My great uncle deployed to Vietnam when he was around 21 years old. I didn’t know about his deployment until I found out I was deploying to Afghanistan in 2009. My uncle, unlike most of the friends and family I had, knew the reality of what was coming. He had already supported me as a military service member, but when the word deployment became a part of the conversation, everything changed.
It wasn’t until my first care package from my uncle arrived that I realized how deeply our paths were connected. The care packages he sent were different from all the other care packages I received. Each one told a story. It could have been the contents of the box or the letter it contained. But no care package was sent without thought and care of what he would have liked to have opened while serving overseas. It was different from all the other care packages because he had been on the receiving end before.
One care package he sent had the book, The Pearl by John Steinbeck. The book on its own would have been nice to have something to read, but there was a story that went with it. In one care package he received from a family in Coos Bay Oregon for Christmas in 1967, he received The Pearl and read it throughout his deployment. I read it too. And sitting on my bunk in my tent, I felt a connection. That book, unlike most of the books I received, made it home with me and sits on my shelf. And every time I see it, I think of my uncle and the bond we share.
Years later after coming home I wanted to do a series for my blog focused on deployment stories. I loved reading the stories in the letters from my uncle and it inspired me to search out more stories and create a series with stories from the past and present-day wars. Not surprisingly, I was excited to include my uncle in this series. So, I sent off my questions and waited for a response. To my surprise, the response was not full of distant stories and fond memories. Instead, I could feel the hurt and pain that deployment can sometimes bring when hidden inside for years. It was something I had struggled with at times as well. Dark memories are sometimes easier to keep hidden.
I was disappointed with his short answers, but I understood his pain. Even though I write and talk about my deployment, sometimes questions can hit me off guard and a wall can go up so fast. And so, I quickly expressed an apology for bringing up pain and thanked him for the answers I received while I also worked to change my questions to focus on the story and not the combat. I was not giving up hope that a story was there.
He responded with an apology and a chance to start again. He said he had reread his answers and realized he was blunt and grumpy. Instead of receiving one-word answers and angry responses I received pieces of history gifted to me through his words and photos. It was a treasured gift and opened my eyes to the history of the Vietnam War and the struggles and challenges he faced. You can read the full interview here.
And it may seem silly or trivial to say that one interview, one group of questions, could help someone who had been hurt so deeply from war and then by those who treated him with indifference on his way home, heal. But there is power in telling your story. There is power in bringing the darkness to light. He once told me, “Until you asked about it, it never occurred to me that anyone would be interested in my story because I made it home in one piece when so many of my buddies didn’t…”
But the story isn’t over. My uncle continues his healing journey and is signed up and waiting for his turn to attend an Honor Flight to Washington DC. He talked about the excitement, anticipation and so many other emotions of going to the Vietnam Memorial and what that trip means to him. He knows it is the next step in his journey and knows it will mean a lot to him.
I never thought my deployment experience would have such an impact on my uncle’s life. I did not realize that the path to my deployment would cause me to want to hear more stories and share more experiences with others. How many people are out there thinking no one wants to know about their experience because they came home alive? But it is through the stories of those who are still alive that we can honor the legacy of those we lost.
There is so much power in telling your story and it is part of the healing journey. It likely won’t be easy but it is so important to share.
Do you know someone who has deployed to Vietnam?
Be sensitive, open and sincere and ask them about their story. Know that they might not be ready to tell their story, but you will never know if you don’t ask. And even if you never hear their story the power of asking one question can help them realize they do have a story to share and that might just be the first step in their journey that they need.