Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day, 2010

by Dick Mac

Shortly after my fourteenth birthday, my mother and I were sitting in the living room watching the evening news. It's a rather vivid memory, because it was rare for my mother and I to be at home together at that hour. She was usually still at work and I was usually still outside.

I followed the news pretty rabidly in the 1970s. I always bought the morning Globe on my way to high school, I watched the news when I was near a television at news hour, and I talked about current events with anyone who was interested.

The national news during the early-1970s spent a lot of minutes covering the war in Vietnam. There would be amazing footage of reporters on the battlefields, and soldiers in action. Real-life stuff happening to real, live people. This was a war taking place on television, in America's living rooms.

Near the end of the war coverage, news broadcasts were showing a tally board, a scoreboard, if you will, of the number of Americans, allies and enemies killed. The numbers were staggering.

Everyone knew somebody or somebody's son, bother, nephew who was in the military. Some were in Vietnam, the Philippines, even in Europe (if they were lucky). Some had been drafted and some had volunteered. Irrespective of the method of enlistment, every young working-class man had to be prepared to be sent off to war.

As the news program this evening wound-down its war coverage and broke to commercial, my mother was visibly upset, emotional. She wasn't angry, she was very quiet, almost weepy. Then she said: "If this war is still going on when you're eighteen, we're leaving the country. I've already given my share when my brother, Richie, died in the war."

In the days, weeks, and months ahead, she would tell me about her research into emigrating to Australia or Iceland. ICELAND? Both of these countries were importing social service workers, and being a social worker from the inner city made my mother an attractive candidate. She explained that if she took one of these jobs, that the foreign government would pay for us to move. There were other countries interested in American talent, too; but Iceland and Australia were the only countries that would allow a foreign worker to bring children with them.

Eventually the conversations dwindled; but she always reminded me that she was keeping the option open. I didn't necessarily want to move to another country, and I didn't necessarily want to avoid the military; although I had no interest in going to Vietnam. My father had had a desk job in the Army, and I figured I would probably get the same kind of position, if I ended-up there.

In the big picture, though, it was my mother's concerns about the war that were important, not mine; because she was the parent and I would do whatever was decided.

In reality, the war in Vietnam ended before my 18th birthday, and the draft had ended long before that; so, I wasn't going to Vietnam. Chances were I wasn't going to enlist in the military, either. The entire discussion was off-the-table and out of my mind.

In the late 1970s, I began to meet men who had served in the military during Vietnam. Most of them had no choice as they had been drafted, and a lot of them had gone to Vietnam.

The stories of three men in particular remain as clear as the day I heard them. All three of them were gay men who had come-out after returning home. They had returned to a different country, a place where they no longer had to hide their homosexuality. Two of the men did not like to talk about details of their experience in Vietnam, but talked about military life in general, the living conditions in Vietnam, the ease with which he could find drugs, sex and venereal disease, all of the cultural aspects of their experiences in Vietnam. Never, though, did they want to talk about battles or death or life-long friends they'd made and no longer knew how to find. Except for Ken.

Somehow, Ken had come to terms with the horrors he had experienced and although he did not brag about, nor initiate conversations about his time in Vietnam, he was candid about his experiences. The dynamic that always intrigued him the most was that the locals who worked all day with him, who were paid by the military, and who enjoyed the privileges that came with their jobs, were the exact same people who were trying to kill him when the sun went down.

He talked about seeing death and losing friends. He talked about the relief of coming home and leaving it all behind him. He talked about being uncomfortable at VFW events because the culture there was nothing like the culture of war where everyone stuck together and you relied on each other to stay alive. He felt shunned by the VFW and unwelcome at their events. He talked about how there were no black vets in the white posts and no white vets in the black posts. The homophobic remarks were a constant at VFW posts; but nowhere in Vietnam did he hear people denigrate each other because of their race, or heritage, or sexual orientation.

Ken never thought his sexuality played any role in his relationships in the military. Some of his buddies knew he was queer and some didn't. It wasn't an issue. These were Americans fighting a war as fellow soldiers, and the only other American who was feared and suspect, Ken explained, was a coward, a person on whom you could not rely, no matter his race, heritage, or sexuality.

Back home, though, Ken found himself unwelcome not by the general citizenry (which is the story I heard most from Vietnam vets); he found himself unwelcome by other vets. He made peace with it, he didn't make a big issue of it; but, it meant something to him that he had served his country in a horrific war and the only people who didn't really welcome him back home were his fellow veterans.

This is a dirty secret of homosexuality and the military that I never hear discussed: the treatment of gay veterans by other veterans. We talk about the inequity of Don't Ask Don't Tell as we should; but we never hear about how gay vets have been treated when they got home.

Ken died of AIDS in the early-nineties. He was one of the scores of men I knew in the seventies who were wiped-out in the plague during the 80s and 90s.

Ken was smart, and funny, and adventurous, and social, and he appreciated life. He was proud of his service to America even though it wasn't a hot topic of conversation in social circles.

And every year on Veteran's Day, I think of Ken: a queer who went to war at the behest of his government, served proudly, and lived to tell about it.

It's time to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, a law passed by people who never went to war. A law that disparages and discriminates against tax-paying, law-abiding Americans who only want to serve their country.

Remember to thank a veteran today.

No comments: