Walking in a Vet’s Boots: Moments of Sharing War!

Praying at the Vietnam Memorial 1987 in Washington. DC

Praying at the Vietnam Memorial 1987 in Washington. DC

During the 1980s I was an in-patient Psych RN for the VA and a Volunteer at the local Vet Center (I had a couples communication skills group). My family had thought it odd that I should work at the VA; I have always been anti-War. I however found no conflict of interest; as anti-War as I have always been I have also always been pro-Humanity! It was an Honor to know and care for Veterans…so many of them expressed to me their deep Humanity in the throes of what so many of them came to see as “the pure evil of War”— something our own politicians and government have no concept of. War breaks and kills the body, minds, and spirits of all its victims regardless of who the “enemy” is. It seems to me that the real perpetrators of War — the governments, politicians, and funders (those with money) — close their minds to what real War is. Wars do not bring an end to differences in ideologies, religions, or perceived power and entitlements….Wars devastate the land and All Life forms upon it. Wars are an obscene act of  Brutality, Torture, Genocide and Extermination and bring forth all the baser evils that Humankind has towards one and other and Mother{Earth} Herself!  

As anti-War as I am, I did not bring my views of War to work with me. My job was Healer and Caregiver not Preacher. My job was to Listen with Empathy and Compassion. My job was to Teach and to Speak Words of Comfort and Acceptance. So many patients touched my life, but there was one who unknowingly changed my life! He was one of our Nam Vets and I treated him no differently than I treated my other patients; I was however one of the those Nurses who took the time to sit and talk with and listen to their patients. He was a nice guy who was very depressed and had positive symptoms of PTSD. He was fairly quiet and it took some time to draw him out of himself. One day we were talking and we shared something incredible, although he was unaware of what we shared!  He was relaying an incident in the Nam and had an intense Flashback which he somehow pulled me into. For a few moments I was in his shoes or actually in his boots. I could see, smell, hear, and feel Vietnam thru him. He was walking thru dense wet forest wary of mines, on lookout after a heavy rain. His boots made a squishy sound from walking on mud, wet leaves and small twigs. There was a chill in the air even though it was hot and damp and humid. It was intolerable. I had never experienced anything like that in my life! He was deep into his Flashback and did not notice me as he talked. When it was over he was exhausted, but felt better for having me listen to him. I had to pull myself together quickly. He asked permission to take a nap; he felt perhaps he could get some needed sleep. Sleep was something he had little of because of his recurrent nightmares. He had a restful nap for about an hour and that night was one of the very few that he had no nightmares that he could remember.

As for me, for the rest of my shift I felt numb with a sense of disbelief. A couple of staff asked me if I was coming down with something because I looked ill. I did not tell anyone about what had happened and I was on the verge of tears and felt like vomiting for the rest of the day. There was no one that I thought I could talk to; no one I thought would understand. In this way I was definitely in simpatico with so many Veterans! At home late that night as I slept I was back in the Nam. My God it was brutal! I felt such oppression, such deep sadness and deep fear. I woke up shaking and in a cold sweat. The next day at work I went in to see the head Psychiatrist on our ward who was also a Nam Vet. He made time to speak with me; he had a true compassion for our patients. I told him in detail what transpired, without his interference or judgement. When I finished telling him my experience he said it was an unusual thing to have happen, but he did not think I was crazy or making it up. I said I thought it was a Honor and Privilege, and I had a more profound sense of what our Vets went thru; I was grateful…but it was not something I would wish to happen again. Then the Good Doctor and Myself cried over the Pain and Futility of War!

In May of 1987 I went to Washington, DC to visit the Vietnam Memorial. After immersing myself at the Wall for 2 days….Smudging it (from a distance), Praying and Crying over it for those who died, for those who were MIA, and for those who came home broken…the ones I tried to help repair …I went and sat near the Potomac River and wrote the following Poem.

I have touched The Wall and felt the pain of souls gone before their time. The sighs of the young and vital, now forgotten by all but just a few. They cry in anguish as they see others falling in other places, other times in states less than grace. There is wonder, have all the lessons been lost?
I have touched The Wall and seen the names–now holding hollow faces. Young and young in many colors with eyes no longer seeing, but the tears still fall. So many tears to fill the oceans, crying for the dead, crying for the maimed, crying for the lost minds and youth and joy and sacred spirits. Tears and crying again and again and again.
I have touched The Wall and put my hands to the names. So many different names. Their essences are envisioned in my mind. Names with different sounds. Visions of so many different people. But the sound of the last breath always sounds the same.
5/27/87; BFW

*** I am so Thankful for the work that I was allowed to do and I know for some I did help to make a difference.

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