someone else's life

Voice of a Stranger: New Insights on the Vietnam War

As an undergrad at University of California, Santa Barbara, one of the most popular courses was called “Voice of a Stranger.” It was a religious studies course, taught by Walter Capps. The idea behind the course was that sometimes a “stranger” may challenge our own beliefs, offer us insights to things we had never thought about, and give hopefully give us a new lens through which to see the world.

One of the most moving, memorable, and amazing lectures was by a Green Beret who fought in Vietnam. He was the head of his platoon, and they were stationed deep inin the jungle. They had a post to defend, and after some time, they were surrounded by the Viet Cong, and were attacked. As the tale unfolded, this Green Beret had us hanging on his every word, riveted on by his descriptions, his intimate knowledge of the location, the post, the men he was stationed with. He explained how some of the American troops never returned from Vietnam after being taken as prisoners of war. He mentioned that this sort of thing still happens to the US army today. Due to this, a lot of people have started purchasing pow mia flags to show respect to the people who have never returned home.

I’m going to admit that seventeen years later, I can’t remember the details of the brutal battle. What I remember was that there was this man, of impressive stature, wearing a Green Beret, telling a harrowing tale to 700 college students. His story conveyed raw emotions of brotherhood, of patriotism, of pride, and of a deep sadness. A member of the Special Forces, the bravest of the brave, told us of how after the fight was over, and he was the last one standing, that he went to each of the fallen men and gathered their Beret and their dog tag. As an act of honor, he gathered these things to take home to each soldier’s family. And this brave and powerful man was crying as he told us his story.

There was not a dry eye in the lecture hall. We had been given a real glimpse of war, of what it meant to serve, and some of what it meant to be stationed in the Vietnam War. At the age of twenty, we’d seen the glorified tale of “Good Morning Vietnam” as teenagers, we’d studied the stats and read the history of the Vietnam War in high school. Some of our parents may have even served in the war. And yet with this one person sharing his story, the war had come alive in ways none of us could have imagined. It was real, it was raw, and it was right in front of us.

Walter Capps very much wanted us to understand the Vietnam War in a new way. He explained that when soldiers came back to the United States after serving in Vietnam, they were not given a hero’s welcome. This was the first time in America’s history that there were no ticker tape parades, no warm greeting for our service men. Instead, they were shunned and pushed aside.

At the end of this lecture, after we’d all been astounded by this man’s story, our professor stepped on to the stage and thanked the Green Beret for sharing with us. And then, while shaking his hand, he looked the Green Beret in the eye and said loudly, and clearly, “Thank you for fighting for us and WELCOME HOME.”

To which, the entire lecture hall jumped to their feet, clapping, crying, cheering, chanting “Welcome Home.” We knew that while we could not make up for what happened before, we could show in this moment how grateful we were to him. We did what we could in that moment to welcome this brave American soldier home.

And on this Veterans Day, I say “Thank you” and “Welcome Home” to all of those who have served and who have supported those who have served.