Submitted by: Tim Ramsey
by Tim Ramsey
My father returned from Vietnam 45 years ago this summer after a year of representing the United States Air Force in a war that many civilians deemed immoral, irresponsible and inexcusable. Yet he answered the call of duty and served his country proudly without complaint.
Dad received no hero's welcome from his country. Quietly, he exited the plane that returned him stateside and ventured home to his wife and not-so-quiet seven kids. He was celebrated joyously by his large clan in his small house and slowly began to assimilate back into the life he had left behind.
I do not recall my father ever speaking much at all about his experiences in Southeast Asia. He shared silent Super 8 movies he had filmed of his surroundings and then became silent himself on the topic of war. Now, in his eighties, his stories have been completely silenced by the dementia that has invaded his mind. I will never know of the fear he felt, the anguish he endured, or the tears that he cried. Perhaps that is the way he wanted it to be.
There are so many others in his generation who returned to silence as well, absorbing that silence and making it their own. Their stories, like those of my father, will more than likely leave this world in silence. Unfortunately, too many of their comrades lost their ability to ever share their experiences at all as they forfeited their lives on foreign soil far from their loved ones.
Too many of my current reading students at the local community college have very little understanding of the "ancient" war of my father's generation. Unfortunately, they also know little of the current war in which their own peers are involved.
This past summer's class was made up of twenty-six students, one-third of whom were veterans - representatives from each of the Armed Forces. Usually, my classes have one or two young men returning to school on the GI Bill to better their lives. This latest class amazingly had seven men and one woman in attendance. The insight they added to classroom discussions provided an excellent balance to the ideas presented by others, much younger, who had just left high school.
Having been a teacher for over thirty years, I have learned that every student has a backstory. I've also learned that many are quite successful in concealing that story from others. Most of the veterans sitting before me were quite adept at smiling through any scar tissue clouding their psyches.
"Ken," a 26 year old former Marine arrived early every day, never missing a single class. He sat in the back of the room and listened intently to everything I presented. He nodded his head in understanding, in agreement, and smiled broadly at my weak attempts at humor. He actively became engaged in discussions with the others at his table. Every assignment was well-organized, well-written and submitted on time.
I teach my students to read critically and to think critically. I encourage them to question what they read and to develop their own opinions of the issues they encounter. I surround them with multiple readings and videos and charge them with the responsibility of "connecting the dots" and thereby "connecting their thoughts" to make sense of the world around them.
During one week, my students read seemingly unconnected resources including articles of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, immigration reform, and the effects of pancreatic cancer on the life of Randy Pausch and his family (The Last Lecture). They were then assigned to write a "hard times" essay describing an experience of their own and linking that experience to the information we had read.
If I hadn't learned the backstories of my students by that point, I certainly discovered them in the reading of their essays. Many heartbreaking, gut-wrenching revelations tempered with determination, resiliency and the confidence to move forward in life were offered freely.
Ken's essay affected me the most. He eloquently wrote of the horrors of his year in Afghanistan. He described the harsh climate, the lack of amenities and his separation from his family. His voice poured forth loudly and compassionately through his written words as he spoke of the local residents: "They wanted us and needed us there, giving us the motivation to suck it up and go the long haul for them."
That "long haul" is not over for this wonderful young man who is now safe in his own homeland. His writing revealed that he suffers from horrendous nightmares that arrive unannounced nightly, forcefully, ever since his return from the Middle East. He bravely proclaimed that he will conquer his night tremors and that he will indeed be a successful member of society again.
Coming to class, turning in superb work...and smiling...all part of his personal plan for rehabilitation, I am sure.
Students were asked to end their essays with words of advice for others who may be experiencing hard times. Ken wrote: "Cry when you need to cry, fall when you need to fall, but always get back up."
So many young men and women with stories similar to Ken's are returning from war today in much the same way that my father did nearly a half-century ago. Many are desperately trying to silence the frightening stories in their minds and are attempting to move on with their lives. We must welcome these soldiers with open arms regardless of our opinion of the politics that sent them away. We must shower them with love, with respect, with gratitude. A simple "thank you for your service," a handshake, a caring ear... Our acts of kindness and appreciation may be all that these young men and women need to continue fighting the battles that still rage on within their minds.
As Ken so simply, yet beautifully, concluded his essay: "A little bit of compassion and love for a stranger can go a long way on both ends."
Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2014.
About the author:
Tim Ramsey has been an educator in the public school setting for 31 years. He taught for 16 years at the elementary, junior high and high school levels. He worked the next 15 years as a school administrator. He recently retired, but has since returned to the classroom as a fifth grade teacher. He teaches at the community college level as well. Tim is an avid writer. His book, "The Hugs on My Shirt," chronicles many of his experiences within the school setting.
Read more: https://www.facebook.com/TheHugsOnMyShirt