I had the pleasure last week to work at a camp held where I work which honors a group of Veterans from the Vietnam War. To say it was a privilege is an understatement, but I am at a loss for any other way to accurately describe what that week was like. It was the most moving and rewarding week of work that I have done in a long time.
The camp was full, probably over capacity, with around 45 veterans and their wives on campus. It's an annual camp and many of the gentlemen I met have been coming for the past three years. But, for a fair number of them, this was the first time at the camp and they were unaware of what they had signed up for. But, by the end of the week, everyone was so glad to have been able to be a part of the experience - both the veterans and the staff.
It wasn't much of a structured camp, though. There were morning activities and afternoon activities (like climbing and pottery) available to them if they wanted to attend. There was also an evening activity scheduled for each night. Monday night was a poetry reading from a number of the Veterans who had found poetry to be an outlet for everything they have been feeling since the war. Let me tell you - it was a moving night. It was also a hilarious night - these guys are funny. Tuesday night was an event called Iron Chef, which is exactly what it sounds like. They broke into teams and had an hour to create a culinary masterpiece - with procuitto as the secret ingredient. I, fortunately, was one of the judges and got to enjoy an omelet, salad, and dessert. It was awesome - a lot of fun, and a lot of crazy stories being told about the chow in 'Nam. Wednesday night some folks from LLBean came up and taught the vets how to tie fly's for fly fishing. That was crazy - they loved every minute of that! Thursday night was our closing circle where everyone got to say whatever they wanted about the week. It was such a moving and caring night - and one that I don't think I will ever forget.
The rest of the day was pretty relaxed - meals, rest hour, free time. They had a lot of time to just be with each other. And that's something I don't think they get a lot of time to do. Even at the VA or the Veterans Centers - it's not necessarily a place where they feel safe to talk to their brothers about the hell that they survived. Here at camp they felt love - from and for each other, from the staff, and some (for the first time in over 40 years) for themselves. They told stories - especially those who had been coming to camp prior to this year - of how at our camp they started to believe the things that their counselors and psychiatrists were talking with them about. They began to understand that love is out there, if they let themselves open up to it. They have begun to realize that they have a life to live - something that they owe to their brothers that didn't come back, and couldn't do. They laughed, cried, told stories, got to know us and each other a lot more. They're incredibly caring gentlemen who have a lot to share with the world around them. I heard some amazing and horrific stories last week. I learned so, so much.
I also learned how to play cribbage. How many people get to say that a Vietnam Veteran taught them how to play cribbage? Oh man, that game is addicting! I don't know if it was luck, or what, but I was on a winning streak like none other. The guy that taught me was so proud of himself.
One of the most moving parts of it for me was listening to them talk about how this camp for them was the Welcome Home they never received. How every time one of us smiled at them, they - if only for a moment - felt at home and loved and welcomed. Vietnam was not a war America rallied behind. People wanted their troops home, but America did not give them any sort of warm welcome because the war they fought in was not one we believed in. Most of these guys came home in ones, twos, or threes - not these whole company homecomings we associate with the wars today. They came home that way because most of their brothers were no longer with them - they left their friends, their brothers, themselves back in Vietnam - and no one ever said a simple Welcome Home, Soldier. I knew that Vietnam was not a war supported by the American people, but I always thought we stood behind our soldiers.
It may be 40 years too late, but I am proud to give these men the Welcome Home they deserved.