I came home from my war in 1970 with a body still riddled with shrapnel and mind still muddled with a toxic cocktail of rage and guilt and fear. I tried with every fiber of my being to become myself again but always knowing that I would never be that person again. I would never again think the world would spin off its axis if Timon lost to Canisius. Nor would I ever again believe that a beer in the South Shore Beach Club in Angola would cure everything that ailed me. As much as I wanted to be me, the face staring back at me from the mirror was someone far different from what I saw before Vietnam. Lying in a hospital bed surrounded by boys whose bodies had been broken and battered will do that. So will lying in ambush and killing unsuspecting Vietnamese. So will the constant pain and the fatigue and the filth and the loneliness of war. Once you’ve been exposed, you’re a carrier of that virus forever. Innocence gets stripped away from your soul with all the pain of skin being peeled off your body. Any inherent goodness you might have possessed leaks out of your spirit.
I tried to pray my way out of my confusion and my anger and my pain. But those prayers were more a nostalgic genuflection to simpler prayers that asked God for a new catcher’s mitt or a new pair of Converse All-Stars. I didn’t really believe God would answer a killer’s prayers. I stopped when I became terrified that deafening silence that greeted my prayers might, indeed, be the voice of God.
One day a few weeks after I returned to be a civilian, a husband and a father in one fell swoop, the mail carrier showed up at my door with a package. In it was a Silver Star. The Silver Star is the nation’s third highest award for heroism and it was awarded to me by a mail carrier. When I told my father, he was livid. If you got that in my war, he said, you’d have a parade down Main Street. But that was the kind of war we fought: individual battles where mean survival was victory. As much as I was counseled to forget about the war and get on with my life, and as much as I really want to do so, each of us who fought in Vietnam was spiritually captured by it, and most remain to this day prisoners of their own war. In my eyes, the war was over. In my mind it was over too: over and over and over again in a continuous loop.
In all that confusion, I felt a need justify what I’d done. You can’t just walk away from something like that without some sense of ratification. We looked to our peers but found none. We looked to our country and found even less. So we were left to explain our sacrifice to ourselves. In that muddle, I latched on to the immutable notion that what I did was right and just because the cause was right and just. I wrote angry essays defending American involvement in Vietnam. I castigated those who tried to cast aspersions on returning veterans. I engaged politicians who refused to vote for more jobs and more benefits for Vietnam veterans. I incurred the wrath of UB students and professors with my vigorous defense of the war. I made my support for the war literally who I was. So when public affairs television producers like Marilyn Stahlka were looking for hawks to take on the vocal left wing of the Vietnam veterans’ movement, they found me lurking at every turn–only me.
I was trotted out with maddening frequency to engage two or three anti-war veterans at least once a month. Ms. Stahlka seemed more like my agent than a producer. I would take on Gail Graham on one program and go against an old St. Bonaventure classmate, Bob Godlove on another. I would rip into them questioning everything from their fidelity to fellow veterans to their loyalty to their country to their worth as human beings. I saved my most venomous vitriol for Robert Beyer, whose son Bruce had fled to Canada to avoid the draft. Bob Beyer was one of the kindest and gentlest human beings I would ever encounter before or after Vietnam and my attacks on him remain a humiliation to me to this day. I don’t know whether I was more defeated by the simple soundness of Mr. Beyer1s arguments or his gentle demeanor in the face of my terrible personal attacks on him.
Many years later, when I admitted my alcoholism to myself and sought treatment, a psychiatrist asked me if I drank because of Vietnam or if I thought about Vietnam when I drank. Today, I ask myself a similar question: did I drink because of the guilt of surviving my war or did I drink because of the lies I was telling myself in defending the war?
Whatever the answer, sobriety and self-awareness helped me let go of my role as apologist for the Vietnam War. To accept my role in the war, I recalled those wonderful kids turned into men by war and turned into heroes in death. I recalled all the things we didn’t fight for and accepted how bravely we fought for each other. I recognized that I could hate the war and still love the warrior, even though many in my generation lacked the intellectual sophistication to do so.
I still wonder if I could have done things differently in Vietnam. I wonder if I could have been better at protecting my men. But what I also wonder is how many kids died while I was promoting their need to be in Vietnam? Three long years passed while I was locked into the sad notion that we best supported the troops by being champions of their mission and cheerleaders for their cause. How many more boys were killed from 1970 to 1973? Did I have complicity in their deaths? These questions weigh as heavily today as did memories of the war yesterday.
The rhetoric I hear today sounds like an echo from my painful past. We are being told that we have to ‘stay the course.’ It’s necessary for some Americans to die for Iraqi democracy. The biggest lie of all is that it is unpatriotic to oppose further suffering, further maiming and further death in Iraq.
We now live in a bumper sticker world where the only truths we accept are those simplistic enough to fit on an 18-inch adhesive placard. More and more I seem to be seeing ‘Support Our Troops’ stickers. That is advice well taken by me and by everyone. Support our troops indeed–bring them home now.
Stephen T. Banko III was awarded two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, the Air Medal and four Purple Hearts. He has long been active in veteran’s affairs. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org