In 9th grade, or maybe it was 7th grade…I’m not sure, I was putting together a poster board for social studies class. Do they even call it social studies any more? In any case, I made my poster. It was about Vietnam. Not the country. Not its history or politics. It was about the war, kind of. It was mostly about my dad.
It offered nothing about the experience of the people of Vietnam, the origin of the conflict, or even much about the experience of the American soldiers who fought, lived or died there. It didn’t say much.
I remember asking questions as part of the project. Carefully scripting the interview and then posing the questions to my dad. I don’t remember his responses. They were unremarkable, as were my questions. Somehow I knew that I wasn’t supposed to ask “big” questions. I asked about the food and the music he listened to when he was there. I asked about the weather. I didn’t ask the big questions. I didn’t show him the pictures I planned to use.
There was a television show that was popular at the time, with Dana Delany as a combat nurse. China Beach told me everything I thought I needed to know about Vietnam. It told me enough to know that I shouldn’t ask someone–ask my dad–what it was like to be there. I cut out tropical-looking pictures from magazines and taped them to the board, along with my favorite picture of him from that time of his life.
Every war is different, every veteran’s experience is different. But I also imagine that they are the same in a lot of ways.
There are parts of our lives–moments and experiences, jobs or words (like veteran), that color every part that follows. Tinting our view of ourselves and others. There are parts of our lives that color the lives and thoughts and imaginations of others. There are parts of our lives that might end up on a poster board in a social studies class.
Some people choose to wear symbols of those parts of their lives for all to see. Not long ago I sat in the atrium at a VA hospital, a place where veterans and their families were gathered before their doctor appointments and tests. The way that so many of the people there wore their experience was both humbling and curious to me. They were wearing their wars, their branches of service or campaigns, on shirts and jackets and hats. Like fans of a college football team, or more like former players, they sat alone and in groups with this part of themselves on full display.
Some people choose not to share or display such things. Still, they are there. They live with their collective experience–the good, the bad, the proud and the sad–every day. Sometimes they live in peace and sometimes they live in conflict with those parts of their lives, those parts of themselves. But the experience is there, always.
They are veterans, every day. And in that there is something for us to honor. There is an unceasing sacrifice that is both unique and universal.
A long time ago, I made that poster about my dad. An adolescent attempt at honoring him and his service. In the central picture, he stood next to a leafy plant that was taller than him. He was squinting in the sunlight, shirtless with a broad smile.
I think about that picture now and laugh. The plant was a spectacularly sized marijuana plant (something my dad later told me after the poster had been displayed in class). He was so young. So naked and vulnerable. A kid with an irrepressible grin.
For the most part, he’s still that kid with that grin. He loves the sun and doesn’t dwell in darkness. He can still find a reason to laugh in the most unfunny of circumstances (with or without the aid of botanicals). He’s been colored, though, by his experiences, just as we all are.
I love him, in all his colors. And I am grateful for him. Every day.