Talking Old Soldiers

Old soldiers never die, they just fade away, but many of them need our help

Lately, I’ve been seeing war vets. Old guys: too old for the Gulf War; had to be Vietnam. I see them once a week at the Northampton Survival Center, a food pantry that also stocks used clothes and donated toiletries.

I volunteer behind the grocery counter, helping each person (called a “client”) choose food, shelved by food group. The client hands me a white piece of paper with their first name, family size, whether they need dog/cat food (donated by an animal rescue), if they are having a birthday (blank sheet cakes donated daily from the supermarkets), and how they’re getting home.

After spending about 15 minutes with each person, helping them make it through another month, you get a glimpse of personality types. Rarely do people tell you how they got in this situation — this is a break from that, and I don’t pry but rather present the food items on the shelves.

Outside loading groceries into a (usually borrowed) car, a couple of men mentioned recently that they were vets. Inside the center, one of these guys was loud and crazy, toothless and dirty, telling me random bits of unrelated information while asking me for a date — much to the amusement of everyone, including me. He had a kind of crazy-guy charm. He snapped to it outside, thanked me for helping him and said, with remorse, that sometimes he got a little loud. I felt bad for the guy.

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The next vet was also missing teeth and dirty, but trying to retain some dignity with a shirt tucked into ill-fitting jeans, combed hair and clean nails. He was soft-spoken and called me by my name, printed on a tag that hung from my neck. He had a family size of two, which I assumed was a wife or girlfriend.

“Robin, will you help me choose things I can make on a hotplate?” he asked and I couldn’t help but wonder why his significant other couldn’t. He insisted on pushing the shopping cart to the car, which I usually do, and putting the groceries in without my help. In the passenger seat, his ancient mother smiled at us and I knew she was his family.

I was an adult before I understood the significance of the war in Vietnam. It was the movie “The Deer Hunter” with Robert De Niro that really opened my eyes to how our soldiers were treated with scorn and apathy when they returned to the U.S.

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But as a child, the only war I knew was WWII and what the Nazis did to the Jews. My family was Jewish; uneducated, working-class, neither political nor patriotic. You can’t blame them. When we moved from the East Coast to the San Fernando Valley in 1960, there was already a large community of Jews, but we were not part of American life. Racial and ethnic discrimination was common: Jews were excluded from politics to housing, country clubs to jobs, from the American experience, basically. We weren’t exactly marching in parades.

I started noticing something was going on when I was a pre-teen at summer camp. I had a crush on the art counselor, a pretty hippie named Heather, who tacked up posters in her tent and a protest sign from Kent State. I asked her about that sign and she told me about the shootings.

I also made a friend at that camp, Ethel, whose house I was at when her two brothers received draft notices, both with impossibly high numbers. Her mother fell to the ground in tears and the whole family rejoiced. I had no idea what was going on.

In junior high school, I wore a POW bracelet like everyone else. I used pink nail polish to highlight the name because it was only an accessory to me.

My aunt told me that a distant cousin, Eddie, picked up a live grenade in Vietnam and threw it back at “the enemy,” killing them and won a medal. I didn’t know Eddie but it seemed like a weird thing to do for an award.

At the William Morris Agency, where I was a secretary at 20, I ran into an agent who was my babysitter when I was a toddler. He told me he had cancer from Agent Orange in 'Nam.

I never felt like an American growing up, although I am one. I was too Jewish, too marginal a girl, abused into feeling like an outsider, unwanted, too often in trouble, too provocative, too sexual before I should have been, too queer. No one thought to ask what was the matter. Not back then. I thought I belonged to no one, least of all this country.

Today I was walking my dogs past a row of secondhand stores and the same three men in their 60s, who I often see, who look to be down on their luck, were smoking out in front. I stopped and asked them, “Can I ask you a question about the draft lottery for a story I’m writing about Vietnam?”

We wound up talking about their experiences; they remembered their draft numbers and where they were when they found out they were going overseas. Before I continued on I said, “Oh, one last thing, are you patriotic? Do you love your country?” They did. All of them. I bet the men at the Survival Center would say the same. That is the part that really gets to me. It breaks my heart and makes me wonder why.

Tags: memoirs