the rest had many more. R and C both looked at each other and started describing some of what they'd seen. To each other, and each was nodding in his turn. R was part of the Tet Offensive; C had been a machine gunner on a helicopter.
It seemed all of us there were invisible to these two as they traded horrific details, and i was paralyzed as they spoke. An unspoken moment passed between them, and R as if awoken from a trance, glanced over at me. It appeared as though a screen drew up over his and C's faces and he said quietly, "We went so you wouldn't have to. Don't ever ask us about it, because we'll never tell."
A few months later, at many college friends' urgings, i went with them to watch the film The Deer Hunter. I walked out of it after about half an hour, and cried all the way home.
Several years later, i was in my own apartment and earning just enough for my keep. I didn't have a car so walked everywhere, including to and from work. An acquaintance who was fast becoming a friend gave me a lift home sometimes if he happened to be there when i was done my shift. On this particular evening, he drove me home, and i invited him in for a cup of coffee. He agreed, and we sat talking. He suddenly grew quiet and seemed miles away. In an instant, i knew he was having a flashback. "Get down, everybody get down!" he yelled, and he threw himself onto my living room floor. I knew he hadn't dropped any acid in the 60's, but he did go to Vietnam.
I prayed silently, asking what could i do? He was 6'2" (~1.9m) and about a buck eighty-five (13 stone 3 lbs/84kg), i was almost 5'2" (1.58m) and about 108 lbs
(7 stone 10 lbs/49kg). He was trembling, and i lay on top of him, covering his body with mine as best i could. I placed my hands on either side of his broad shoulders and said with a calm, quiet voice in his ear, "I've got you covered. I will keep you safe."
It felt as if i were lying atop an earthquake. I don't know how long we lay prone like that, i'd squeeze his shoulders and repeat like a mantra that i had him covered and would keep him safe. When he stopped his violent trembling, i slid off alongside of him, he took me in his arms and sobbed.
That awkward space appeared next, where i handed him a box of tissues, he had an embarrassed look on his face, grudgingly took one, and i thanked him for the lift home.
He straightened his shoulders, told me you're welcome, cleared his throat, and left.
We never talked about it again, and it was years later that i'd learn the term PTSD-post traumatic stress disorder. Whatever it was called, it scared the hell out of me.
I have a hard time with veterans day and memorial day parades. I see the military personnel, the "lucky ones" who survived and made it back with that haunted, hunted look that's often mostly hidden but just under the surface.
"Thank you" seems wildly insufficient, but it's all i have.