I was one poopy diaper away from a nervous breakdown. Tripping over toys, catching a whiff of my un-showered self as I hoisted my crying baby onto one hip while promising snacks to my other three young sons, I silently cursed my husband for being gone as I moved warily to answer our ringing doorbell.
Three men I didn’t know greeted me with polite smiles and nervous glances over my shoulder into the playpen that used to be my living room. “Ma’am,” one of them said, before explaining to me that a mutual friend told them about my husband Lou’s imminent deployment to Iraq.
Vietnam Veterans offering hope…
Lou was currently up at Fort Drum in pre-deployment train up and would be departing for Iraq in a couple of weeks. Our un-named mutual friend had told these men about the contractor who’d taken the first money Lou and I ever had to spend on home improvements and left us with a demolished bathroom. The jetted tub I’d longed for was unusable, its controls covered with a cardboard cover the contractor had painted over in an attempt to pass as wood. The plywood floor screamed for tiles and little nails stuck up like spears. It was a pure danger zone for little ones, and our only bathroom on our main floor.
I had gated the hallway off so the boys couldn’t impale themselves on those nails or electrocute themselves on the tangle of wires, and I was pretty sure I hated the guy who’d screwed us this way. My husband’s letter to him, explaining he was deploying and didn’t want to worry about his wife and children left with this mess while he was gone, had been answered with a letter rife with disdain, pointing out that Lou was being overly dramatic as he was not yet even in Iraq.
I had started an old-fashioned campaign to punish the guy, plastering flyers with his name and pictures of our carnage all around town. He would take them down every day, and every time I was out I would put them back up. Meantime that bathroom disaster had me in a perpetual bad mood when added to the stress of worrying about my husband, caring for four small children alone, and running my own career.
But then three Vietnam Veterans showed up and changed it all.
I could hardly believe what I was hearing as the men went on to ask me if they could finish our bathroom work. For free. Why? “Lou is our brother.”
You see, these men were Vietnam veterans, and long ago they’d sworn to make sure no one ever went through what they had. They knew all too well what our troops faced as they deployed to combat zones. They knew how our families would struggle, and many would break. They knew of children’s tears and wives’ and parents’ nightmares, and they knew most of the country has no clue what we go through.
War is hell, indeed. But our Vietnam veterans who survived those battlegrounds endured compounded trauma upon their return home. They were spat at, belittled, and ultimately ignored- Forced to cope on their own with the emotional and physical wounds of war as our nation turned its back on them. They have every right to be bitter, to turn their backs on the rest of us. But instead, they choose to wrap their arms around us. Their widows initiated legislation that helps widows like me today. The children of those who fell in Vietnam stand alongside them.
I don’t know the names of those men who came to my bathroom rescue all those years ago. I don’t know if they realize that just days later, my home was brimming with family as we gathered to grapple with Lou’s death, or how much it helped to have that downstairs danger zone replaced with a beautiful ready-to-use bathroom. But I carry their words and their actions with me today.
Lest you think these men were the sole example of the valor shown by Vietnam Veterans, I’ll continue.
The Patriot Guard Riders, who escort and shield our families, has many Vietnam Veterans in its ranks. I had no idea who they were when my Casualty Assistance Officer asked if they could escort us to Lou’s funeral. I’m so glad I said yes.
My family is locked in a battle in which we are far outpowered by the government. We continue our efforts to convince our government that Lou’s death meets the hostile death definition, as he was killed by an enemy. To date, our government refuses to acknowledge this or to award my husband Lou Allen the Purple Heart he so earned and which comprises a hefty dose of his legacy. But this steady denial, though heartbreaking, is largely soothed by the extraordinary gestures of two Vietnam Veterans.
In independent events, two Vietnam Veterans who heard of Lou’s death and the circumstances surrounding it gave me their own Purple Hearts in honor of Lou.
Read that again, slowly this time. And think about it; two young men deployed to Vietnam and suffered injuries for which they were awarded the Purple Heart. Those Purple Hearts represent their service, their experiences there, their blood spilled for our country, and memories they carry with them of those who did not make it home. Yet they offered that to me, as a sign of solidarity and affirmation that those who truly understand the meaning of that medal agree that Lou deserves the same. These gestures are the most profound gifts I have ever received and they strengthened me each day. I look forward to the day I return these medals to these veterans as I hold Lou’s in my hand.
My children and I have the immense good fortune to consider many Vietnam Veterans more than friends, but family.
William “Monsoon” Mimiaga, who will be heavily mentioned in American Snippets, has become a mentor and cherished family member. John Baca, Medal of Honor Recipient, has brightened our days with his smile and filled thousands of bellies with pies he ships to families of the fallen. Vietnam Veterans comprise a bulk of the volunteers of Snowball Express, an organization that has in itself become an extended family for thousands of family members of fallen soldiers. We love them for their warmth, their courage, and the inspiration they provide to those of us who need it so much.
Odds are you know a Vietnam Veteran, too, even if you don’t realize it. Take a look at your child’s coach or teacher. At the doorman of your hotel. At the homeless man, you walk past every day. Someone you see is a Vietnam veteran quietly going about the business of life. Take the time to meet them and hear their stories.
And always remember to Welcome Them Home.