By Celine Grajo
What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘patriotism’? Do you see a flag, waving proud in the air? Do you see the miles of troops that salute it? Do voices that ring out our anthem fill your ears? Or are you plagued by the sight of young bodies, trolling hot sand and blistering green? Are you awash with the tears from the families of fallen soldiers? Do your pockets fill with resources, democracy, and guilt?
Mary Edie Meeks, one of the 10,000 combat nurses who served in the Vietnam war, would no doubt have these questions for the average American. Lieutenant Meeks, who was first stationed in the ICU at the Third Field Hospital in Saigon, came to St. Thomas on October 19 to share her emotional tale. Seeing the full horrors of war from 1968-1970, Meeks closed wounds, cast bones, and held hands as fighter planes and bombs shook the world outside. She saw dying men weep and watched as their blood stained her hands. But, as time went on, Meeks began to shut down. She recalls saying to herself, “Don’t feel, you don’t have time. No time to grieve, just keep going. The next guy needs you.”
The Vietnam war was one of the bloodiest, longest, and most controversial and expensive wars in American history, having enlisted the lives of over 2.7 million American soldiers sent to Vietnam alone. Nearly a billion soldiers were on active duty during the Vietnam era, from 1964-1975, and an estimated two million Vietnamese were killed, three million wounded, and 12 million escaped as refugees. The reasons provided by Presidents past repeated the threat of Communism and the Domino theory. But as the Northern and Southern troops of Vietnam fought amongst themselves in a civil war for liberation, the United States swooped in under pretenses of saving the country from destruction. The Vietnam War was unlike any other war the US has fought in, if not primarily for its military and political intervention, and its despicable acts of chemical warfare.
But what of the lasting effects of war? Post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t exist back then. It was merely called ‘shell shock’ and was prescribed a bed, some pain relieving drugs, and an order to return to the front lines days later. When Lieutenant Meeks finally set foot back on US soil in the midst of protests against the war, she was warned, “Whatever you do, take your uniform off as soon as you’re state-side. [It] will not be welcome.” Her disgust with the government, the army, and the entirety of war made it easy enough to throw her uniform away in the trash. When her tour finished, there were no discharge physicals, no psych evaluations, no help – just a simple handshake and a push back into civilian life. “I thought I was supposed to be normal. But in order to be the old me, to be normal, I had to pretend I had never been to Vietnam.” She couldn’t face the emotions Vietnam left her with, so Meeks rejected all links to her veteran status. How could anyone ever understand, she asked herself.
Women in war were nearly non-existent before Vietnam. In World War II, they filled positions of non-combat. They drove trucks, repaired airplanes, performed clerical work, and took care of soldiers as nurses. When they came home, they were expected to return to their submissive roles as 1950’s housewives. Some abided, and some rebelled. For those who refused, they went on to work outside the home and regarded their years of service with pride. For those who came back from Vietnam, not unlike the generations before, they were provided no outlet for their trauma. Most wanted to forget the war, and closed their eyes to the daily flashbacks and terrible nights. Though the VA tried to incorporate females into male therapy groups, the experiences were completely different and resulted in further damage to the women’s psyche. This led the VA to establish therapy groups solely for women veterans. This opportunity to heal was brushed over by Meeks and her refusal to accept the wounds of war.
Only when she choose to speak about her experiences for her daughter’s college class, did Meeks’ glacial walls finally melt and she chose to reach out. And when President Bush announced his decision to go to war in Iraq, Meeks’ anger led her to the VA in Castle Point, NY. She was matched with a psychologist who was willing to learn with Meeks about PTSD and her symptomatology, and was supplied an antidepressant. The “suicide kit” she had so carefully prepared, slowly dwindled away as the years went on.
Eventually, there was time to “mourn the loss that the [sexual] abuse brought on.” An annual military report showed 6,172 cases of sexual assault in 2016. Such statistics prompted the 2016 creation of the “Military Retaliation Prevention Act,” with the purpose of ending retaliation for reporting sexual assault. Often, the status quo and power of authority made for career-ending obstacles and military punishment. The psychological and emotional scars born from these crimes, along with witnessing body parts flying past your head, are far worse than the physical wounds of war.
In 1989, the National Center for PTSD was created to address the needs of Veterans and other trauma survivors with PTSD. Multiple studies have identified chemical differences between the brains of veterans and the brains of civilians. These findings have led to the birth of many types of therapy, the most beneficial being prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive processing therapy.
Veteran Susan Branam, Director of the Veteran’s Service Agency of Rockland County, shared that before Vietnam, women who served in the Women’s Army corp weren’t considered or recognized as veterans. When they came home, they weren’t given the benefits and services their male counterparts received, though they shared the weight of the trauma. Branam welcomes all veterans to her agency, and helps them with their needs, be it medical issues, claims for anything that occurred during service, GI bill questions, and PTSD. She speaks at many different locations and schools to raise awareness, and has a program that pairs veterans with a “battle buddy” who they could talk to and help to adjust back to civilian life.
I had asked Lieutenant Meeks, “What are your thoughts on the homelessness rate of today’s injured and disabled veterans?”
She takes a moment, and replies, “I totally lost faith in the army taking care of its own. I lost all faith in the government using these citizen soldiers appropriately. To me, if you’re asking your citizens to fight a war, the war better be worth it. The war better mean something.”
Writers at Work: Mary Edie Meeks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzXATOzmLXU&feature=youtu.be
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