"Thank You For Your Service"
By John Ketwig
The following was a letter to the editor of the Roanoke (Virginia) Times on Veterans Day in 2014.
Please don't thank me for my service. I was taken against my will, yanked away from all the hopes and plans I had for my life, and made to see and experience things that contradicted anything and everything I had ever been taught about right and wrong. I heard the screams of someone dying, far away from home, a fragile human being blown apart, for no good reason. I saw burnt, bloodied, maimed children. And men, and women. I smelled the scent of open wounds, of flowing blood and burnt flesh. I felt the splatter of someone's loss of life as it exploded across my face, and no matter how many times I have washed my face over the past 47 years I cannot wash away that horrible stain. And you would thank me for that? I abandoned my morality. I lost my equilibrium. I cannot tell you much of what I learned, but it wasn't worth a damned thing in the civilian workplace, in my baby's nursery, or at the checkout of the grocery store. It is only a specter, a dense dark monster that pursues me in the night; that colors my view every day in ways no one else can see. Too many nights, almost half a century later, the horror twists my stomach into knots. Oh, I know, you thank me because you don't know anything else to say. You still hope that it was all about freedom and democracy and good things like that, and not just about profits and power, authority and career advancement and some ancient goddamned illicit definition of the word masculine. It was about corporate profits and garish stripes sewn onto a sleeve, about genocide and the screwed-up notion that you can make a total stranger's existence better by killing or maiming him. I was playing in a rock 'n roll band when they came for me, reciting songs about understanding and brotherhood and love. They took me against my will, stripped me naked and beat me bloody, and they sent me to the other side of the world where death fell out of the sky and exploded, and its shards tore up anything and anybody they hit. I learned to lie as flat as possible on the mud, to will my body to become a puddle and sink down into the ooze. I learned to overcome the terror, the violent tremors, and I learned that none of those things matter when your number is up. I learned it happens to the very best guys, in the very worst ways, and there's nothing right or righteous about it; they were just wasted. Please, oh please don't thank me. If you want to express something, promise me you will get involved in the struggle to abolish wars. Nothing else will say that you understand.
Then I will thank you.
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of "...and a hard rain fell: A G.I.'s True Story of the War in Vietnam". First published by Macmillan in 1985, it is still available at most bookstores.