Let’s remember, mourn all changed by Vietnam

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No matter how personal or distant the connection, it’s difficult to reconcile emotions surrounding the Vietnam War.

Several readers, many of them veterans and friends, reached out to me after reading a series of articles by B.A. Morelli published last month in The Gazette. The articles revisit the decision by a then-20-year-old Marion man, Steve Smith, to violate federal law and burn his draft card in a brief but very public display on Oct. 20, 1965.

Reaction to these pieces in which some of those interviewed call for a memorial or some other public acknowledgment of Smith’s action has been predominantly outrage, confusion and disappointment.

“I lost friends in Vietnam,” one man said, “and I still haven’t stood before their names on the national memorial. And now someone wants to put up a memorial here not for them, but for a coward.”

As people who read this column already know, I can relate. My brother, Jimmy Lee Campbell, lost his life in Vietnam, and just this year I became the first person in my immediate family to stand before the national memorial.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post/TNS)

In so many ways — the ever-present grief of my parents and siblings, the shrine to my brother in our home, the lifelong influence of his few war buddies who returned home — it feels like my life has been lived in the shadow of Vietnam. But living in the shadow of something still is quite different from living in it.

Those who have contacted me have memories of life in the 1960s. They remember the war, the protests and all of the intricate cultural subtleties that I have difficulty grasping. My opinions have been forged on secondhand experiences and, as any good reporter knows, it’s always best to be a firsthand observer.

Perhaps it is because of that distance, or because I’ve often dreamed of a life without Vietnam, that I can’t leverage strong emotions against Smith or others who dodged the draft. To be sure I’ve often wondered if my brother would have needed to go to war if so many others hadn’t stepped aside. Or, if more had gone, if my brother could’ve somehow returned alive.

Ultimately, such “what if” games serve no purpose. We can’t change history, only our reaction to it.

For instance, the park in Coweta, Okla., that bears my brother’s name is dedicated to the “Coweta Eight,” the men from that community who died in the war. But those paying close attention will note that nine soldiers are memorialized there.

One of those pictured returned home, broken. He took his own life — something that for decades barred him and his family from the town’s collective pride and grief of being the place that lost the most per capita in Vietnam.

Similar clouds roll across some veterans’ faces when I tell them that my brother was drafted into Vietnam, as if his sacrifice and how it impacted our family is different or lessened because of the path to it.

Forty years have past since Saigon fell; time enough to dull the sharp edges of these differences. I look forward to the day when we embrace our commonalities and mourn all of the lives forever changed by a war too many of us still don’t understand and none of us want to relive.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on November 14, 2015. Photo credit: Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post/TNS