Vietnam veteran looks in longing at joy for warrior


March 03, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Eddie is watching the television set with admiration and with envy. He sees Marines in the Persian Gulf but remembers himself in Pleiku. He sees the wives of soldiers weeping happy tears in a school auditorium and tries to understand for the thousandth time why America never wept for him.

In a narrow row house on Highland Avenue in East Baltimore, Eddie hits the TV remote control like a man on a mission.

"We're all going home together," says a Marine with a lump in his throat on CBS, sweeping his hand expansively toward his buddies. Eddie hits the remote control, and the Marine and his buddies are gone.

On NBC, there's a soldier reading a Bible. Zap, now he isn't. On ABC, an infantryman says, "It's over, so I can be me again." But who, exactly, is he? In the next instant, you see him with his pals, all wrestling good-naturedly in the sand.

And that's the American in each of us, isn't it? We envision ourselves as innocents at heart. We go off to war with all the idealism of kids playing cowboys, looking to protect whatever's good in the world, and when war is done, we read our Bibles.

The television is showing apparently random scenes, but they're more than that. They're a scrapbook of reminders of how we wish to see ourselves: ferocious in war, fair in its aftermath, humble and happy to come home to loved ones.

Eddie hits the remote control again. America is swimming in a sweet tide of love for its warriors, and it's making Eddie uncomfortable because it's 20 years too late for him to have a piece of it.

On Highland Avenue, there are yellow ribbons on doors and American flags in windows: So much naked, exuberant patriotism. Where was it 20 years ago, Eddie wonders, when he came marching up Highland Avenue from Vietnam?

"I guarantee you this," he says, drum-rolling his nubby fingers across a living room table. "There weren't any flags flying on this street when I came home."

The nation fought two wars simultaneously back then: with North Vietnam, and with itself. The kids like Eddie came home to cold shoulders. Some had their uniforms spat upon and heard themselves called baby killers. No television screens showed soldiers reading Bibles.

"My mother," Eddie says, "gave me a big hug in the kitchen when I came home. I caught her peeling potatoes or something. She was standing by the sink, and she had an apron on, and here I came through the front door."

It sounds like something Norman Rockwell might have painted for a magazine cover. Eddie's mother squealed and dropped the potato peeler on the floor. His father was already gone then, a World War II vet who'd come home to work in the steel mills at Sparrows Point and then dropped dead one day when Eddie was in high school.

The old man might have understood, Eddie says, but his mother did not. He says there was always this sense of veiled embarrassment about Vietnam. Today, his mother watches the television and says sweet things about the kids in the Persian Gulf. Back then, he says, his mother saw her son as a fighter in an unpopular war.

"She didn't want to know what I'd gone through," says Eddie. "It scared her to think what her son might have done, and so we never quite talked about it. And I look at her now, and it's a different woman looking at different sons on television. Somehow, it's like they're giving her what she never got with me."

It's that way in America now. We seem a nation making up for lost opportunities, belatedly admitting that we shafted the ones coming home from Vietnam and trying now to make it up to the next generation.

Some years back, Max Cleland, then head of the U.S. Veterans Administration, put it this way: "Within the soul of each Vietnam veteran there is probably something that says, 'Bad war, good soldier.' Only now are Americans beginning to separate the war from the warrior."

In the living room on Highland Avenue, Eddie flips the TV again. A piece of him is angry over the past, but another wants to share in the present. The scene is Kuwait City, which looks like a kind of endlessSuper Bowl party, minus the football game. Eddie stares for a few seconds, catches himself watching too long and hits the remote button.

Now the screen shows those military wives and mothers and sweethearts again. And the tears, the national tears that have been backed up in ducts for the last 20 years, are flowing once more. Only it's not just tears, it all feels like a kind of orchestrated outpouring of emotion, a sign to our soldiers and to ourselves that we won't shortchange the ones in uniform again.

"I wish they could have cried like that when we were coming home," says Eddie. "We went over with the same feelings these guys did. We were scared. We were told we had a job to do. And then we came, and nobody wanted us."

The screen lingers on these women now. Some are hugging each other, and others are clutching their children, and the joy is everywhere.

On Highland Avenue, Eddie puts the remote control down for a moment. From across the room, you can see an unmistakable trace of something liquid rolling down one cheek, unchecked by hand or hankie.

A question goes unasked: Is he weeping for the kids coming home with their buddies, or for a vision of himself 20 years ago, when he made it home alive and America turned the other way?

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