Vietnam vets found a friend in time of need

Dan Rodricks

May 27, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

I hear in Gabriel O'Doherty's voice the faint trace of a brogue his parents brought from Ireland long, long ago. It gives his voice a kind of gentle lilt that soothes and charms. You can understand why young men would open up to him, as if speaking to a kind-hearted uncle, and shed tears on his carpet.

This goes back some years, to when we were still burying our dead from Vietnam.

O'Doherty, who survived the Korean War, felt special affinity with the boys who returned to the United States in the 1970s as war-fried veterans.

But he'd been to bars. He'd heard the talk. He knew what veterans of his generation said about the Vietnam crowd. The big-talking, hard-boiled combat vets of World War II felt the Vietnam soldiers had lost their war. They thought they were cry-babies, too, complaining, as the Vietnam vets did, that the nation never paid them proper tribute.

That attitude persisted through the early 1980s, when Vietnam veterans finally stood to be counted and to establish their permanent memorial in Washington.

Some of it continues today; in the bright glare of the lopsided Persian Gulf victory, Vietnam looks all the more an eyesore in TTC American history. The Desert Storm homecomings are so lavish and have been extended so long -- longer than the war leading to the victory they celebrate -- they border on the grotesque.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, it was the other extreme; there were no such homecomings.

Gabe O'Doherty knew the Vietnam veterans were going to need special care. He felt sympathy where other veterans his age felt scorn. He felt a responsibility to reach across the generational divide, to bring the Vietnam vets in, as if he were a priest at a tribal ritual. The younger soldiers needed the approval of older men. O'Doherty saw this as part of the Vietnam soldiers' homecoming. He knew some of them wanted to share a beer with elders who had been through wars, to enjoy their respect where they couldn't enjoy the nation's.

He invited the Vietnam vets home. "They'd sit in my apartment and talk," O'Doherty recalled yesterday morning in Irvington.

"That was it. Word spread that I was a listener. They could come here and talk things out, the only condition being that they had to bring their own beer.

"They all said the same thing. They felt guilty about Vietnam. They felt to blame for not having won the war. They weren't keen on letting people know they were Vietnam vets. They were ashamed. One of them told me he'd been called a baby-killer when he came home.

"In time, one guy passed the word to another and, for a few years, I was beset with the problem of finding time for myself. But things began to happen very quickly. They began to boast of their service to this country and they began to sign into the Veterans of Foreign Wars."

O'Doherty had become father-confessor and mentor. He'd made the Vietnam vets feel comfortable with themselves, let them cry on his carpet.

He was different -- an older man, a veteran, who understood. He didn't blame them for all the sins of Vietnam. He introduced them to other veterans -- more of the older men whose approval and acceptance was important, but hard in coming.

The years went by. The healing from Vietnam went on slowly and quietly, in Irvington, and across the country -- in hospital wards, in psychiatrists' offices, in counseling centers, in rectories, in places like Gabe O'Doherty's apartment.

"I set about a goal," O'Doherty says, "of beginning at the grass-roots level to get them into the VFW, if that's what they wanted. We got more and more of them involved."

A lot of the Vietnam vets rejected the VFW completely. Others gave it a second thought and started to come around. A Vietnam vet said: "I guess we all wanted to be treated the way our uncles and fathers were treated after World War II."

For some, that meant getting invited down to the VFW.

So now, you can go out to Frederick Station Saloon, meeting place of Gabe O'Doherty's VFW Post No. 10158, and find two-thirds of the members are Vietnam vets -- men in their early- to mid-40s who never thought they'd get through the front door of a VFW hall.

Most Vietnam vets found their their way home in other, less formal ways. But, for the men I met in the saloon, this seemed to be an important passage -- belonging to a club that once scorned them.

They polish the bronze Honor Roll on Frederick Avenue. They sell poppies for Memorial Day. Gabe O'Doherty grins and says, "Nice bunch of fellers."

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