|Published in the interest of the Fort Benning community|
|May 2, 2003
Letter to the Editor
'THE BEST THERAPY IN THE WORLD'
Veterans, families find healing at reunion
Who said, "Strangers are friends we haven't met yet," I don't recall. But I'm certain he must have been a veteran.
Veteran reunions bring thousands of "old soldiers" to Fort Benning each year. Sometimes I'm lucky enough to be invited. I'm always struck by the bond these men share, though many of them are meeting for the first time.
They come here, ostensibly, to honor their dead and, occasionally, to dedicate a memorial, as was the case last week when Vietnam veterans of the 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry Regiment, presented a bronze sculpture to Lt. Col. Bill Payne and the regiment's Sand Hill soldiers.
That was their mission, the reason they made the pilgrimage to Fort Benning, from as far away as California and Australia, said retired Col. John Topper, president of the 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry Regiment Association. More than 100 veterans attended the reunion from April 24 to 27. They visited Sand Hill, where they watched the regiment's newest soldiers graduate, and they dined at the Officers' Club, where they unveiled A Tribute to a Fallen Comrade, by Wyoming artist Ben Foster.
Then they got down to business, the business of healing, the real reason hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families gather each year on military posts across the nation. It's in gatherings such as this they find salve, if not solution, for the pain, and their families gain some small measure of insight into the dark world of a combat veteran's memories.
"I still feel it," said retired Col. Dick Guthrie, of the "motivation and idealism and sense of duty" he felt when he first visited Fort Benning 40 years ago, as a student of the Infantry Officers' Basic Course.
"As we drove through that main entrance, that feeling surged over me again. Not much has changed, and that's reassuring," said Guthrie, who's visited Fort Benning countless times since 1963, most recently for last week's reunion.
"For an infantry soldier, coming to Fort Benning ... it's a home base, a continuation of a bond that starts early in your career. It feels good."
That's what reunions are all about, Guthrie said, the deep down feeling of "connection" with other soldiers.
"It's not about closure. The common question is, 'Do you get closure?'
"Closure is nonsense. Closure doesn't correspond with my reality," said Guthrie, who has returned to Vietnam twice in recent years with other veterans.
"Most of my con-temporaries thought I was nuts," he said, admitting he was scared the first time he returned to the "beautiful country of white sand beaches and magnificent mountains."
"It was thrilling to see, absolutely stunning, but I knew I was about to open a box, and I didn't know how it would affect me. I was scared," he said.
Guthrie and his travel companions visited the places they remembered from their days as young infantry-men. They took pictures, collected tiny vials of dirt from the battlegrounds, and paid tribute to their fallen comrades.
"I can't give you the words for what that did for me," Guthrie said. "It didn't make anything go away, but I felt better."
And that's what these "trips back to Vietnam" are all about, he said, whether vicariously, through reunions, or for a brave few, an actual visit to Vietnam. He can't explain why they help, only that they do.
Reunions have "opened up a whole new world" for Roger Burch. Those are his wife's words, not his. Roger is a man of few words, at least when it comes to talking about the three years he spent in Vietnam, from 1967 to 1970.
Roger married Lorene when he returned to the states, but he told her very little about the war. It weighed heavily on his mind, she said. The dreams made his sleep fitful, and the memories made him sullen and edgy.
Roger said only, "I had a hard time dealing with it. The memories still bother me, after 35 years," and Saturday's visit to a Sand Hill rifle range caused "sharp, painful flashbacks." And that's the irony of every reunion, Lorene said. They dredge up very painful memories as her husband and his friends rehash "every single detail."
"It haunts them till they can remember every single name or date or place just right," she said. Still, the reunions are "the best therapy in the world" for Roger, "better than money can buy." "They've shown him that there is life after Vietnam. Here he can talk about it all, with people who understand, and not be judged for it - the very, very private, personal stuff," she said. As for Lorene, she "feels privileged" to be included in the reunions, to be "allowed to listen to their stories."
But this time around, she spent far less time listening. This reunion is different. Roger and Lorene have a son, Pfc. Roy Burch, serving in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division.
Roy's wife, Angela, traveled from Fort Campbell, Ky., to attend the reunion with her in-laws. She and Lorene spent a good deal of time shopping at the mall and relaxing at their hotel in Columbus. "Knowing what I know about (Roger's) experience (in Vietnam), it was really horrible letting Roy go," Lorene said. "This time, I don't really listen to the war stories, because I can't help but think that's what my son's going through."
Roy is a 31-year-old father of three, and like his father before him, he joined the Army after a "difficult period in his life," Roger said.
"It was the best thing I ever did. If I hadn't joined, I'd probably have ended up in prison," Roger said.
"And it was the best thing for (Roy). It was the neatest thing I ever heard when he said he wanted to join. To see him now, you wouldn't know he's the same kid. I'm proud of him." Still, Roger said he fears for his son's safety and for what lies ahead. The war in Iraq resurrected many bad memories, the kind he hopes his son won't have to deal with. "We talked before he left," Roger said. "I tried to explain ... the guy smiling at you might be the enemy. You don't always know who the enemy is.
In that way, this war is a lot like (Vietnam)." Angela, Roy's wife, said she attended the reunion to support her father- in-law.
She and her husband had planned to attend together, but he deployed Feb. 28, leaving her to celebrate their second anniversary like she celebrated their first and the birth of their second child - lone.
"He would've wanted me to come anyway," said Angela, who watched as her father-in-law and his comrades laughed and cried over shared memories Friday evening at the Officers' Club. She wondered if her husband would one day do the same.
"I just don't know what this war will do to him," she said.
Gladys Grubb attended the same dinner. But after years and years of reunions like this, she's no longer an observer.
Gladys was named the association's first honorary member. After all, her memories and her search for details about her husband's death in Vietnam are nearly as painful as a veteran's. Gladys married Steve Grubb, her high school sweetheart, in July 1968. He was drafted two months later, shipped to Vietnam, and assigned to 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry Regiment. He was killed in action in May of 1969.
Beyond that, Gladys knows little about the brief time her husband spent there. What she does know comes courtesy of contradictory casualty reports and hearsay. For years, she believed he was killed instantly by a gunshot to the chest. Only recently, through conversation with a veteran who served with Steve, Gladys learned her husband lived for a short while after suffering severe wounds from a Claymore mine.
"It's so confusing," she said. "First they told me he was MIA, but he wasn't, he was KIA. They came back to tell me a week later. I'll never forget when that chaplain came to my door. I was the one that had to tell (Steve's) mother."
Gladys lived in Richmond, Va. She knew nothing about the life of an Army wife, there were no support groups, and the newspapers carried very little information about the war.
"I just suppressed it. I had no support system. My family didn't understand. There was no one to talk to," Gladys said, tears streaming down her face. "Things were different then."
Gladys suppressed her pain for 20 years and would have continued but for a fortuitous meeting with a veteran who suggested Gladys attend a veterans' reunion. That's how the healing began, she said. "Any time I went, they surrounded me, so I just kept coming back. These guys help me heal."
And the feeling is mutual. Gladys makes semiannual treks to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., where she makes rubbings for veterans who can't make it. Years ago, she took a rubbing of her husband's name, Spc. Steve Freeman Grubb, but she depended on "Wall volunteers" to get it. Steve's name is located high on the wall, beyond her reach, and visitors are not allowed to climb the ladders the volunteers use to make rubbings. "It never gets any easier seeing that name," she said, "but I just wanted to touch it." Last Memorial Day, a kind volunteer broke the rules for Gladys. He held the ladder. "He was a Vietnam vet," she said. "He understood."
retired Col. Dick Guthrie
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