A few years ago, a local farmer came in to see me for some help. Farming bills and crop prices and debt had him over a barrel and we talked about bankruptcy and what it could and couldn’t do to help relieve his situation. He was a big strong man, the way some farmers just naturally are, both in his heart and his size. We were about the same age but he looked so much older.
His situation took about 5 months to get resolved but I will never forget the day that I learned that he was a chopper pilot in Vietnam about the same time as my older brother, Larry, was there. I had no clue and never would have guessed.
We both stopped what we were talking about, his own current problem, while he looked out the window and quietly talked about what it was like then, back in Vietnam. It was hard for me to look at this older and much heavier man and try to imagine what he must have looked like back in the days of 1966-'68. Now, he was mostly bald and probably weighed a lot more than he did back then, but like me he had been young once too. Now, he didn't move as quick as he undoubtedly did back in 'Nam either.
But you could tell from the distance in his eyes as he spoke that he had never really left it all behind him.
He talked about what it was like to fly a chopper in and out of valleys and hills and fire, dropping down as quickly as he could and picking up a wounded soldier or two and getting back out of there, wherever "there" was, as fast as he could. Nothing but plexiglass between him and the bullets.
He said he loved flying helicopters then, but that he was never in his life as scared as he was in those few minutes between the time just before he would land and when he was back out of the worst of the fire. He said they were the longest minutes of his life. He called it dodging a lifetime of bullets, scared to death that one of them had his name on it.
He had a dusty old baseball cap in his hand as we talked. It hung loosely in his hand as he gazed aimlessly out the window. It was from some team that didn't really matter, I'm sure. His eyes were never in the room with us as he calmly and matter-of-factly talked of how men died around him and also of those who came back like him.
You could tell he had memories he wished he didn't have. He said the worst feeling he had from the whole war was that every time he'd lift off the ground he knew that while he was getting out of there, he was leaving other boys behind. He'd fly away, his heart pounding loud in his chest, while the fighting went on below him.
After a long while, he stopped talking and we just sat there, not talking at all. I could see that things were going on inside his mind and I just didn't know what to say. I was dumbstruck by this seemingly now-gentle giant of a man who had been through hell. Truth be told, I didn't think I had a right to say anything at all. After what seemed like the longest time, both of us returned to the present moment. He never spoke about it again.
It's been years now. I don't even remember his name. Probably most of the guys he saved didn't remember it either. I haven't thought of him since then until my older brother sent me a recording he found on the internet, called God's Own Lunatics (click below) that explained what it was like to be one of those foot soldiers on the ground. I clicked on it, listened, and the memory all came back to me.
I recall that he was the son of a local farmer who had gone off to war and came back all grown up - to be his father's son, a farmer again. Something about beating your swords into plows seems appropriate for me to end on with this note but it also seems so trivial a thing to say. I can still recall his face. It has haunted me ever since. It was a look of resigned melancholy. Perhaps for a war that took away his youth and innocence. Perhaps the regretful haunting of his own for those boys he left behind so many times.
Being a veteran is hard because no matter what duty you had, things happen there that you never forget and which influence the way you live the rest of your life.
We all owe veterans a whole lot more than any of us will ever be able to repay. If you know someone who served, shake their hand and thank them. You don't need to say why. They'll know. And remember on this Veterans Day that there are lots of vets that aren't around for you to thank, so say thanks to those who still are. Thanks, Dad. And thank you, Larry. Two of the wisest bravest men I have known in my lifetime. Veterans.