May 2005


Thinking about how we welcome our troops home -- what we say to them and what we mean by it... The message returning military personnel receive has changed quite a bit since the Vietnam war.

We have all heard how people greeted the returning troops from Vietnam: some with thanks, some with derision, most with indifference. The men and women coming home from Iraq have had a more positive welcome, by all accounts, but it made me think about my feelings toward these men and women who have served in a war no better justified than Vietnam.

Here is my message to these returning service men and women:

To the returning veteran we welcome home. I am thankful you have returned to our native shores. I am glad that your family and friends will welcome you back into their lives. I acknowledge the gift you have given this country, and I am truly sorry.

I am sorry that I was not able to impress upon my fellow countrymen how precious are your young lives, so that we might have prevented your having to go to war. I am ashamed that my government saw fit to put you in harms way for such venal and heinous aims. You deserved so much better than this.

I am sorry for the hardship of your loneliness and for the knowledge you bore of how much you were missed at home. I am sorry for the worry and grief, the pain and the fatigue your parents suffered. I am sorry for the ache you felt in your heart every time you looked at the pictures of those you loved and left behind. I am sorry for all the things your children did that you missed forever. I am sorry for the distance your separation has put between you and those you love.

I am sorry for the sand and the heat, and for the dark cold wind that blows across the desert. I am sorry for the fear and the dread. I am sorry for the nights you could not sleep and played endless cards with everybody else who could not sleep. I am sorry for the silence and the boredom, and for the noise and pain, and the doubt. I am sorry for the crappy chow and the endless thirst. I am sorry for the gruesome smell of death in the afternoon, the flies, the maggots and the stinking faceless corpses.

I am sorry for your friends who will not be coming home; how their jokes come back to you unbidden and how you wish you could hear just one more. I am sorry for the wounds and disfiguring scars you've seen on good people who didn't deserve them. I am sorry for all the fingers, feet, hands, legs and eyes that your friends left in that foreign land, and for their screams of agony and pain and fear that will never stop ringing in your ears. I am sorry that there was nothing you could do to help them or to prevent their being forever crippled or in chronic pain.

And most particularly I am sorry for the gazes of fear or hatred you witnessed in the faces of people looking at you. I am sorry that you, through no fault of your own, had to learn how to deal with being despised. I am sorry that you learned to distrust every act of friendliness, kindness or compassion, lest it leave you and your unit vulnerable. And if you killed, I hope you did not see their pain and surprise and that you did not have to pretend you liked it until you believed that it didn't matter anymore.

For those who did things about which only soldiers can joke: crimes you cannot even in your shame, regret or remorse tell your mother, your wife or your son; may you find a way to live with what you have done in some way that does not destroy you. May you even find some way to ensure that your own children never have to make those choices you had to make so that you would get to come home.

Returning veteran, I am glad you are home and I hope you are whole. I hope that the horror of war can fade in your life. I hope you can forgive us for all we've taken from you that can never be given back. I hope you can forgive all of us who let our government do all of you so much harm. Please forgive us one and all.

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