This afternoon Scott Dreedon brought everyone together, from well-heeled easy street through to the night shelters and dumpsters. Reunited for a short time we paid tribute to how he led more through his Christian character than from his rank.
It was a privilege to conduct Scott's funeral and to join in the refreshments afterwards, when a few veterans set time to talk with me about moving from their “foxholes” faith, for emergencies only, into one that touches their everyday.
I retired as an army chaplain twenty years ago, but vets know that you can’t retire from caring. We’ve bonded through exposure to events that no-one should ever see, and we share a deep respect for each other.
All soldiers are bonded by facing death, pain and sacrifice on a daily basis, but these veterans were the first to be rejected instead of respected when they returned home. Not by everyone, but by enough to sap their sense of value and trust. For home-based life charts and political mood swings don’t resonate with being totally immersed in the chaotic malevolence of war.
Almost four million Allies, from ghettoes, suburbs, small towns, cities and farms, served in the bewildering, pervasive evil that was Vietnam – in a war that still evokes traumatic memories for far too many of them.
No-one knew then of the honeycomb of tunnels under GHQ, which enabled Viet Cong ears to tune in to every strategy before our troops could hear their coded signals.
Neither did we know that Buddhist monks, mingling in the welcoming crowds, were cursing every aspect of their lives from the moment they arrived!
Though I’ve retired, my chaplaincy continues. So does their trauma – erupting as easily at reunions or commemorations as it may in the lonely hours.
My heart aches for them, and with them.
I’m privileged to be invited to celebrate their milestones of progress since the war, over meals in their homes or in restaurants. I also enjoy those reunions that occur spontaneously. But it’s a rare week if no-one phones me in the low-ebb pre-dawn hours; to share a memory, to scream, to weep, to pray - or for the reassuring, eloquent silence of knowing someone who cares is still within reach…
But, ignoring retirement, a mission of death continues for one double agent; launching search and destroy raids onto both sides and ignoring the fact that the war ended thirty-four years ago.
This agent’s career began with Operation Ranch Hand, an ironically innocuous label for spraying almost four million acres with twenty million gallons of chemicals: to remove forest cover, destroy crops, and clear vegetation from military bases.
Operation Ranch Hand released the most potent poison ever developed - a million times more toxic than the most lethal natural poison – and with the longest residual life. Vietnam’s food chain is still contaminated, causing babies to be born with indescribable deformities or with physical or mental dysfunctions.
Was all this suffering worth it; since European communism collapsed under its own weight – with no guns being fired? And now that Vietnam is a popular tourist destination – despite its rigid, secret communist control?
But this agent - the ultimate weapon - relentlessly continues to counter attack those who commissioned it.
Otherwise healthy veterans experience skin disorders, cysts, tumours and hyper-pigmentation. And digging deeper; nervous, cardiovascular and reproductive systems all suffer guerrilla raids that usher in early failure and increased risks of cancer. Liver damage incites physical and mental chemical imbalances that trigger neurological, psychological and psychiatric disorders which have already led many to suicide.
I’m grateful to be spared the symptoms I’ve described, but I share their anger at the injustice they continue to experience. For compounding their pain is the bureaucracy that has full legal authority to thwart any access to compensation.
Yet though this double agent – Agent Orange – persists in its insatiable quest for destruction, I fervently await God’s greater promise of Isaiah 2:4 being fulfilled: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. “
I’ve seen too much to think that this idyllic picture will arrive quickly. But having seen so much, I also know that war offers only a temporary path to peace.
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