It was 1968. The Vietnam War had divided a tormented nation and I, like thousands of college grads who had been stunned by the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (who was shot four days before he would have been the speaker at my graduation), faced the prospect of going off to war. Some took a different path, and headed across the border to Canada. My choice was to enter Naval Officer Candidate School, reasoning that this option was far safer than possibly being drafted into the Army or the Marine Corps, and good fortune eventually would lead to an assignment behind a desk in Washington, D.C., for my nearly three years of active duty.
At the time, I was torn by the decision and how it turned out — serving my country during a war that I really didn’t support, but landing in a safe haven thousands of miles from the line of fire. For years, I struggled to find the meaning of my decision. Was I proud to have served? Not really. And did I match up to those who were drafted and risked their lives (and more than 58,000 would never return home)? Hardly.
But one of the most rewarding projects of my career helped bring my Vietnam era experience into clearer focus. Six years ago this Veterans Day, my friend, Nancy E. Lynch, published her social history of the period, Vietnam Mailbag: Voices From the War, 1968-1972. I had the honor of working with Nancy for more than two years as the editor of this award-winning book, based on the nearly 900 letters Nancy received in the five years that she wrote was we believe was only newspaper column in the country dedicated to printing the words of the soldiers fighting in the front lines — uncensored and unvarnished. (By the way, Nancy is still selling the book and reading excerpts at libraries and before any group that’s interested in listening to her. I’m hardly unbiased, but I think it’s a great read, which is why I’m including a link to order it here.)
Through this project, I got to meet many Vietnam vets and I came to understand them now much better than I had when I was in my twenties. Some went to war on a mission to kill any Communist they saw, others despised the war but wound up seeing combat after all their efforts to escape the service came up short. Each of them came back home a much different person than when they left.
So, how has my experience with Vietnam Mailbag changed me? Well, I still can’t take great pride in my service — not when so many of my peers fought valiantly while I pushed paper a few miles from the White House and the Pentagon — but hearing these vets describe how so many servicemen with so many different opinions were able to work together to help save each others’ lives gives me a greater appreciation for how acceptance of diverse views helps hold our country together.
Years ago, if someone had said to me “thank you for your service,” I might have shrugged and walked away. Say it to me today, and I’ll be pleased to say “you’re welcome.”