Love and war, and what they do
by Donald K. Sanders
Every so often I have to discuss a part of my life that I’d rather forget. For this reason or that, it doesn’t really matter why, I have to talk about my life in the U.S. Army. In my early 20s, when I was very young, I found myself in a war zone. I was there for two years, one month, and seven days from June 1969 until August 1971.
Things were different back then. Vietnam was an unpopular war and for some reason, the American public seemed to blame it all on the soldiers that had fought there. As Arlo Guthrie put it in his song, “Alice’s Restaurant,” we were “baby killers” and “mother rapers.”
There were 58,000 American soldiers killed in the Vietnam War, but over 120,000 Vietnam Veterans have committed suicide after coming home. You can clearly see the effect that their homecoming had on its returning soldiers.
For an example of how bad it was for us, I’ll tell you about something that happened to me. In 1970, I received a 30-day leave to go home. It was so depressing for me at home that I returned to Vietnam after 20 days. When I got back to the war zone, I told my friends what I had seen and heard while on leave.
One of my best friends called me a liar and tried to punch me in the face. They just could not believe that their country would abandon them in the same manner that they would dump so much garbage. So too, they dumped us, and it was devastating.
A year or so later, immediately upon my release from the army, I took off my uniform in a airport bathroom and tossed it in the garbage. No one would know that I had been a soldier and I kept it that way for many years.
There were no parades, no welcome homes, no hugs, and no kisses. Nowhere could I fit in. Only with other Vietnam veterans did I feel comfortable enough to relax. Many of us sunk into a pit of drug abuse and drunkenness.
I’m not trying to lay the blame for my problems anywhere but on my own shoulders. It was the decisions that I made that led me down that road. For many years, our behavior was overlooked by the authorities, but eventually they were forced to take action. Many, many veterans, including myself, wound up in jail.
I can only speak for myself, but being torn away from those that I love and being put in a cage like an animal gave me a serious attitude adjustment. You might say that jail had a sobering effect on me.
Sadly, many veterans fell by the wayside and could not recover as I did. I think that the amount of love that I received from my family saved me from certain doom. Still, I’ve had several bouts with suicide and it’s constantly in the back of my head. Only love keeps me here.
The June 30 edition of my hometown newspaper, the Winters Express, had a story on page A-2 about the death of a man named James O’Neil. This man went to war at the age of 14. He landed on Utah Beach on D-Day and proceeded to fight his way across Europe. While doing so, he was wounded three times. He risked his life many times to protect others.
He married a girl named Dorothy and they had nine children. He loved her for over 43 years and she loved him back, just as much. I never got to meet James O’Neil, but I can see that he was a good man. Strong of mind and body.
I didn’t know him but I truly miss him. I cannot imagine him having the problems that I do, and this is the point of everything I’m trying to say: that warfare, killing, and dying will affect one man one way, and another in a different way. I’m sure James O’Neil would say that this is true. I’m not saying that one man is better or worse than the other, because they’ve both experienced the real horror of war.
I’m trying to say that the Vietnam war broke me. It broke others as well. I wish that I could be like James O’Neil but I can’t. I don’t know how. I can clearly see what James O’Neil had that I didn’t have. James O’Neil found love as a young man and kept it close to him all of his life. I was well into my 40s before I found out that love existed for me.
I’m sure that James O’Neil and I shared many of life’s complications in similar ways. We both saw war as it was. We both survived and we both came home after our wars. I don’t know if he had problems with his life experiences but I do know where the similarities of our lives split and started to differ.
James found love and knew it for what it was, and at the same time there had been very little love or even affection in my life. I didn’t have a clue what love was and thus couldn’t be saved until I did find it. I found it in the eyes of my beautiful wife and I tell you the truth when I say that it was love that has saved me. This I know is the greatest gift that God has ever given me. He has truly blessed me in spite of what I do and have done to myself.