Once upon a life, I fought on the front lines in the Vietnam War. In 2018, I took a trip back to Vietnam, 50 years after the many battles and the two wounds I brought home with me.
This is a story of forgiveness.
Over those 50 years, my pride and joy was a gnarly, prickly bullet that doctors yanked out of my right leg. Talk about a war souvenir: that was a doozie, a “million-dollar” wound that hurt me but didn’t kill me. I made a necklace out of it. My intention was to wear it every day. I wanted people to see how manly I was, how lucky I was. I wanted to shove that bullet into their faces when I spoke about war, evidence of my service, proof of my bona fide wisdom.
I never did, and I don’t know why.
Mostly that slug stayed in a drawer. The Veteran’s Day that followed 911, the teacher in the Special Ed class where I was an aide, asked if I would talk to the kids about war. I brought the bullet to class, a show-and-tell moment. They passed it around, and I told them about war until the tears choked me up and I wept.
One kid got the wrong message, went to night school, got his GED, joined the Army, made the rank of Sergeant and was killed in Iraq. I went to his funeral, the bullet around my neck, hidden from view, pinching my skin and snapping chest hairs up by their roots when I moved my head left and right in a non-verbal “No.”
I knew that if that bullet would have killed me, this kid could be alive today. Back into the drawer it went. Whenever I couldn’t believe what I’ve done with my life, I took the bullet out and fingered it, pinched it, asking God why so many others died and not me.
When I went back to Vietnam, several things happened. I met soldiers my age. We fought in the same battles back in 1968. They were 3- and 4-star Generals now and I was a PFC, a proud fucking civilian. We stared each other eye-to-eye. And between the iPhone selfies with them and the wives, the macho laughter, the pats on the back and the hugs, the questions arose:
“Did this guy try to kill me?”
“Did I kill any of his buddies?”
Forgiving the enemy soldiers was easy. They were just like me: young, patriotic and crazy, our balls bigger than our brains, doing what we thought was right.
I dropped that bullet into the water off of Bridge 28 on Hwy 9, just south of the DMZ where members of my platoon were killed, wounded and awarded with medals of valor. I left that bullet in Vietnam, back from where it came, thinking that gesture would change my life.
But it didn’t.
The hate continued to fester. Not at the Vietnamese, but at those I researched and determined were my true “enemy.”
I cannot forgive the lying politicians who sent us. I cannot forgive our Generals who agreed to the stupid rules of engagement that got many of us needlessly killed. I cannot forgive the country and the media who turned against us because we didn’t “win.” I cannot forgive the “greatest generation” who shunned us for losing the country’s first ever war because we were “drug addicts and baby killers.”
I can’t forgive because I believe in the concepts of God and Justice, two stories with happy endings we bank upon for life on this planet and, if we don’t get it here, during our next life someplace else.
An alternative gesture I’ve taken strong notice of are the teachings of the Buddha, especially the Truths of Oneness and Dependent Arising.
Everything is linked. Whatever happens is because something else happened before that and caused that to happen. These truths are difficult to accept because I’ve grasped so tightly to the belief that Justice will prevail. God will punish those who do evil and reward those who do good.
Hasn’t happened yet. So I still hate. I can mouth the words of forgiveness but my body rebels at the lie and the lava continues to boil.
The Buddha also teaches that the tighter we grasp onto anything, the more suffering we will feel. That’s why I let that bullet go.
Letting go of the hate is not as easy.