War veterans deserve recognition for service

ATHENS, Ohio (U-WIRE) — It’s Memorial Day weekend, and we’re exhaling that well-known sigh.
It’s almost the end of the quarter. Summer soon will be here. No classes or work on Monday. Time to sit back, grill, drink cold beer and enjoy time spent with family and friends.
But the creators of Memorial Day had loftier intentions.
In 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, a retired commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, set aside the day as one to decorate soldiers’ graves. The day originally was devoted to fallen Civil War soldiers, but it now is dedicated to all Americans killed in war.
Veterans and military groups still observe the holiday by decorating soldiers’ graves and gathering for services. And a wreath is placed upon the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
But somewhere between 1868 and 2000, civilians began to overlook the day’s purpose.
Until this year I didn’t pay much attention to it either. Every Memorial Day my family displays an American flag in our yard, but that’s the beginning and end of our observance.
But this year I remembered the first interview I ever conducted. I was a high school senior, and I interviewed four Vietnam veterans from a local American Legion chapter for a research paper.
I anticipated meeting men who could have been extras in “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket” or “Apocalypse Now.” I expected to meet grizzled men who drank too much, had collected the ears of Viet Cong soldiers and still wore fatigues.
But that stereotype was shattered soon after our introductions.
They weren’t the John Wayne-type roughnecks I expected. They were fathers and sons, husbands and friends, and most importantly, survivors.
None of them served during the same years. But they still seemed like brothers. They shared a common bond — they saw Vietnam’s chaos from the jungle, not a college campus or TV screen.
They talked about friends who died in combat, some of whom were killed right beside them. They talked about why they became soldiers — they enlisted because they thought it was the right thing to do. They talked about what they thought motivated the war: politics and money.
And they talked about what it was like to return to America.
One veteran, Richard, said he didn’t know how to cope with civilian life. Every time he would go out with friends and someone accidentally bumped him or looked at him strangely, a fight would ensue because he couldn’t control his temper.
He said he didn’t know how to interact with friends and family. After trying for so long to stay alive in the jungle, he was supposed to magically re-enter society and become a normal citizen again.
Richard, like many other Vietnam veterans, returned to a country that didn’t want him. Vietnam Veterans of America member Terry Baker said many soldiers still feel the same rejection that met them when they came home.
“When the WWII guys came back, they were able to talk about the war,” Baker said in a May 1 article in U.S. News & World Report. “With Vietnam, vets had to change their clothes in the bus station because people would spit on them. The biggest health problem Vietnam vets still face is our lack of self-esteem.”
But other serious health problems still plague those who served in Vietnam.
Richard said in the interview that he suffers the side effects of Agent Orange, an herbicide used to defoliate jungles and give U.S. soldiers a defense against the Viet Cong’s guerrilla tactics. Agent Orange has been linked to several medical problems, including skin rashes, several types of cancer and spina bifida, a crippling birth defect in the children of those exposed to the chemical.
Despite the severity of Richard’s medical and personal problems, I was even more shocked by the nightmares he explained.
Richard said he would, and still does occasionally, wake up screaming from nightmares. At times, he’s been so scared he’s jumped out of bed and accidentally hit his head on the bedroom dresser. And he has remained on the floor and cried until his wife calmed him.
The veterans I interviewed attached people to history. By talking to them, I got a closer look at the effect war has on its soldiers. I don’t pity Richard or any of the other men. What they endured in the jungle and the memories they carry with them are too awesome to generate pity.
Those men, and other veterans, have my respect and admiration.
Memorial Day is devoted to the appreciation of deceased soldiers, and we should honor that. I’m sure no soldier — whether dead or alive — would object to giving all veterans their due respect this weekend.

Nick Kowalczyk’s column originally appeared in Friday’s Ohio University paper, The Post.