Forty-three Memorial Days ago—four wars ago now—I was a second lieutenant artillery observer with the 9th Infantry Division’s Mobile Riverine Force in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. The day I set out for that incredible combat zone five months earlier, I began a journey to an unknown destination, a place inside myself I had not yet discovered.
I served two tours in Vietnam, but it was my first tour that affected my life the most. Like so many young men then, and so many before and since in other wars, when I first arrived in South Vietnam I had not yet come to understand the reality of war. I was cocky, irreverent, filled with anticipation, and imbued a sense of immortality.
It didn’t take long for all that to change. As soon as you see people die, reality slaps you hard in the face and reminds you of your own mortality. But you get used to it. You don’t have much choice. You have a job to do, and you understand that other people may live or die depending on how well you do that job. While it’s become a cliché in books and movies that warriors don’t die for their country but for the man on either side of them, it’s the absolute truth.
When you watch your buddies die, you get mad. You get mad at the enemy for killing them and you get mad at yourself for not preventing it. Deep down, you’re also glad it wasn’t you, and you feel guilty that you feel that way. Your mind is a jumble of conflicting emotions.
When you kill the enemy in the heat of battle, you don’t think about killing other human beings right away. You got them before they got you or the man next to you. It’s something you think about later. It doesn’t make any difference if you’re on the ground, in a plane, or on a boat or a ship. If you are close enough to see the enemy you just shot, shelled, bombed, or hit with a guided missile go down, that memory will stay with you for a long time. If you are close enough to see the enemy’s face when he dies, that face will haunt you until the day you die.
Posttraumatic stress disorder doesn’t affect every combat veteran, but those it does, it affects in different ways. Some reach a point where they can’t bear the pain, and they take their own lives. I had friend who did. Others bear their burden quietly, keeping it locked up inside like a heart attack that never stops hurting. For some, with time, that pain eventually goes away, but it’s never forgotten.
Enemies change from war to war. Technology makes weapons more lethal and killing more efficient. Armies, navies, and air forces modernize and improve. What doesn’t change is what goes on in a warrior’s mind, how he or she copes with the combat experience.
Today’s all-volunteer U.S. Armed Forces are better trained, better equipped, and better prepared for war than we were in Vietnam. More than half of us were draftees. Just about all of us got unit training on the job. We did everything that was asked of us and more then came home one-by-one to an unappreciative country. Today’s combat veteran is better appreciated, but whole, maimed, or disfigured still must do the best he can with a changed life.
I was extremely fortunate during that first tour. I was the only person, out of seven, in an armored personnel carrier to walk away after we hit a land mine. The small aircraft I flew in fell out of the sky on multiple occasions from enemy fire and mechanical problems. The Officer Candidate School (OCS) classmate and air observer I replaced, 1LT Larry Bonnell (24) of Winimac, Indiana, and the OCS classmate who replaced me, 1LT Ed Naylor (26) of Denver, Colorado, both were killed in action. I went on to complete a successful 20-year career in the Army, and 23 years as a Department of Defense civilian. I’ve never forgotten Larry and Ed, and I’ve never forgotten the lessons I learned on and over the battlefield.
So how did my experience 43 years ago change me? In ways I’m sure I’m not even aware. One thing’s for sure. I never had another job that affected the lives and caused the deaths of so many people. After an experience like that you approach life differently. You see people differently. You see situations differently. Now, as I have for 43 years, whenever I encounter a difficult situation I think back to 1967, and I tell myself no matter how bad it is, it isn’t that bad. Now, after all these years, I look at the world around me with a greater appreciation of the complex and conflicting forces that forge history.
Had I not been drafted, graduated from Artillery OCS, or gone to Vietnam, I doubt I would ever have become the person I am today. Had I not seen first hand the sacrifices others made for their country, I doubt I could love my country as much as I do.
In May 1997, addressing fellow inductees from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War into the Field Artillery OCS Hall of Fame at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, I told them; “Like me and young warriors who go off to Iraq and Afghanistan today, you were a young man setting out on a journey to an unknown destination. What you ultimately discovered was yourself.”
This memorial day when you think about America’s veterans, think about those who gave their lives for their country, but also think about those who survived and kept on giving. Think of all the positive contributions America’s veterans have made to help make their country a better place. Think of all the personal sacrifices so many disabled veterans and their families have made and keep on making. Think of the young men and women who have not yet but will experience what those of us who went before them experienced and how it will change their lives.
Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.