A Veteran’s Message Home
By Lynn Kettleson
Thank you. It’s a privilege to be here today in a service honoring my fellow veterans.
I’ve spent my professional life as a storyteller helping others tell their tales. After all, we live forever in our stories. That’s how we’ll be remembered. Those stories need to be a part of our lore, and I’m sorry to say that veterans, as a group, are not good at telling theirs. Why? First, they’re difficult stories. They may reflect pain and bring back bad memories. It may be because we don’t think you’ll understand. And, in some cases, it may have to do with pride – that you’ll think less of us. In many cases, we get the feeling that you just don’t want to hear.
I’m here today to say that we, as veterans, need to share our experiences, especially if we’ve served in a war zone. When we fail to share what happened, we’re opening the door to let someone else frame that narrative, and here’s what happens: we’ve mythologized World War II, we’ve forgotten Korea, demonized Vietnam, and made caricatures of the current young men and women serving in Afghanistan.
Fifty years ago, I spent seven and a half months in the war zone; in a place I described as an island of Americans in green clothes surrounded by triple canopy jungle, mountains, rice paddies, and danger. I was merely a legal clerk and my days were mostly boring, punctuated by an occasional mortar or rocket attack.
We were isolated and alone in a war that nobody wanted and which our leaders could not explain. Our only desire was to keep each other alive for the 365 days of our tour. Our sentiment was described by a popular slogan scrawled all over the country: “We are the unwilling, led by the unknowing, doing the impossible for the ungrateful.”
These days, Elizabeth Samet is a professor of English at West Point, and she writes about using literature to help the young cadets to think about the possible actions and decisions they’ll face in the future. She has stayed in contact with some of her young cadets as they report back to her after graduation and deployment to the war zone. Based on her observations, she appropriately calls the collision of war and memory for these soldiers No Man’s Land, a physical landscape in which so many of those soldiers she knows dwell.
Of course, No Man’s Land references that World War I term describing the deadly area between the trenches of the competing armies that no soldier cared to penetrate for fear of death. In modern parlance, it has also come to mean a place of situational ambiguity. Think about this. Since the last “good war” – World War II – we’ve involved our young fighters in more than 30 military interventions, most of which lack an exit strategy or a clear and consistent political vision guiding the war effort. For the troops on the ground, what does victory look like? What happens then? Who’s going to fix all the broken pieces that the military leaves behind? Who is going to take care of the Vietnamese like Dung We who were civilian employees washing our dishes and cleaning our barracks?
Given this lack of clarity about why they’re in a war, soldiers in every conflict environment furnish the ends for themselves – come home alive; keep your fellow soldiers safe and alive. For the young soldiers, any broader “mission” is beside the point. So those war stories become very personal and up close. And for those who go to war, the hardest struggle comes after the battle has been won, the spoils taken, the dead buried, and the wounded bandaged.
Here’s a perspective on why we, as citizens, need to pay more attention. I want to relate from family lore the story of a soldier who could not tell his own tale, my mother’s cousin and high school classmate.
Stanley Larson was the youngest child in a family of divorce, raised by his mother. By the time he reached high school, he was known as Mike, a nickname he preferred. Mike was the kind of child who would make any parent proud – National Honor Society, student body president, star basketball player, and second in the high school state doubles tennis tournament. Upon graduation in 1943, he did what many fellow grads did at the time – he enlisted.
Mike joined an Army program to train engineers and doctors, but six months into those studies, the Army decided it needed more infantry, so Mike and his classmates were sent to Texas for training. There, he became close friends with another young soldier, Rex Whitehead, as they chatted and especially when they played intramural basketball together. When the unit was transferred by train to the East Coast, Mike borrowed a pen from Rex to write a letter home. That train trip was the last time they saw each other.
The unit sailed to Europe and ended up in Belgium near the German border in late 1944. There, they called themselves Battle Babies for their lack of training and experience. Positioned along California Road on the northern edge of Allied lines, the 394th Regiment of the 99th Infantry Division soldiers were expecting to be sentinels while the main fighting took place further south.
But on December 16, 1944, these Battle Babies were the focal point of a vicious artillery and tank attack that came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Mike, manning a machine gun, was mortally wounded when an artillery shell landed nearby in the early portion of the last big battle of World War II. He was carried to an aid station, and the next day, his unit was forced to retreat. That’s the last they saw of Mike and the other mortally wounded soldiers.
Mike was declared missing in action, and in 1951, the Army abandoned its search for MIAs. But Rex Whitehead remembered. Years later, visiting a military cemetery in Belgium, he noticed that Mike was still listed as MIA. He organized fellow veterans to form an MIA project and they eventually joined with some Belgians, who called themselves the Diggers. They spent their spare time reuniting fallen Bulge victims with their families.
In 2001, the Diggers located the burial site of three Bulge soldiers. The third body they removed had a fountain pen in the shirt pocket with the name Rex Whitehead engraved on the barrel. A month later, the remains of Mike Larson were returned to the Illinois town he had left 57 years earlier, and he was laid to rest in the plot his father had purchased in 1944. Imagine the potential we lost! Imagine the potential. Magnify that by the 407,000 fellow soldiers who died in World War II. That was a “good war.” But what about the 36,000 from Korea, the 58,000 in Vietnam? Moreover, what about the 4,500 from Iraq or the 2,300 from Afghanistan? Lost Potential.
Our institutions – our schools, our churches, and especially the military – have failed us when it comes to readying our young soldiers. Not a one prepares the human psyche for the violence of war, violence that has a deep visceral impact on even the most self-aware soldier and ages them prematurely. And so, when they return home, soldiers are burdened with all the issues related to their experience “over there.” Given that, you can imagine why they’re reluctant to share those experiences. Vietnam veteran and novelist Karl Marlantes described his return to America this way: “I got the message that somebody had done something quite bad in Vietnam, and it must have been us because we were the only ones there.”
I ask you: What kind of guiding moral principles can you expect in these situations? Physicians have enough trouble in their profession with the concept: “Above all, do no harm.” Doctors are trying to save lives. What if your profession involves taking lives? Robert Underwood, a philosopher whose work centers on military ethics, suggests maybe: “above all, do no unnecessary harm” or “above all, do only necessary harm.” Civilian observers would argue about what “necessary” means, but the young person on the ground in the war zone faces a very stark decision. If an experienced ethicist can’t answer, what about a 20-year old soldier?
So, I ask you to think deeply and pause the next time you’re tempted to say, “Thank you for your service.” I hope it’s because you truly appreciate and understand their sacrifices. There’s a story somewhere in the uniformed young person you’re facing. But they may not be ready to share it. Better to smile and say, “Welcome home. We’re glad to have you here.” Then listen.
Where does all this leave us? What can you do? First, pay more attention to your duty and responsibility as a citizen of this country – and especially when your country is considering going to war. Press your political leaders to make sure that they can articulate clear, understandable goals and an exit strategy for when those goals are achieved. Make sure there’s a realistic plan for how to repair the damage that our intervention has caused to that foreign land and its people.
More important, pay more attention right here in your hometown. Think about what you can do to make our communities a better place. But don’t stop there. How about doing something to make it happen? How about making a plan on how to help bring Americans closer together? Especially now. Don’t wait for others to do it. And talk to your kids and grandkids about their civic responsibility. Above all, do something.
As most veterans will tell you, being a citizen is a contact sport. I challenge you to see what we all can accomplish in the next year.
Stand at ease.