12/30: War Stories…
I love the VA. Lots of people hate working there…actually, I think most people do. But each week I look forward to my time at the VASpa, where I listen to war stories, talk to service people, and help them heal (more by just listening to them recount memories and have someone to share those with than by anything else I’m ever able to do for them).
Today I spent time with a vet who served in Vietnam as a special ops assassin. Without violating HIPAA, I’ll just say he’s written books based on his experiences and he shared fascinating stories with me. I can’t even believe half the stuff my ears were hearing, but I know this guy was not confabulating. As I carefully examined the skin on his scalp, he was telling me about leaders he had to hunt during a particular operation when Vietnam soldiers crossed the Cambodian border. My hands made their way across his cheeks, looking for any change in the texture of his skin, as he told me about soldiers crawling through the tunnels, getting bitten by cobras on the nape of the neck because the Viet Cong hung them from the ceilings of the tunnels. It reminded me of our trip to the Tunnels of Cu Chi the 1st time we traveled to SE Asia (2002). My Lord were we young.
[Tunnels of Cu Chi, 2002]
That was when Travis and I had our eyes opened to the atrocities of war, on both ends. We visited the “American War Crimes Museum,” the name of which has been changed to be less offensive to tourists, and I remember sobbing on a park bench while Travis held me for HOURS after we left that museum, where we saw the effects of Agent Orange – fetuses in jars and pictures of the most horrifically malformed babies.
As I examined the skin on my patient’s chest, he explained away several entrance / exit wounds made by shrapnel and bullets. He then told me about small minority groups, hated by the Northern Vietnamese, that he trained, fought with, loved, and tried to airlift, but many were killed after the US troops were evacuated.
Most of all, we talked about my boys when I told him they were from Vietnam, which led him back to some memories of an orphanage he and his men looked after. His special ops team was able to get some of the children out (to Western Cambodia and Eastern Thailand through rice paddies and over land BY FOOT), but when the US started pulling out and it was clear the war was over, the remaining children were killed by the Northern Vietnamese. Hearing that reminded me of Hoi An Orphanage, where Travis and I volunteered in 2002 and were first inspired to adopt, and where we volunteered again while waiting for Shanie’s adoption to be approved. It’s an orphanage with a large number of special needs kids. I imagine many of the kids my patient’s team was no able to save were kids with special needs, or infants, because they could not make the rigorous overland trip.
[Hoi An Orphanage, 2002]
It’s SO hard to hear these stories, and the comments that often follow (he made several comments thanking God I got my boys out of there), but I can’t even imagine living through what this man survived. It hurts me to hear anyone say things like “thank God you saved those children from the hell of a country they came from.” Those who know me are aware that we adopted our children after falling in love with their birth country, and that adoption (of infants!) to us is not about saving children; it’s about building a family. But hearing that from a veteran like this man is not quite the same as hearing it from an ignorant moron off the street. The Vietnam he knows is VERY different from the Vietnam we have been fortunate to know. It still cuts me, and I’m always floored to meet people who still don’t see the Vietnam War as “our country’s mistake,” with the awful tragedy on both ends that resulted. I can’t articulate why it was different or less offensive to hear what I’d consider fighting words if they’d come out of anyone else’s mouth, but I didn’t resent him at all after he said it. I just felt really really bad for him. I thanked him, sincerely, for his service, he thanked me for mine, and we shook hands long and hard. It was another encounter that challenged my emotions, my mind, and left me thinking, long after we’d parted ways. And that is yet another reason I love medicine: the intimate, but challenging human encounters only a doctor-patient relationship can provide.