So many thousands of young men and women paid an awful price by giving their lives. More thousands have been paying the price ever since coming home, because the traumatic effects of serving in this war — and then being rejected by their own countrymen — have never come to an end for them.
A few years ago, while doing research for a book, I interviewed some men who served in the Vietnam War. Their stories were horrific and even now bring tears to my eyes just remembering. I obviously don’t have space here to recount all that was shared with me, but I’m impressed to share one story from a man who was held prisoner for years in some of the most brutal North Vietnamese prisons, including the “Hanoi Hilton.”
He related the details of how they were kept in isolation and tortured in prison camps (before being moved to the “Hanoi Hilton”), and how one of the worst experiences was being isolated in huts and having no way to communicate with the other prisoners also suffering isolation and torture. He explained that in one such prison, the prisoners gradually worked out a plan to grasp onto any tiny pieces of paper or cloth of any kind – a possible gum wrapper dropped by a guard, a scrap of envelop blown against the hut by the wind – a torn piece of cloth from a garment – whatever they could find that could be written on. Then because they had no ink, they would use their own blood to write with, using a twig to make the marks on the paper or cloth.
In order to get the blood to use as ink, they would cut their own bodies with whatever they could find that worked. He showed me how a few of the men who, for some unexplained reason, still had very small combs in their possession, swung their arms around and around to get the blood to flow into their fingers more forcefully, and then they would stab at the backs of their fingers with the teeth of those combs to get the blood to flow. He said it seemed that since the finger area has very little flesh, it didn’t take a deep would to get blood flowing from them. They then dipped the twig into their blood and wrote little notes to other prisoners and secretly passed them from man to man whenever they were moved about and got within close proximity to other prisoners.
I’m not sure why this particular experience had such an impact on me, but it did. I think partly it was because of the terribly cruel treatment that accompanied it, but also because of the incredible resilience of the human spirit: Those men absolutely refused to surrender to the cruelty and give up the will to connect with other men of like spirit and try to encourage and comfort them. They made a way when there was no way because the human spirit is stronger than the demonic powers that try to suppress and destroy it.
So today, I just want to say to all those who served and sacrificed — and who are still trying to recover — we acknowledge you and thank you with our whole hearts. I wish we could do more to make it up to you.