Left to tell the tale: Remembering their part and ours

I will never know most of the millions of lives changed and sacrificed through military service, but I know and love a few of them – relatives, acquaintances, and a friend you’re about to learn more of. This gives me the empathy and safe distance to relive the sacrifices of which we rarely think. The pride through tears of a parent seeing their child off on a mission; those folks in uniform may be all grown up but they will always be little to the ones who bore and raised them. The agony of saying what could be a final goodbye to the man or woman you love, bidding farewell not only to the person but to the memories you have yet to make, the children you may never have, and the safety of kissing them goodnight, every night. The loneliness on both sides of service, for those toiling in the heat, cold, and danger of countries a world away and the loved ones toiling in the daily routines of chores, solo nights, and worry on the homefront.

I recently led some writing workshops at an elementary school, where during question time a student asked if I could write a story about Remembrance Day. I replied that I already did, then paused. Could I share even the existence of an adult story that started as a memory, grew to a chapter in one book and then garnered a book of its own? More than 40 years later the topic of Vietnam is still fraught with conflicting opinions and emotions. Even the man who shared his story with me did so with some hesitation. Yet all the students needed to hear was that I knew and shared a soldier’s story. They cared not about specifics or politics: hearing that a story had been honoured and the spirit of Remembrance Day supported, they nodded in appreciation and moved on with their day. It was a brilliant moment: the simple wisdom of children that cuts through the petty details and gets to the heart of the matter. For me, that was owning my fears dredged up by the powerful gift of such a story, reawakening my pride in it, and moving forward not with hesitation, but with gratitude.

Now, the friend I promised you’d learn more of: when he reported for duty, draft letter in hand, he was 20, just two years older than my son is today, my son who so proudly and reverently played Last Post and Reveille on his trumpet for veterans and students gathered this week at two school assemblies. In contrast, the young man who boarded the bus for basic training returned home two years later;  after 15 months in country he returned alive and intact. He recalls years later sharing his story with a fellow vet who mused about the odds of going over there and surviving, let alone returning unharmed. At the time he gave his fate little thought but eventually wondered if perhaps he was left alive as a witness. There were horrors in country but there were horrors at home, too: citizens that treated their veterans as the enemy, violence in the name of peace, judgements on who served and who dodged based on where they lived or were born. Bombs may have fallen on foreign lands throughout the ages but war zones spread and took root in our lands, too, in the form of misinformation, stereotypes, and worst of all, apathy. To agree or disagree with armed conflict is the product of a free society, but to dismiss it as unimportant, worthless, or forgettable is to dismiss human lives as dispensible, invisible, powerless. That becomes a frighteningly easy thing to do when there is not tangible memory to cling to, no image or icon to direct our response. When invited into his story, I responded not with imagination, but fear. This was too powerful, too intense. I railed at the tears that came every time I looked at photos of the young man with wistful eyes suited in green, his life in the balance. I cringed at the sound of choppers that rang in my ears as I tried to sleep, the ache of sleep deprivation and scorching weight of the helmet as I re-created on paper his patrols and assignments and constant nightly seiges of mortar fire. I knew this opportunity to write through another’s eyes was a gift, but simmering underneath was resentment. I didn’t ask for this. I couldn’t handle it. Even if I could, who’s going to read it. There I was, in my own battle zone. I even had a dog tag.

That’s what brought me around. A 1×2 inch piece of tin that contained the atoms of a life in service. Name. Service number. Blood type. Religion. In that order. Two tags on a beaded neck chain that a soldier never removed, until service was done. For too many, the removal was by an officer – one tag for the records, the other left with the body. The soldiers surviving their tour removed the tags themselves, two souvenirs of a iife untaken, but forever changed. Therein lies my gratitude. I have a dog tag not from personal effects, not from the hands of an officer imparting condolences on behalf of a thankful nation. I have a dog tag as a gift from a soldier who not only survived but retained his presence of mind, his integrity, and his courage that years later would compel him to share his story, and me to write not one, not two, but four books based on his quiet yet remarkable life. Attached to this tiny piece of tin is a chain of beads and of words that led us both to the brink of our deepest fears. The journey continues. Now I have images, memories, and the printed word as icons to direct my response and to remind me: we must never forget.

Jennifer Hatt is author of the Finding Maria series and a partner in publisher Marechal Media Inc.