I had an extraordinary experience this past Friday. I was at a local coffee shop after work when a man came in and sat down at the table next to me. I was looking at my Kindle and he asked me what I was reading. When I answer Michael Herr’s Dispatches he told me had been a marine in Vietnam. I asked what years, knowing full well that a Vietnam veteran’s period of service usually says a great deal about his experience and, more often than not, his outlook on his experience. He responded late 1967 through 1968, about fifteen months all told. I then had to ask where he was during the Tet Offensive, and he answered Hue. This was tough urban warfare. All of this led to an hour and a half conversation about not just Vietnam but current events and twentieth century history. Whether it was Mao’s Cultural Revolution or the World Wars, his thoughts were subtle and well-considered. Listening to him was humbling. His parents had come to Brooklyn from Great Britain in the late 1930s and he told me that his mother used to cry upon receiving letters from family back home during the Second World War. An uncle served under Montgomery in North Africa. At around ten in the late 1940s, he lived overseas with his family for about 7-8 months during the height of Austerity Britain. Really it was quite an extraordinary conversation.
When I mentioned that some colleagues and I are making a film about WW1 and veterans from today’s military he responded with enthusiasm. We got into a discussion about the GI Bill during which I mentioned that I have been discussing the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act with the classes with which I have been working as part of our Library of America/Gilder Lehrman grant. I go into the GI Bill with students to emphasize that the measure did not become reality until 1944 and was a direct result of the Bonus Army and the general poor treatment of World War One veterans in the 1920s and 1930s. He told me attended NYU Film School in the 1970s on the GI Bill. This was after several years of difficult readjustment in the wake of his return from Southeast Asia. This included overseeing the transport of his best friend’s remains from Vietnam to Arizona for burial. His friend was a Native American and the burial ceremony was conducted accordingly. They had promised each other that if one were killed the other would ensure the deceased’s safe passage home.
Naturally I gave him my phone number as well as the name and link to the website here. I have no doubt I will see him again. I really want to continue the conversation.
(image by Captain T. Cummins/United States Marine Corps Archives, Quantico)