Welcome home, veterans, and thank you
Sometimes I’m right then I can be wrong
My own beliefs are in my songs
A butcher, a banker, a drummer and then
Makes no difference what group I’m in
I am everyday people
Sly and the Family Stone, Everyday People
I was a newly minted baby hippy in 1971, and like most of us, I was glued to the news about the war in Vietnam. I had seen the photographs of American atrocities, weeping over My Lai and the slaughtered children, composing and singing my war protest songs while curled around my deep toned guitar with its slightly off-kilter frets that made it such a challenge to tune.
Like many in my day, I was angry with the soldiers for what they were doing in wartime, not realizing that I was being unfair. I’m not entirely sure what woke me up.
Perhaps it was getting to know soldiers who had drifted through our hippy counseling center, Everyday People, in Columbia, Missouri. Perhaps it was just my analytical nature. But suddenly it crystallized that the cruel things some hippies were doing to the returning soldiers as they got off the planes – some of which is now considered to be an urban legend, some of it legitimately remembered – was simply wrong. The only people in the entire equation of war who should be honored and nurtured were the veterans. After all, either they had gone because they truly felt it was the right thing to do – or they had been drafted and forced into it. Either way, they had done nothing ethically wrong by simply being soldiers.
No, the ones who needed to be held accountable – even despised – were the old men who sent these soldiers to war. Who often did so for the most cynical of reasons – to protect corporate interests, to claim the great stores of oil in the regions to which we’d sent our youth. In fact, as far as I could tell, the last righteous war in which we had participated was World War II. After that, our motives were rarely so pure.
It was afternoon in the summer of 1971 when I found them, seven young Vietnam veterans sitting on a grassy knoll. I know it was in Columbia, but it’s been so long that I can’t quite remember where it was. Still looking fresh-scrubbed, but utterly exhausted, they had stopped there because their strength had simply given out. I smiled at them, a little 15 year old hippy “chick,” and they smiled back, happy for a friendly face.
It took no more encouragement than that for me to sit down and listen. One minute they’d been in the midst of combat – one of them had just seen his best buddy vaporized beside him – the next, they were all on the same plane home with no transition whatsoever. They arrived in the States and just like that they were turfed out and cut adrift. No welcome home. No thank you. No counseling, no care. Two of them had just kicked heroin. Not a one of them had slept since they got back.
I stood and held out my hand, my heart filling with compassion. Come with me, I said. We have a place where you can eat and rest.
We walked to Everyday People, a turn-of-the-century-or-so house that had seen better days. I warned the people in the house with pugnacious protectiveness that these young men were to be under our protection, but there was no need. They were welcomed by all there.
The room was full of old couches and the lights were low, the other people’s conversations hushed. One by one, I gave each young man a thorough back rub, then tucked him in as he drifted off. The last one warned me to wake them up with a tossed piece of paper because if you wake us by touching us, we’ll kill you, and we would never get over that.
All night I sat vigil in a kitchen chair stationed at the entryway to the room as my veterans – and they were my veterans – slumbered. I think they slept 14 hours or more before waking on their own. By that point, I was on the porch, watching the sun gently devour the night. One by one, they found me, wrapping themselves around me in a hug that I returned with nascent maternal love – my boys – and they thanked me. We fed them commodity foods until they could hold no more, and then they drifted off into the day.
About a week later, I found them again. They were better now, they told me. Finally, they could go home. The way they held my eyes told me that their healing had begun the day I’d found them and taken them into my heart.
I hope they fared well, these young men who would be in their 60s now. I hope they had good lives, filled with love and family and daily healing. I hope with all my heart that I was able to help in some small way to set them back on the path that our heartless country had so derailed them from.
I’ve told this story to other Vietnam era vets because when I do, it’s as if they live it through my words – as if they were one of those young veterans being welcomed home by gentle people who understood. I have held other vets in that no-longer-nascent maternal embrace and told them what they deserve to hear:
“Welcome home. I am so glad you made it back. And thank you with all my heart for everything you have done for us.”