The Power of Reunions
By Jim Barker, Undisclosed
Writing Type: Prose
More than 20 years had passed since that memorable cap and gown ceremony with the rousing classic march in the high school gym. It was a typical Iowa evening with a rural fragrance and soft humidity. My Heartland Class of '65 found itself in an exciting and daunting intersection of U.S. history. Social movements were beginning to foment; politics were in flux, and the flames of War were starting to ignite in Southeast Asia. Some friends had already paid the ultimate price in Vietnam and others were to follow.
The time felt right for the "return of a native" to his hometown. Beyond the interest and curiosity to reconnect with classmates, I felt a strong compulsion and passion to describe my military experience and the values gained as a soldier having intense experiences.
Anyone who has lived through traumatic exposures has internalized them and has witnessed deeper dimensions of life that demand understanding and healing. On the positive side of those who endure the gauntlets of war, the classic adage rings timeless: "Of those who have fought for it, life has a flavor the protected shall never know."
The challenge now was to share those things with those who were close. Nostalgic songs of that era coursed through my emotions, like the idealism of the Youngbloods, Credence, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and the Beatles.
Aboard the flight from California to Iowa, I noticed a career Marine officer on board, appearing deep in thought. Greeting him, I asked if he was on leave for a home visit. He replied: "I'm going to my class reunion in South Dakota. I will be making a presentation." I said the same. We were both war veterans. We had both become more serious and passionate about life.
The subsequent reunion was highly positive. My classmates heard about the themes of honor, dignity, brotherhood and teamwork. My personal reward was feeling appreciation that others had recognized the importance of valuing and caring for one another.
The 24th Scout Dog Platoon Reunion
A few years later, as I was employed in the clinical field with the VA Vet Center Program, there was a special opportunity to host a Scout Dog reunion. The attending veterans had not seen each other since their Vietnam service, when they had shared unique jobs as dog handlers. Their mission had been critical and dangerous. Over 3,700 dogs had served in Vietnam. Per capita, the veterans and their dogs had among the highest casualty rates, serving mostly on point. For more than two days these men shared memories of their experiences, laughed and wept together.
An example of the deep and intense bond of loyalty between a handler and his dog occurred in one of the therapy sessions. One of the veterans spoke of delaying going home on emergency leave with his son seriously ill because he couldn't easily leave his dog and those he was protecting. The reunion concluded with the mutual realization of lifetime ties these veterans shared together.
Delta Raiders Reunion
One of our Vietnam veteran clients who was on operations in the Imperial City of Hue during the momentous Tet Offensive of 1968 agreed to attend a reunion in Las Vegas. One of his biggest challenges was trying to get in touch with his emotions, mainly grief and guilt. He attended and was drawn into the fellowship. Afterward, he related how he now felt better understood and more valued as a person and veteran. Things were a little rough given his unit’s intense combat exposure. His summary statement: "We spent the weekend closely together, and there was a lot of drinking and crying." The former officers and enlisted soldiers now recognized each other on an equal fraternal basis.
The Media Gathering of Combat Veterans
Following the showing of the movie Platoon in 1986, a national outrage was sparked among veterans. For many, it revived painful experiences and flashbacks. The one unintended consequence was that some veterans became motivated to seek treatment for their war trauma.
The movie had largely profiled Vietnam veterans as "psychopathic killers," having little regard for the Vietnamese. This image motivated veterans to unite themselves for a media response. This writer helped to initiate and facilitate the gathering with Tom Brokaw's “20/20” film crew for a nationwide NBC broadcast.
Facing the bright lights and microphones of the interviewing staff, the veterans were able to bring up impacted emotions, some for the first time. Expressions of anger and grief were intense. It was a lifetime moment for all, as America got to hear the voices and see the emotions of members of a rejected generation of warriors.
Team Advisors Reunion
Last year the Military Assistance Command hosted a reunion in Houston Texas. This had the unique feature of bringing veterans together with members of the Vietnamese community there. It quickly became a reunion of old friends who had fought and sacrificed together, often in perilous conditions. The advisors had been highly professional soldiers assigned to assist and often live with local villagers in defense efforts against Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces. Working with minimal troop reinforcements, a special relationship and comradeship evolved with the native people. I was honored to be among such men and contribute as a language specialist and advisor with Vietnamese units in the Central Highlands through the spring offensive in 1972.
A joint memorial service, individual contacts with fellow advisors and personal exchanges with Vietnamese veterans and boat people were touching beyond words. The Vietnamese attendees heard a reaffirmation of the original dedication of their allies who never abandoned their commitment in the face of external influences and arbitrary politics. For all present, the reunion had taken the expanded meaning of a homecoming. As one advisor observed, "This is the first time since the war I could be in the presence of a group of people and know we all felt the same."
The reunion did not escape the attention of researchers and historians. Individual in-depth interviews were conducted for national veterans’ archives. It was special to have the scholarly and respectful team from West Point available. For several of us, it was also a special opportunity to get in touch with our deepest emotions.
For any generation of veterans, particularly in their advancing years, the benefits of reunions and memorializing our comrades and their experiences help to promote emotional and physical health as well as “peace of soul.”
Fundamentally the scriptures speak of and invite community. We are better together than we are alone. The fundamental need of all persons is trust and belonging, relying and depending on one another. Community is in man's nature.
John Donne wrote “No man is an island.” No veteran should have to be an island. Joy and sorrow are meant to be borne together.