| Ghosts ... do they really exist? In our childhood most of us could only imagine about things that go bump in the night.
I remember going to the Saturday afternoon matinees as a boy growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania to see scary movies like Dracula and The Werewolf. Experiences like these would only broaden my thoughts about the existence of ghosts. But shortly after graduating from high school in 1964 I gave little thought about ghosts and scary movies because I soon found myself facing a very real and scary drill instructor at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California. In the course of the 12 strenuous weeks of Marine boot camp my DI taught me to overcome all of my fears, which enabled me to rationalize that ghosts were nothing more than childhood imagination.
That is until now, some 42 years after serving in Vietnam. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I am now being confronted once again with the thought that ghosts do exist. Not in the sense of Dracula and The Werewolf, but from a persistent and unpredictable manifestation of long suppressed and deep-rooted painful memories of friends lost.
It has often been written that Vietnam veterans faced a very different experience when they returned from war. America was in social turmoil in the 60s and 70s and unlike other veterans who received welcoming parades and admiring accolades, Vietnam veterans returned to the country they so dearly loved only to experience wholesale rejection and disdain. In response most veterans went to ground in quiet confusion and disbelief and tried to simply move on with their lives. In some cases, anger, rage, alcohol and drugs were the answer.
I was 20 years old in 1967 when I returned from Vietnam, eager and enthusiastic to get back to living in the "real world." Unlike some I was proud of my service and grateful for the many friendships that I had made in the Marine Corps. As the years passed I also took pride in being part of the Vietnam generation that had chosen to serve with honor instead of turning tail to Canada or in seeking exemption from serving during this controversial and epic struggle for freedom and independence. But I also realized from the beginning that painful memories existed within me, and that I had the burden of guilt in knowing that I was living and some were not. But as the days turned into years and the years turned into decades the pain subsided, and then seemed to go away completely. That is until now.
At my workplace last year I was asked to organize a color guard that would be part of a ceremony to remember those killed on September 11, 2001 and to commemorate the brave Americans now serving in the war against terrorism. In this process I suddenly experienced strong memories of Vietnam – not of the hours of boredom and hard work or of the intensity of combat, but of the faces of lost friends – their smiles, their tears, their voices. I then began to think as I did as a child that perhaps ghosts really do exist.
More recently I was asked to do a presentation about the POW-MIA flag to a group of community college professors. A few minutes into the presentation I was unexpectedly overwhelmed with emotions. This wasn't the first time I've choked-up in front of a large group of people when talking about veteran's issues, but this particular experience was of intensity that I had not felt before.
The college professors were kind and compassionate, as I stood motionless with embarrassment in front of them unable to talk or to continue with my presentation. One knowledgeable colleague finally stood up and asked if I wanted help in explaining the material that I was trying to present. In response all I could do was shake my head yes as I moved to the back of the room.
It is now apparent to me, some 38 years later, that I have some old ghosts to deal with. Some call them psychological wounds, but to me, they feel more like spirits. I have fond memories of my buddies who sacrificed all in Vietnam – friends like Harry McGinnis, Stephen Sullivan, and James Rodney Moore, our battalion casualty who is still listed as missing-in-action. A lot of people lost many friends and family members in that war, but numbers really don't mean too much in matters like this. When confronting ghosts, one loss is way too many.
I suppose it is long overdue for a lot of Vietnam veterans to confront their respective ghosts. Personally, I do not fear mine nor do I have any regrets. In fact, remembering now somehow brings a comforting peace when I really think about it. Maybe the ghosts themselves recognize that it is now time for me to face what has festered beneath the surface for far too many years. So, in spite of what I learned in Marine boot camp way back in 1964, I now believe ghosts do exist. They have been with me since Vietnam patiently waiting for the time to come when they would be needed to help me heal.