To Vietnam Veterans


I ended up writing an email today to a Vietnam veteran who is trying to help me and another Iraq vet with our living situation in New York. As I typed the opening statements of the email, I realized they are words that I’d like to say to a lot of our nations veterans who served in Southeast Asia so I decided to post them here:

Hello Bob,

 First things first: when I came home from Iraq and felt compelled to get active in veterans advocacy and the peace movement at large, I didn’t really know where to start. All I knew was that I was having a lot of feelings and not many of them were pleasant. I got busy and got involved, just sort of learning as I went– just like the other Iraq and Afghanistan vets who were standing shoulder to shoulder with me on the new front lines back home in the States. Vietnam veterans were an invaluable resource to us. You all had blazed the trail that we now found ourselves on and I/we learned so much from you. I can’t say thank you enough for that. I am now very aware of the extent to which your generation of veterans did not receive the welcome home you deserved and because of that, things have been a bit better for us. Again, thank you.
When I was out there of the activism trail, sometimes I would find myself in three states in a day. The day I went to Rhode Island was just such a day. After I (and others) had spoken from the podium, we did a solemn ceremony around a group of white crosses placed in the ground to represent the number of service members who had died up to that point in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was a man there who kicked over one of the crosses. I didn’t see it happen and for all I know it was an accident. (He later exhibited behavior that would indicate it was not accidental.)  A buddy of mine (Iraq vet) was so freshly back from war, he was still shitting falafels. He saw this happen and went after the man. I tried to step between the two and diffuse the situation which only drew the man’s vitriol toward me. Someone took my buddy away for him to give him time to cool off. The man who had kicked the make-shift grave marker then turned to me and said, “They got what they deserved.” He took a plastic American flag out of his pocket and started to tear it in half. Now, no matter what I feel about the ways the flag has been used to cause actual harm, I still believe very deeply in the good things for which it (and our nation and many of its people) stand. I simply reached out, bear-pawed the flag and stuck it in my pocket. The man looked me straight in the eye and spit in my face.
I, of course, had heard many stories about veterans being spat on. Until then, the stories, sad though they were, seemed like something from a movie. They never quite seemed real. In that moment, this was a scenario that had become instantly and painfully real.  The next thing I remember, I was about 50 yards away surrounded by a small group of Vietnam veterans. It was if they had teleported me out of the time/place and into a safe circle of their brotherly love and understanding. If I live to be a hundred, I will never forget what I consider to be the most important part of the gift that those veterans gave to me. They said nothing. They simply stood there and “held” me with their powerful and wise gaze. I have come to understand that they knew there was nothing they could say. In a moment like that, there is nothing you can say.  But I knew they had my back. They were supporting me  in exactly the way a small group of brave Marines had supported me at war.
So that is the most important part of this email. I want to say thank you to you and to other Vietnam veterans for what you have done for us, the newest generation of this nation’s veterans. Thank you for offering to us the words I wish I could have been there to offer you, “Welcome home.”
I look forward to when I can thank you in person.
Semper Fidelis,
Jeff Key

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