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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Everything is Copy: Teaching vets, and learning even more

Like many others now in comfortable middle age, my political consciousness was shaped by the geopolitics of Southeast Asia. With my parents I went to protest marches and chanted “Hell, no, we won’t go.” I asked my babysitters why they wore bracelets with the names of men they’d never met on their wrists, vaguely understood about “going to Canada,” and plastered my school notebooks with peace signs. I may have a had a poster in my childhood bedroom that read “Make love, not war” when thoughts of making love were nothing less than disgusting.

During that time, I saw young men home from war who continued to wear hard-earned Army green and, I’m sorry to say, I did not view them as heroes. People like me – the child of lefty academics – did not know people who served.

That continued until, in my early 30s, I began to train for my first marathon. In the piney woods of North Carolina, I ran with a Quaker biology professor at Duke. Often we were joined by his friend Ted Triebel, known as “Hawk” to his fighter pilot buddies. Ted was shot down wearing his last pair of clean boxers – those his wife had sent him for Valentine’s Day. Each day, in his single room at the Hanoi Hilton, Ted would wash his red heart-adorned boxers and hang them high on a line to let his comrades know he was still alive. Those underpants are now under glass at the Navy Museum.

Over the many miles we spent together Ted talked about his life during and after the war. He taught me the lived meaning of words like honor, duty, and country. He made me see how much I’d missed during the Vietnam era. Years later, while visiting Hanoi, I toured the small cell where Ted had been held for nearly a year, read propaganda about how well the captured Americans had been treated, and lit a small candle in front of the Buddha.

The first veteran I ever taught sat in the front row of my introduction to creative writing course, barely able to squeeze his big body into the chair-desk combos that still, improbably, exist on college campuses. When he wrote about a Humvee explosion on the banks of the Euphrates – about what he’d seen and had to do during the war – I felt inadequate to comment. I felt, in fact, insufficiently worldly to say anything to him, except to urge him to keep writing, keep remembering, keep teaching the rest of us.

Now I try to imagine what it was like for those Vietnam-era soldiers returning from a war that much of the country didn’t support, coming home to be cursed and shunned by citizens who blamed them for – what? Not being canny enough to somehow to evade the draft? For believing what the government told them? I think about the young men and women who signed up because they believed, as did my friend Ted, that honor, and duty, and country meant something. How compounded their losses must have been by the way they were received back on the home front.

These days, when flight attendants take time to recognize our military men and women, I wipe away silent and embarrassed tears. I ask in my classes if anyone has served and offer them chances to write about their experiences. I give them Tim O’Brien’s book, “The Things They Carried,” and encourage them to write about what they carry with them. The results never fail to move me.

Of the Civil War, poet Walt Whitman said, “The real war will never get in the books.” He wrote, “Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the official surface courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession war; and it is best they should not.” But we have to know. We have to listen to, and to hear from, the people who have lived through horrors.

Our national discourse has descended into name-calling and acts of bigotry and hatred that hurt us all. We’re moving into an era when it’s hard to know what to expect of our government, so we need to expect more of ourselves.

We can hate the war, but still love those who sacrifice. We can be angry at those who call the shots, but must act with compassion toward those who are asked to do the shooting. We need to do more than simply thank our veterans. We need to make sure that when they come back from serving our country, including the many thousands who are not American citizens, they can be – and stay – home safe and valued.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and four books of nonfiction, the most recent of which is “Misunderstood: Why the Humble Rat May Be Your Best Pet Ever.” Her column, Everything is Copy, appears monthly in the Monday Today section.