Sunday, September 25, 2011

Vietnam Vets: 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Division - "The Walking Dead"

It's not often that you get a chance to meet a part of living history face to face.  This weekend I had both the privilege and the honor to do just that with this amazing group of people.

Through a serendipitous set of circumstances, my husband was invited this weekend to bring us to dinner with the 1/9 Walking Dead Veterans at Traditions while they were here visiting Parris Island.

I told Amelia we were going to dinner with some very special people and we would have to be on our best behavior and use our best manners.  I explained a little bit about them to Amelia, at least in small terms a 5 year old could understand easily.  I had been promising her for some time that one weekend when we had enough time, I would blow dry her hair straight (never been done and we wanted to try it).  After I told her where we were going, she asked me, "Mama!! Could you please blow my hair dry straight?!?"  Very excited and wanting to do something special for this dinner.  We laid out really cute dresses for Olivia (navy blue polka dot) and Amelia (pink sweater dress)- I wish I had the foresight to take pictures.  I pinned a piece of my jewelry to her neckline and Amelia just looked so grownup all of a sudden.

The power went out after a lightening strike while I was drying Mia's hair, and we finished getting ready and went on to dinner by emergency light.  As we were getting out of the car, I told Rafe I wasn't sure I could get through the night without crying.  Olivia and Amelia were amazingly good, but still restless so I wasn't able to hear or be involved in very many conversations.  I listened to bits and pieces float around me, words out of history, battles with place names.  We ended up sitting at the back and I encouraged Rafe to sit up front without us, as there wasn't room for all four of us at any one table.  I can not tell you how glad I am that he did that.  I was able to be there to see him applauded for his role in their weekend; and to listen to many, MANY compliments about my husband and children.  Lights finally came on and the girls and I left shortly after that.  Living on base is great... we only live a few blocks away from Traditions, so Rafe walked home a few hours later.  We were invited back again today for a picnic after Mia's soccer game.  Amelia kept saying, "What a special night, Mama!!".

This time I had the foresight to get a sitter for the girls and went on out there with Rafe.  The conversations with the wives were profoundly moving in many ways, and both enlightening and comforting in others.  These men and their wives paved the way for most of what we know now about the effects of PTSD on the veterans and their families.  They went to work every day knowing that someone they knew was going to die that day or they would be asked to do something they would hate. 

 We have programs in place today to help us because of the injustice and abuse they and their families suffered at that time.  They came back from war at a time when they were hated and spit on.  The spouses didn't understand what the men were going through and had no tools to help them heal.  The men didn't know what was happening to them and refused to believe it.

I listened as some spouses talked about how certain times of the year are harder than others and they matter of factly went down a list of battles trying to remember which one had occurred in that month.  Even better was hearing parts of our own current story as a family be told by these women as they recounted their own stories.  It felt familiar and strangely comforting.

One of the men told me that 20-30 years ago a woman who had written a book about PTSD was booed and treated terribly at a reunion in DC by the vets because she had told them they all had PTSD and they thought she was crazy.  He told me that he wished they had listened to her at the time and it took him over 20 years to get help.  His goal was to speak to as many young Marines as he could and tell them to get help as soon as possible, because "it never gets any better, it never goes away" if you don't.  He is, and they all are, still dealing with it all these years later, trying to change emotional and mental processes set in place a lifetime ago.

We have programs in place today because of the incredible hurt suffered by the veterans of this era.  I heard a story that I knew but had forgotten of how spouses and children had to move OFF base housing every time their husband deployed.  Can you imagine that?  Their trauma is why we stay on base now, with services to support us, counselors and therapists to talk to and activities for our children to help them understand the story of deployment.  We have our own briefs and communities and programs that enrich our lives.  They had none of that, but were simply kicked out.

Most of the time, Rafe and I weren't anywhere close to each other.  I was actually glad for this... we each were having conversations that we needed to have and to hear about deployments and reunions.  Continually throughout the day, someone would come up to me and tell me what a wonderful, honorable, moral, outstanding, etc. man/Marine my husband was.  It was actually quite thrilling to hear him be complimented so many times by these incredible people.

Later in the afternoon, I went and picked up the girls and brought them back to play at Elliot's Beach where they were all gathered.  Livi made a beeline for the Gullah memorial gospel dance line and inserted herself right in.  That group could eat!  They had a huge spread of food and finished it up after the dancing with a huge boil of crabs freshly caught by one of the attendees.  Amelia found friends to play with and they threw rocks off the point into the ocean as the sun started going down.  Again, I was thrilled to receive tons of compliments on my beautiful and well behaved girls; and yes, I am bragging.  Amelia even belted out a few OOOOORAH's to the delight of the retired Marines.

Again, I left with the girls to feed them dinner and put them to bed while Rafe went and met them for dinner and talked with them for another four hours.  He spent about ten hours today talking and listening; mostly listening.
In some ways, the information today I heard was nothing new; nothing that any of us in this day and age haven't heard about the Vietnam era.  But it is vastly different reading it on paper vs hearing it come out of someone's mouth, watching their face as they tell their stories, or as they tell any story but that one.  It was visceral, immediate, emotional to me, and hugely important to listen and be a part of.  I was honored, so incredibly honored to even be in the same room as these guys who have lived this battle for over 40-50 years.

I hope someday I can meet them again.


Kim said...

Laurie - one of my favorite things of the networks I have now, here, are the retired vets. Any war really, but they are fast becoming my favorites. The "grand old gents" as I've come to think of them and love them, and their "grand dames" (I refrain from using old w/ the ladies). They are my adopted uncles and aunts, great uncles and aunts and grandparents. I love having them around, hearing their stories, their crackly laughs. Their time was a shameful part of American history, I say it's never too late to give them the honor and respect they should have gotten then.

Paul said...

I always find hearing history from the source is much more fascinating than reading about it. Congrats on the well-behaved kids. N can't sit still for 5 minutes, and E lasts about 2.

Margaret said...

Laurie- what a powerful and descriptive post- I could feel your pride, pain and passion in every sentence. You and your family are truly heros for all that you do and all that you support... I am honored to know you and Rafe...

Mom T said...

It's amazing what these vets went through and go through on almost every deployment. Medicine has made tremendous advances in the case of physically wounded veterans, but the mental difficulties have always lagged behind. And the men's macho stance didn't help mental health advance because most of them couldn't admit there was a problem to start with.