Before my military travels, growing up in Harrison, NJ, I had never been farther north and east than New York City, farther south than Seaside Heights, farther west than Philadelphia. Even though New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation, that is still a pretty confined existence. That changed in a hurry.
Having been taught in grade school that America is a melting pot, I soon learned that the Army is a blender in that kitchen. Setting aside the obvious commingling of races, I remember living together in my double squad bay during basic training with Christians, atheists, farmers, factory workers, truck drivers, urbanites, suburbanites, high school dropouts, guys with “some” college, and a mechanic who snored like a diesel engine. The real America? The real America!
At a reunion many years later a then phone company employee from Indiana related a hilarious anecdote about the first days of basic training. The guys from the midwest–mostly Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin–had arrived at Fort Devens a few days before the busloads of yard birds from New Jersey and, to a lesser degree, Philadelphia. They were told by low ranking cadre to stay alert when we arrived because we would be carrying knives and other contraband in our duffel bags. “Lock up your stuff,” they were told, “and sleep with one eye open. These guys are dangerous.”
Despite that blatant, silly attempt at fear mongering, we all overcame the sown seeds of distrust and came together quite well. And quickly. In the beginning we recruits had a common adversary: cadre and officers. Maybe that was the master plan all along. Later, in Vietnam, we encountered an ever-growing mixture of cultures; for a while in my platoon we had two Puerto Ricans, one from Chicago and one from San Juan, and a guy drafted from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
What I am saying here is that during very tense and eventually dangerous times young men of different stripes and polka dots came together in a common cause. No one to my knowledge ever questioned or cared about another guy’s belief system, much less Vietnamese religious practices. In fact, every now and then, along with pagodas, churches could be seen in villages, active churches, remnants of French occupation. Even Vietnam (South, at least) was homogenous.
The relevance of PTSD to this post comes after GIs returned home. We experienced first hand the natural bonding of guys of different religions and races while serving our country overseas; and so we knew that the splintering of that bond in our civilian life was unnatural. Those who drive us apart, even today, are wicked, their motives impure. For combat veterans who with their buddies–We still call them “buddies”!–lived together in harmony, fought with each other and for each other, and witnessed the obscenity of war deaths, bigotry and racial hatred are aberrations. Segregation makes no sense for a group whose values are supposed to be shared (American values, i.e., however that is defined). One doesn’t need to be a veteran to know that, but it seems to help.
Three bridges across the Passaic River connect Harrison to Newark. In less than a week after my return home in July 1967 riots broke out in Newark. All three bridges were opened so that there could be no traffic between the communities. How could a person who survived a year of jungle fighting not be traumatized by the knowledge that there was a tank sitting on Bloomfield Avenue to “protect” Newark’s First Ward? Had I reached freedom but not safety?
If I did not know or pretended not to know that this war in Vietnam had little-to-nothing to do with “the American way of life,” I knew it then. The kicker is that we really haven’t improved race relations in this country over the past half-century. For so many years whites foisted overt racism upon blacks. That strand still runs through the land. We, specifically our most vociferous politicians and their legions, have added Mexicans, Syrians, and Muslims to the list of those who must be feared.
Yes, yes, better border security is needed and immigration procedures need improvement. But xenophobia and heartlessness will surely rot us from within. We do no good when we talk tough at rallies and debates, hoping to incite unconstitutional acts. We belittle our own self esteem when we denigrate other people(s) en masse.
The greatest manufactured fear being forced down the throats of the American public today is Islamophobia. Muslims are at war with Muslims. Islam is not at war with Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Rastafarianism, Wiccanism, et al. Syrian refugees are fleeing their country because they want to live somewhere else (Turkey, Germany, USA, etc.) in peace. They are fleeing their homeland because of internecine warfare that has no end in sight. They have lost everything except, for now, their lives. Let’s help them keep their dignity.
What is it that we have that we cannot share?
I don’t believe that immigrants want to “take” anything from American citizens. I sincerely believe that what they want is the chance to live in freedom. Is our liberty not worth sharing?
The illustration at the blog’s top is the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. The blogger is a Vietnam Veteran, 1966-67. He is an author and past state chaplain for a major veterans organization. He welcomes comments on posts and encourages readers to subscribe to PTSDOutreach; two benefits: 1) it is free, 2) posts appear directly in your e-mail in-box.