Secondhand Vet

In Memoir Essays on May 28, 2012 at 5:55 pm

War is hell. Trust me. I should know. I’ve experienced all the horrors of war secondhand. That’s right. I’m a secondhand vet. My dad served in the Vietnam War for a year in 1970 and my family has spent the last 40 years picking up the pieces.

I was born in 1976, three years after the Vietnam War ended, but it still took a big, steaming dump on my life.

For one thing, being a secondhand vet means that I have secondhand PTSD. My dad’s flashbacks are from battle. Mine are from him flipping out when someone inadvertently bought a shirt with a ‘Made in Vietnam’ label.

I think the concept of secondhand PTSD is kind of amazing and quite an endorsement for the North Vietnamese military—sort of like an academic way of stating: “The Viet Cong’ll fuck you up so bad your unborn kids will feel it.”

And it’s true. I was scared shitless all the time growing up—and the worst part of it was that I wasn’t sure why. One thing I did know was that everything in the world could be related to Vietnam War in some way. Have you guys ever noticed that? Do you know what I’m talking about? No? You don’t?

Fucking draft dodgers.

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It’s good if you don’t know what I’m talking about. That means no one in your family fought in Vietnam. You’re psyched.

I, on the other hand, am a secondhand vet—which means I grew up listening to my dad steer every conversation about every imaginable completely unrelated topic back to the Vietnam War. He was kind of like Walter from The Big Lebowski in that sense—except that Walter had friends. My dad didn’t have any.

I was probably 5 or 6 years old when I first learned the term ‘draft dodger’. Growing up, I thought it was the absolute worst thing in the world that a person could be—that or Jane Fonda.

It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that it occurred to me that if I had been alive during the Vietnam War draft, I would have done everything I could to get anyone I knew out of going there. I would have been chartering buses to Saskatchewan and personally flattening people’s feet myself.

I don’t hate your run of the mill draft dodger so much anymore. I just hate the ones who were mean to my dad—and boy, were they ever.

When my dad came back from Vietnam and changed planes in San Francisco, the person in the seat next to asked to be moved because she didn’t want to sit next to a Vietnam Veteran. Can you imagine calling the flight attendant over and saying: ‘Change my seat! I’m not sitting next to this veteran!’? All I care about when I’m sitting next to someone on a plane is that they don’t smell like onions or try to talk to me.

When my dad got off the plane, there were a couple of “peace loving hippies” at the gate who heckled him and called him a “baby killer” and an “asshole”.

I know those guys are still out there somewhere. They’re probably part of that group of hippies who turned into corporate yuppies, made a shitload of money, slept great every night and now go to Vietnam on vacation. Sometimes I fantasize about finding them, kidnapping them and forcing them to play Russian Roulette in a bamboo tiger cage in my basement for the rest of their lives—Deerhunter style. It makes me feel a little better, but not really.

Since I was little, I’ve always wanted revenge—not on the Viet Cong—on the people that fucked him over when he came home.  But I had no vigilante justice resources at my disposal growing up. I was just a little girl with a big chip on her shoulder.

“My dad was in Vietnam!” I proudly announced during a junior high school history class on the topic. The teacher nodded disinterestedly and kept monologuing.

“Did he kill a lot of people?”snickered the snotty little shithead who sat next to me in class.

I didn’t know. I’d never really thought about it. Did my dad kill people? I knew he was in a war and all, but that didn’t sound like him. He lost his temper sometimes, but I couldn’t imagine him actually killing anyone. He was a good guy. I thought about the time he saw a turtle flipped over on its back by the side of the road.  He brought the car to a screeching halt, got out, turned the turtle back upright and then sent him on his way. My dad was a helper, I thought to myself—not a killer. I decided that it was entirely possible that my dad had spent a year in combat without hurting a fly.

It wasn’t the last time I tried to get respect from my classmates for my dad’s Vietnam War service though. The kids in junior high school loved to make fun of my lazy eye. One afternoon, I tried to elicit sympathy from one of them by telling him: “My dad was in Vietnam when there was Agent Orange. That’s probably what caused my lazy eye.”

“No it DIDN’T,” he snorted back and then went on to tell me that my parents were abusing me by not getting my eyes fixed.

A shocking and horrifying truth was beginning to unfold. Inside my house, the Vietnam War was the only thing that matter. Outside my house, nobody gave a flying fuck. I was starting to get why my dad was so angry all the time.

Still, it would have been nice if the Vietnam War didn’t bleed into absolutely every area of our lives. It would have been nice to have a little down time.

