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On Campus After the War
By Dan New
Two years have passed since I flew home from the war. Some days it feels like I'm not home yet. Today is one of those days. First, I drove past the flashing red lights of a school bus; I was doing sixty, late for class. I don't know where my mind is. The cop was spitting mad when he pulled me over. A crumbled citation lies on the passenger seat of my VW bug.
Then, a professor lectures some crap that just pisses me off. I'm always pissed off. I want to argue with him but I start to head to my next class. A young student hands me a flier. I glance at it. It bears an image of a woman in anguish kneeling over the body of her dead friend. I try to blink it back and blot it out. I've seen enough dead friends to last my lifetime. It advertises the anti-war protest that begins in a few minutes.
"What am I supposed to do, join them?" I mumble out loud to no one as I stand in the corridor between classes. I start up the stairs to the second floor for my next class. Students pour down the stairway. I continue my climb, dodging and ducking their bodies as they rush to the doors. I intentionally bump a few to slow them down. They head out in droves to the protest. I am frustrated by it. I reach the landing between floors then a corner where I am out of the stampede's way. Settling there as a steady stream of kids escapes from classes out to the excitement.
"Dan, are you coming with us?" I can't manage anything verbal and only shake my head.
My hands are trembling, my palms moist from a rage of conflict rising in me. When I came home, they warned me not to wear my uniform because some might spit or throw blood on me. I've been hiding since then, trying to fit in someplace but not knowing where. Now, they are asking me to join against those soldiers that I have loved and left behind.
"Come on, it's important. You can afford to miss a class for a change." I don't move. The crowd forms outside. This gathering is a chance to be part of it all here at home. I have already been part of it all and know how delusional it can be if you don't know the truth.
Seeing people die and know they continue to die without reason, feeling the shame of knowing and of feeling responsible and of having born the blame. I carry this secretly in a dark cavity within me.
I think of those who I will never see or gather with again. Bound so tightly with them and that is not breakable. Not able to bear connecting with any group only to risk losing them all again. This invite to the protest is only for these moments and will fade as quickly as the minutes pass. My heart seared by a branding iron of camaraderie, born in fierce battle. It still festers like a scar imprinted on my soul. It is so much truer for me to stand down today.
The stairway empties. Another veteran pushes through the doors from the second floor and descends the half flight of stairs. We have spoken a few times. We are both a few years older than the other students. "Are you going out there?"
"I don't think so."
"They're just protesting. We're students now, we survived. What difference does it make?"
"We both know, it's just a game for most of these kids, teasing the cops, dodging the draft, beating the system. For me to stand with them is self-deception. They know I was there, and I would be turning my back on those still there."
He doesn't reply. It's complicated, there are no easy answers.
he tower bell chimes at the center of the college square. He walks out through the doors to join with them and I remain where I am, still not home yet.
Protests reached into the millions that day. Still, I could never forget my love for the men that had served with me, knowing their faces and their hearts, their fear, and their courage.
For me, it was not a question of principle but one of loyalty to my brothers in arms. This then lives in my soul to this day. I have forgotten those that flew past me in the staircase all those years ago, the faces of those who served with me remain close in my heart.
Dan New is a Vietnam vetern who served in the US Army from April 1967 to April 1968.