In this polarizing and confusing era we’re currently experiencing in America (I’m keen to naming it The Great Confusion), there has arisen in this early 21st century a great misguided mindset, misunderstanding, or outright dismissal of grace and self awareness in this age of braggadocio and self-importance, brought on by nothing more than the ability to spout the dumbest shit possible online (and get away with it, for the most part).
Over the last decade and change, we’re seeing contemporary culture at large slowly strip the very concept of what is proper discourse, acceptable behavior, any HINT of journalistic integrity, or again, grace, to shreds. Society then doubles down by coming up with every boorish and absurd justification why it deserves to get offended at everything or why it’s okay our leaders (and apparently any pseudo-celebrity or politician) brag about grabbing vaginas because they can and still come anywhere near the presidency.
Okay, got that out of the way. Whew! Ugly. After all that, I realize my immense fortune in being able to go to a place and find positivity, inspiration, and most of all, perspective, through amazing people in my community. I get to know them in a way that gives me hope, and begin to believe that we haven’t all lost our minds when our phone is in our faces.
A long-time member of my local gym, one might understand if I meet a soul or two with stories to tell — the college grad just getting out in the world, the mid-career professional looking to stay in shape, or the older ladies and gentlemen who are wise in understanding the value of staying healthy through the home stretch of their long lives. Through the days, months, and years, you get to speak to these many people, grow friendly, and hear the occasional story.
“Joe” is an incredibly kind man, a retired teacher, born and raised right here in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. Joe is also a proud Army veteran of the Vietnam War, and I feel incredibly fortunate he is comfortable enough to speak with me about his experiences. Our conversations feel all the more poignant this week in light of PBS‘s upcoming 10-part documentary The Vietnam War by legendary filmmaker Ken Burns, starting tonight, September 17.
A pilot during the war, Joe experienced his share of hot LZs (“landing zones” for the uninitiated) and all the terrible moments experienced thereby. Joe had brothers who died, brothers who survived, and all the attendant guilt and memories of hell on earth any other vet may have had — all ultimately packed into a mental duffel bag bound for home and the rest of his life, never to be fully unpacked.
Now just imagine if, back in June of ’67, Joe had been literally handed the option to stay home, never deploying to Southeast Asia at all; to alter his own life so fundamentally he wouldn’t have been anywhere near the same person he is now.
Well, that is exactly what happened.
Upon reporting to the medical doctor after being drafted and just prior to deployment, the doctor noticed the young Joe was favoring his left knee. When asked what the issue was, Joe being the “tough guy” he was, said, “Oh, it’s nothin’. Just stiffens up when it gets a little chilly. I’m fine.”
After examining the knee further, the doctor comes back and catches Joe way off guard. He proceeds to tell Joe, look, I’ve seen enough of this knee that it could get you out of this god-awful war. I can get you a deferment. It’s your call.
Mindblown by this unexpected development, Joe starts thinking — how could I do this? How could I not do my part when all our other buddies made the sacrifice? How would it look to the neighborhood to see me turn away because of a knee? He starts asking the doctor questions. Finally, the doc interrupts him and says, hey kid…
“This is as easy as it will ever get, son. Whaddya want to do?”
Not a chance. No thanks, doctor, I’m going with the rest of my fellow draftees.
Joe had the rare opportunity to get out of an unspeakably terrifying situation, walking into a lifetime’s worth of scars, both physical and mental. The chance to start a life with his pregnant wife, start ahead, and never look back. He went anyway. Now, even Joe understands that side of the equation. He’s not the one bragging about answering the call. It’s a tempting scenario — hey, the doctor gave you a pass, and with that knee, who knows who you might compromise in the heat of the fight when your knee doesn’t react the way it’s supposed to. Other people may have physical injuries that really would compromise their abilities in the field. But Joe knew the truth.
Joe risked everything in his life because he knew he had to do his part, to carry his own water. You want to talk about nightmares, how about looking returning Vietnam veterans in the eyes for the rest of your life knowing in your heart you should have been there, too? Yeah, the doctor didn’t clear you, sure, but you knew your abilities and your heart.
Hearing this story flow out of Joe’s mouth, I was overtaken by immense appreciation for his choice, his sacrifice, and the life he’s led. A teacher for more than 30 years, he’s got a few teachable moments yet.
Now, refer back to the astoundingly petty crap that gets sent out on social media and popular culture every minute of every day. Looking ahead 42 years after the last Marine boot stepped off the Saigon embassy onto a Huey effectively ending the Vietnam War, is this the state we wanted to find ourselves?