It was an ordinary day, or so I thought, when my husband and I drove to his Rotary district conference in Columbus, Ga. But as soon as I walked in the conference center, I learned that the 11th Armored Cavalry’s Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia were also having an annual gathering. It turned out to be an incredible day — the day I learned about the power of gratitude.
With my background being a Vietnamese person who came to the states after the Vietnam War, I’m always interested in understanding the sentiment of the veterans and their family members about their experience. So I deserted my husband and spent my time with them instead.
The need to fully comprehend and appreciate veterans started when I was in high school taking a U.S. History class. A veteran came to my school to speak about his war experience. He walked with a limp and was using a cane, which I concluded was a result from his time in the jungle of Vietnam.
He was angry, drafted in the midst of his college years to fight in a country he never even heard of and then was injured during an ambush. He came home physically broken and mentally scarred by what he encountered. He spoke of the disruption in his life, a loss of his youth; stable and comfortable, stolen from him upon coming home, in his words, “as a cripple.”
With the mindset of a 17- year-old, I felt guilty and responsible for what happened to him. Wanting to stay to hear him, to understand, but unable to bear it, I stole away from the back of the room.
Through the years my desire to speak with and listen to anyone involved in the war grew stronger. My deep appreciation for them intensified. I have talked with nurses, medics, soldiers, wives and others whenever and wherever I encountered them.
So last Saturday, by chance, our paths crossed. I talked with many of them. One gentleman expressed his struggles coming back from his tour in 1966. He came back to a hostile environment: his own country. Like most soldiers, he was vilified by those who opposed the war simply for doing his duty.
Instead of being treated as war heroes, he and his fellow soldiers were treated as baby killers and warmongers. Furthermore, he came back to a place where he and other blacks were treated as second-class citizens. His voice wavered when he told me about his off-duty-weekend trip he took with his buddies. “I felt more free in Thailand than when I’m in my own country,” he confided. He came home to fight another battle, this time for his civil rights.
I talked with Judy whose husband, Richard, served two tours and was wounded. He is suffering from a respiratory disease and is terminally ill. He was exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical used during the war that was later determined to cause tumors, birth defects and cancer. She spoke of the challenges of raising three daughters while he was away, and although a good father and grandfather, he rarely talks about what happened in Vietnam. She is thankful for the ACVVC. It provides camaraderie, a place to share stories, memories and get support.
As I thanked and befriended many of them throughout the morning, they invited me to stay for the afternoon session. “Why don’t you stay and talk to these guys?” a friendly gentleman suggested. Feeling like an intruder, I wanted to decline, but in my heart of hearts I sincerely wanted to express my gratitude. Emboldened by a newfound best friend, Jerry, a veteran who insisted and escorted me, I spoke.
I said: “Thank you for your service and your sacrifice. More than you’ll ever know, you have changed thousands of lives. I am grateful for you. I salute you. I honor you. Thank you for being a part of something so big that changed the course of my life and others like me for the better.”
Then something amazing happened. I would never be able to predict in a million years the way they responded. They showered me with their gratitude. They were so appreciative that I acknowledged and thanked them. Instead of allowing me to appreciate them, they were grateful for my words. It was unbelievable as they approached, eyes full of tears, faces filled with love, and hugged me.
I kept thinking that it was me who is thankful, but my husband affirmed that these veterans needed to be truly and honorably recognized for their services. They needed to hear it as much as I needed to say it. My sincerest gratitude was reciprocated a hundred times over.
Something very special happened to us that day. It made me realize: Gratitude begets gratitude, and a genuine show of gratitude induces healing and touches the soul.