Vietnam Stories: The sacred violence of war

For the Monitor
Tuesday, November 28, 2017

I have been moved by the heartfelt personal stories of the Vietnam War shared by many readers of the Monitor over the past few months.

I found the documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on this war and the discussion of its deep-rooted effect on our generation riveting.

This year, I read James Wright’s (recent Dartmouth College president and history professor) account of the war in his book Enduring Vietnam. These recent experiences have brought to light once more the formative impact this era had on me. The Vietnam War changed my life forever.

I was stationed at the old Mary Hitchcock Hospital as an orderly in the emergency room during those years. I saw a lot of blood, but it was not the blood of fellow soldiers in combat. I carried bedpans and dirty laundry, not a rifle. My leader was a Vietnam veteran, a tough, strong-willed, selfless nurse who was devoted to her work. We knew that our feelings about war differed, but she made it clear that those sentiments would never come between us while we were caring for a patient.

One night, a young Vietnam vet came into our ER “dead on arrival” having hanged himself in his family’s Vermont barn. Sighing deeply, I heard her murmur, “I thought I had seen the last of young soldiers dying when I left Vietnam.” As I looked closer, my heart ached to see her fighting back tears.

Several of my high school football teammates died in Vietnam. One of my best friends, Jimmy, survived combat, but returned with only one leg. Short and skinny, he had proudly enlisted in the Marines after graduation, a dream he had held growing up watching war movies. A part of me was envious. He was becoming a real man, a war hero, fighting to stop communism from spreading throughout the free world. He was living those famous words spoken by our past president John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what
you ...”

While I attended a pristine college, Jimmy marched as a sniper through the hot, humid jungles of Vietnam, thick with mosquitoes and infested with leeches and snakes, some even poisonous. I remember well the day I received a letter from another high school friend informing me that Jimmy was returning home from Vietnam, still alive, but badly wounded. I did not attend my organic chemistry lab that afternoon.

When I came home to work during my college summer break, Jimmy had recovered and asked to see me. He invited me to his apartment for dinner. He opened his refrigerator with a smile and his familiar giggle to show me that every shelf was filled with Blitz beer, a popular, local, cheap brew at the time. We spent a long night drinking. He called me college puke, which I did not deny. He seemed sullen about his leg, but worse, he was having recurrent nightmares, awakening to the faces of dead children, their mothers and the old men in villages bombed by his air support. He confessed there were moments when he wished he had been killed. He had lost a leg. More, he had lost heart.

In April of 1970, a few months before my college graduation, I received notification from the Nixon administration that my plans to work for VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) would no longer qualify as a draft deferment. My 2-S classification as a student went to a 1-A classification (available for active duty) overnight. I was immediately drafted and passed my military physical with flying colors.

The four years after high school had changed my thoughts and feelings about war. Was there not a better way to resolve political conflict than governments sacrificing young human lives? Was combat treating others as you would want to be treated? I feared that I would die in Vietnam, but more, I was afraid that I would be asked to take another person’s life.

My father was a decorated World War II veteran. He had fought with the U.S. infantry in Italy. He received two Bronze Stars for his courage and was wounded four times, for which he was awarded Purple Hearts. When I was a boy, I pleaded for him to tell me “war stories.” His answer was always the same: “The only men who tell war stories have never really fought in a war.” His medals were buried in a chest in our basement.

After much thought, I applied to my local draft board in Beaverton, Ore., for conscientious objector’s status. With no formal religious background, I wrote the required paper, answering all their questions as honestly as I could. I appeared twice before my local board to explain my position. Finally, I presented letters of support. The most important letter was from my father. He wrote that he did not agree with my decision, but that he did support my sincerity. His last sentence stated that if he were still young, he would go to Vietnam in my place. A vivid memory is the look of disdain on the draft board secretary’s face when she handed me my new draft card with the classification marked 1-O (Conscientious Objector available for alternate service).

I held no resentment. I knew she had lost her only son in Vietnam. I moved from Oregon to New Hampshire where I lived on a farm and worked at the hospital in Hanover. I adopted a dog and a “little brother” who had no father. And, I met a woman who was a nurse at Mary Hitchcock Hospital. After two years of working as an orderly and one year of post-graduate science classes, I attended Dartmouth Medical School. The woman I met at the hospital became my wife, and together we have made a full life of medicine and family in Concord.

It has always seemed an irony that the Vietnam War and its mandatory draft was so life giving to me – introducing me to the inside of a hospital where I found my life’s work and my life partner. When I return to my high school reunions, I always look at the list of friends and classmates whose lives were cut short by the tragic war in Vietnam. Standing there, I feel guilty that I was given a privileged education that helped me realize it is our glorification of war that costs us our humanity.

I am grateful to have had time in college to understand that the “sacred” violence of war, which draws many earnest young to military service, is not noble and only engenders more violence and more wars. My hope is that some day no soldier will have to experience what my father could not bear to tell.

(Dr. Oge Young lives in Concord.)

(Correction: An earlier version of this column omitted Lynn Novick as one of the co-creators of the documentary “The Vietnam War.”)