Thursday, May 27, 2010
What might have been . . .
In October 1967 a twenty years young man's life was brutally taken from him in a Vietnamese jungle. One tribute I recently read about him said that he was our generation's JFK. At first I thought it was an exaggeration, but the more I thought about it the more I had to agree. Carl Thorne-Thomsen was one of thousands of America's best who went to war in Southeast Asia. At the time, he was a popular, top student at Harvard. I learned recently that two of his friends and classmates, Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones, were among those deeply affected by his death -- just three months after he was deployed. In high school, Carl and my brother were seniors when I was a freshman. Carl was the epitome of the straight arrow student -- clean-cut, intelligent, cute, great sense of humor incredibly popular yet humble. I don't think anyone there at that time would disagree that every girl had a crush on him and every boy wanted to be him. He was the definition of a gentleman and scholar. My 1964 yearbook reminded me that had presided over several organizations, participated in several sports, was elected king of the junior prom and won awards for scholarship and leadership. In short he did everything to make his parents proud of him without tooting his own horn. The premature death of a young person can never be justified. It wasn't necessary for Carl to die before his 21st birthday. He had a deferral from the draft. But he couldn't stand the idea that other guys were paying with their lives so that he could stay in school to earn a degree. The summer following his junior year he walked into a recruiting office and volunteered. Within three months, he was dead. I began to wonder what might have been had Carl survived and completed his degree. He could have done anything and been successful. Carl was one of those guys who would have touched many more lives in memorable and positive ways. Now when I read reports and see pictures of our casualties [such a polite sounding term for the dead] in Iraq and Afghanistan, I wonder who among them might have been their generation's JFK. Today, the young men and women who volunteer to fight our country's battles may have different reasons for enlisting -- financial, family tradition, an educational opportunity, occupational training or -- simply, heartfelt patriotism. Whatever the reasons, they know they are putting their lives on the line to protect the rest of us. Some say there is great nobility in their sacrifices. While that is true, the loss of each and every life is tragic. Who knows what impact any one of them might have had on our world. Their families and friends believe they know and grieve their losses. In the late 60s and early 70s, I was out in D.C. protesting the Vietnam War. I was tear-gassed and pepper-gassed on the U of Md. campus in College Park. When this happened, I wasn't protesting, just trying to get to classes or to my part-time job. What some still fail to realize is that we were not out there because we didn't support our troops. We didn't want them sent to Southeast Asia any more than many of them wanted to go. The military draft was a scary, demoralizing fact and ruined many lives. Guys did horrible things to avoid it. One friend shot off his own toe. The Vietnam war was a mistake and everyone knew it, but we were in too deeply to admit it. The war machine -- the military/industrial complex -- was more powerful than any gaggle of college students. We were accused of being disloyal and unAmerican. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Very simply, we wanted to stop the bloodshed and chaos inflicted on combatants and civilians alike. It was a war no one could win. The war in Iraq will not end because Americans bring it to an end. It will end when the Iraqis have had enough and send us packing. Afghanistan is a more difficult proposition because the Taliban and Al Qaeda have unlimited funding thanks in part to our bumbling and misguided allegiance to a large, oil-rich Middle Eastern nation. "Death to America" is chanted in nearly every Muslim country because we are perceived as the infidels that are trying to eradicate Islam. The United States didn't exist during the Crusades of the 4th Century, but stories of the atrocities against Muslims are still taught in their schools. Somehow we need to acknowledge the mistakes our ancestors made in the name of Christianity. The Islamist extremists believe they are avenging the crimes committed against their forefathers by the Crusaders. My incentive for posting this was not to rant about past mistakes. Rather, it was to encourage every American to take at a minute this weekend to remember people like Carl whose dreams and lives were cut short by war. Who knows what impact any one of them might have had. Maybe a young corpsman in the Korean War might have gone on to discover a cure for Lupus, or an Army nurse during World War II might have gone on to become a concert pianist. For each life lost to war, dozens if not hundreds more are affected by it. For some of our wounded warriors, death sometimes looks preferable to life as they now must live it. Suicide among veterans is a shameful legacy. Only during recent history has the military taken a stab at recognizing and treating post traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt. How our fathers and grandfathers managed to thrive after what they saw will remain largely a mystery. My own Dad waited until weeks before his death from cancer to mention a few WWII experiences. These came out only when I asked what he thought about a PBS special on WWII. Those of us who have not served in the military owe more than we can ever repay to our active military, their families and veterans. Rolling Thunder comes through town to remind us of this obligation. These guys realize how lucky they are to have survived. They also crave support as they agonize over lost buddies. So, for Carl and so many others whose chances to contribute to society were stolen before they could even offer their service, I will take time to reflect on what might have been and what is. It's the very least any of us can do.