America’s war in Vietnam occupies a unique position in our collective national psyche.
For many born after the war’s end, there’s a disconnect that often comes with time to the significant events in our modern history; it’s an historical event, not as tangible as say, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For Vietnam veterans, however, it’s just as real, traumatic, and even dangerous now as it was 40 or more years ago.
Regardless of the specific conflict, it can be a challenge for any veteran to adjust to life after coming home from combat.
The challenge is exponentially difficult when, like many Vietnam veterans, the country you come back to seems indifferent or even hostile towards your return. There were no WWII-era ticker tape parades in New York in 1975.
And so what do you?
Sgt. Paul Reed of the 173rd Airborne sums it up when he told me “I practiced a technique called ‘stuffing it'”.
Reed’s journey through the jungles of Vietnam and eventually through the jungle of undiagnosed and untreated PTSD led him to start the Valor Administration, where he’s changing the lives of a seemingly forgotten and overlooked group of veterans – other Vietnam vets.
The War That Is Still Killing
The destruction of the Vietnam war is almost unfathomable to Americans today. Spanning from 1954 until 1975, the total casualties from the conflict of military personal and civilians combined extends into the millions.
The war claimed over 58,000 American lives and wounded more than 153,000, according to The Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
44 years later, it is still claiming lives.
While younger veterans make up the majority of the veteran suicide rate, veterans 55 and older make up the largest number of suicides.
In 2016, older veterans made up 58.1 percent of veteran suicide deaths.
For many, this comes after decades of suffering.
Acknowledgment of PTSD and the support for it didn’t start coming until well after Vietnam ended. Even then, many don’t seek out help.
That’s the path Reed was headed down. A path that involved depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, relationship failures, and nightmares.
Humanizing To Heal
25-years after Vietnam, Reed found himself homeless and suffering.
When living with his parents, his mother remembered a backpack and journal he had captured from an enemy camp during the war and sent home.
She thought it could help him rebuild his life and suggested he get the journal translated.
This is the moment Reed’s life began to change.
He had the journal translated and found it to be poems and letters to family by a Vietnamese soldier.
One poem in particular jumped out at Reed. It was simply titled “Love” and was written for the soldiers wife.
“Instantly he was re-humanized…he became human, he began to have a face” says Reed, “that’s the point it changed for me.”
Instantly this man went from an enemy that Reed had hated for decades, wishing he’d destroyed more of his country, to another human being with a family and capable of love.
The name of the man who wrote the journal was Nguyen van Nghia. It became Reed’s mission to find his family and return the journal, hoping they would find comfort in knowing he wrote about his love for them before he was killed.
Only, things didn’t go as planned.
On the brink of traveling back to Vietnam in 1993, Reed was told that Nghia was alive and wanted to meet him.
This began a journey that took two former enemies back to the battlefield where they once tried to kill each other,and started an international, lasting friendship.
Healing, Valor, & Coming Home
While he will be the first to tell you there is no cure, traveling back to Vietnam and meeting Nghia helped Reed with the suffering he’d experienced for so long.
“It did ease the pain” he says, “but it didn’t take it away…what it did give me was balance. Instead of so much negativity for the past 25 years, now I had something positive in my life.”
This is what Reed is now trying to give other Vietnam veterans by founding the Valor Administration.
The Dallas-based organization has several programs designed to help veterans decompress after coming home and consists of both veterans and non-military personal.
While the current focus is on Vietnam veterans, they do work with all military veterans and have programs planned to address their specific needs.
Reed personally escorts veterans back to Vietnam in hopes they will find balance, just as he did.
They may even have a chance to meet their former enemy, but more importantly, peace.
It’s also about coming home, too.
When Reed came home as a Vietnam veteran, he says “I wasn’t particularly spit on, but the public treated me very rudely…most of us hid that from the public.”
One of the things Valor aims to do when they bring veterans back from Vietnam is give them the homecoming they never received 40-years-ago.
“It’s our hope” he says, “that they come home more healthy, better adjusted people.”
For more information on the Valor Administration, visit valoradministration.org
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