This past Veterans Day, driving to visit a friend in Northeast NJ, I passed through several small towns holding Veterans Day observances. It reminded me that many years ago, when I was working at Rockland Community College in Suffern NY, this friend had suggested that we bring the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall to the campus. The Traveling Wall is a 3/5-scale replica of the Washington DC monument designed by Maya Lin. It allows veterans and others who might not be able to visit DC share the experience of seeing the names of fellow servicemen and women, family members and friends engraved on stark black panels.
While I agreed that this would be an appropriate service to our community, my own experience with the Vietnam War had been as an antiwar demonstrator in the 60’s. My brothers and friends all had college deferments or low draft numbers. I had never actually known anyone who served. I had visited the Memorial and was moved by its beauty and the powerful reactions of visitors who had personal connections to the war or the veterans who were listed there. But until I had the opportunity to work directly with them to plan the Rockland County visit, I had never interacted personally with Vietnam veterans.
When I was researching this post I discovered that the man with whom I had worked most closely, Jerry Donnellan, died last spring. Jerry was the Director of the Rockland Veterans Service Agency. A three-time Purple Heart recipient who lost part of his leg in Vietnam, he was smart, kind, generous, and funny. After a career in theater and as a stage manager for Frank Sinatra, Jerry devoted himself to helping veterans like himself. He helped them overcome physical and psychological wounds and rebuild their lives. Getting to know Jerry helped me understand the lives of Vietnam veterans, many of whom were scorned and neglected when they returned to the States. “They” now had individual faces and stories. Mostly around my age, they had taken different paths and believed in different ways to express their patriotism. I had never blamed them for national policy I believed was wrong, but I had certainly stereotyped them.
When we entered another war I believed was wrong, in Iraq and Afghanistan, I could protest the policy but admire the courage and honor of those who elected to serve.
I am convinced that the only way to bring about peace, whether within our borders or around the world, is to enable individuals to get to know one another. I will always be grateful to Jerry and the other veterans who taught me this lesson.