The VA in Maine recently partnered with the Pentagon to hold a “fiftieth anniversary observance of the Vietnam War.” I’d caught a brief notice about the event in the county weekly. Vietnam veterans would be recognized for their “valor and sacrifice,” and those in attendance would “receive a commemorative pin in recognition of their service.” Among the fifty states, Maine is 39th in size and 41st in population, or slightly larger than South Carolina, and slightly less populous than Hawaii. A disproportionately high number of Mainers served in the military. The Veterans Administration here has its largest campus at Togus near the state capital of Augusta, and the parking lot that morning was crammed with the dusty pickups and SUVs of Nam vets who’d driven in for this gathering from every backwater of our rural state.
This is my health provider, so over the past few decades I’d been to Togus more times than I care to count. But until that morning, I’d never been aware of the two hundred seat theater behind a paneled wall in the corridor I pass through every time I come here. All those posters I’d seen on the walls about events I had no interest in, this was the venue where they held them. I walked in a half hour early and loitered in the aisle hoping to get a few guys to tell me bits of their stories; I looked for anyone wearing something – usually a ball cap – that said Vietnam. It’s a delicate business. I ask, Hey who’d you serve with?, and usually get back a few mumbled monosyllables in reply. My typical reflex to this brushoff is the unkind thought that perhaps their experiences in-country weren’t hairy enough to back up the tough war vet exterior they’re now projecting; but the formality of being an object of attention breeds caution in this population, and maybe they just want to get to their seats.