I rented a lot of videos in junior high school because I didn’t have any friends, but I wasn’t allowed to watch any movies about Vietnam. My father couldn’t stand the idea of anyone thinking they knew what it was like to be there from watching it in a movie. He was particularly enraged by the promotions for ‘Good Morning Vietnam’.

“There’s nothing funny about Vietnam!” he seethed one night when I asked if I could rent it. It started a family argument. Eventually, my mom convinced him to let me watch it. I didn’t laugh once. I didn’t dare. It was an okay movie I guess, but really not worth it for me ultimately.

Any movie with Jane Fonda in it was obviously out too. Jane Fonda was photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft carrier used to shoot down American soldiers and later accused some returning POWs of exaggerating their torture experiences. No Sylvester Stallone movies-draft dodger. No John Wayne movies-draft dodger.

Limiting your entertainment choices to stuff that features Vietnam Veterans isn’t easy. You end up watching a whole lot of Kris Kristofferson movies and Wheel of Fortune. Yes. Pat Sajak is a proud Vietnam Vet, and he’ll always have a $5,000 space in my heart.

My dad refused to take us to amusement parks. Ever. Instead we spent our weekends making pilgrimages to ‘The Wall’—the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.

My Dad would make friends with the Vietnam Veterans that camped out there 24/7 and my mom would walk up and down the path and look at all the names of the dead soldiers and weep. It was a lot of fun.

Looking back, I realize an amusement park is probably a combat PTSD sufferer’s worst nightmare: wide open spaces, crowds of people, loud noises, screaming and a bunch of rides intended to scare the shit out of you by flipping you upside and sending you flying through the air.

My dad already got to do that for free. He got hit in the head with a rocket propelled grenade and then dove into a ditch to take cover when he was in Vietnam. He told me about it when he was on what I thought was his deathbed about ten years ago. His brain had started leaking spinal fluid when the injury ruptured. It was on Christmas. He survived.

My Dad was always prepared for the absolute worst to happen—maybe too prepared. When I was growing up, if we decided we wanted to go out for a family dinner at Chili’s, the first thing my dad had to do was take an inventory of camping and survival supplies in the car. We drove around everywhere we went with a trunk full of canvas tarps, blankets, Army rations, hunting knives, emergency ponchos, canteens and Sterno. We never went camping once.

When we actually got to the restaurant, we were in for another wait—for a table where my dad could sit with his back to the wall and, ideally, have a clear view of the door.

“That way no one can sneak up behind you,” he’d always say jokingly—but not really jokingly.

While my sister and I debated the merits of the Awesome Blossom vs. the Loaded Potato Skins appetizers, he was keeping an eye out in case the Viet Cong were planning a raid on Chili’s Berwyn, Pennsylvania location.

The actual consumption of meals was also fraught with tension and anxiety. PTSD tends to make a person irritable and impatient, which probably has something to do with the fact that they don’t sleep anymore since, in their experience, sleeping can get you killed. Bad waiter service meant there was potential for a public incident. Unless, of course, if the wait staff was Asian. Asian waiters had free reign to give the shittiest service imaginable and always received an extra large tip.

I asked my mother about it once and she explained: “He just feels so bad about what happened to those people over there.” An interesting attempt at reparations, Dad. Sort of like trying to make up for slavery by overtipping your waitress at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles.

When I was 16, my dad had something of a nervous breakdown which resulted in him both cheating on my mom as well as slipping into severe PTSD flashbacks. Interspersed between his exclamations that he was in love with someone else, he told my mother that he hadn’t killed enough people in Vietnam. He said that if he had killed more people, maybe things would have turned out differently and that if he ever went into combat again he wasn’t coming back.

So that answered that question. He didn’t kill “enough” people—which means he killed some.

Now that I’ve told you that, can I tell you something REALLY disturbing about my Dad’s experience in Vietnam. He didn’t smoke ANY WEED while he was there. That’s what he says and from the way that he says it, I believe him. Can you imagine not only fighting in Vietnam, but NEVER SMOKING POT there? What the FUCK?

Now, I’m a raging pothead. I actually moved to Los Angeles to be closer to pot. I’ve made it something of a personal mission to make up for all the weed that my dad DIDN’T smoke in ‘Nam. I’m pleased to say that I’m making significant progress.

So, I guess there are some things that are funny about Vietnam. And at least we all learned something as a country and we’ll never again allow ourselves to be blindly led into a 10 year war with no clear objective or exit strategy. Phew! At least there’s that! Peace.

  1. […] There was always the sense, in my house, that something absolutely horrible was about to happen.  Read about my experience as the daughter of combat veteran here […]

  2. This story, and stories like yours, should be required reading.

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