Editor’s Note: With Veterans Day nearing, Vietnam veteran and Lenox native Warren Robinson has penned a three-part column honoring Vietnam veterans, told from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran's hat.
I’m just an old hat, but boy do I have some tales to tell!
You’ve probably seen me around town somewhere, proudly sitting atop the head of one of my boys. They’ll always be “my boys” to me since I’ve been with them for more than half a century now.
We’ve been together through good times and bad. I know their innermost secrets, the ones that make them scream and wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat as the video tape of Vietnam plays over and over again in their minds. I promised I would never reveal what they hide from you, because you might think less of them if you knew. Most of them are pretty good at pushing the monsters back down into the deep recesses of their mind, but eventually it all comes back to the surface.
They probably look old, white-haired, maybe shuffling along with a cane or riding in a wheelchair, but make no mistake, these men were once strong and mighty warriors, feared by their enemies and loved and respected by their friends. They don’t have much to say anymore, but they are always thrilled when you take the time out of your busy day to stop, give them a smile, a handshake or a hug and thank them for their service.
Occasionally, they see one of their old comrades and are instantly drawn to each other as they warmly shake hands and ask the usual questions, “What year were you there and what outfit were you with?” They share an unbreakable bond only brothers of combat are ever privileged to know. The old memories and emotions of long ago begin to bubble to the surface as their eyes start to mist over and they exchange goodbyes, moving on quickly with their day, knowing if they linger together too long, the memories will become unbearable. As they move along, often with heads down and backs bent, they instantly snap to attention whenever they hear the sound of the national anthem or the sight of the red, white and blue flying proudly in the land of freedom. If they hear a jet flying low or the “thump, thump, thump” of a helicopter in the distance, you’ll notice their eyes searching the sky as if they were still halfway around the globe, 50 years ago.
A lot of my boys spend their day down at the Veterans Administration Office for medical appointments to get treatment for physical injuries sustained during their service or for diseases resulting from it. They also seek emotional help as they struggle to deal with the memories they have lived with for so long. When they went to the jungles of Vietnam, they were promised by our government that their physical and mental needs would be fully met, since they were putting their very lives at risk for America.
After trudging through the jungles and coming into contact with a “miraculous” new herbicide, Agent Orange, they were told not to worry, experts had declared it was perfectly safe and it would clear huge blocks of dense jungle, denying the enemy vast sanctuaries. Decades later, after continuing to deny Agent Orange was a deadly chemical, thousands of my boys died each year from horrible cancers, nerve damage and other conditions that have since been proven to have originated from exposure to Agent Orange.
Fifty years later now, my boys are still required to file endless paperwork with a mindless bureaucracy, staffed by people who were not yet born when they were exposed. It often takes years of wrangling, undergoing test after test and filing a mountain of paperwork for them to be compensated even a modest amount for their suffering. Many have died waiting for an answer. Even today, they do not make close friendships easily, some get angry over seemingly unimportant things, other times having little patience. They try to cope in different ways, sometimes with alcohol or drugs.
I watched every planeload of vets returning to California from Vietnam. They looked nothing like the smiling, fresh faced boys I saw leaving a year earlier. They looked tired, dirty and depressed with expressionless stares. Their shoulders were slumped over from the burdens they carried in their minds. The Army cleaned them up with a hot shower, a shave, haircut, new khaki uniforms, and an all-you-can-eat steak dinner with all the trimmings. Once they were finished processing, they were paid their meager salary, including money for a plane ride home.
Then my heart would break each time I witnessed what happened to them at the airport, for what should have been a triumphant “Welcome Home.” Instead, crowds greeted them with disgust, insults, disrespect and even spat on them as if they were the lowest of the low. Some of my boys made it to the restrooms and changed into civilian clothes, hiding their medals and military uniforms in their duffle bags, in an attempt to blend back quickly into society. They were ashamed to admit they had served so courageously and honorably for America. This period of disrespect for our military will forever be a dark stain in our history, hopefully never to happen again.