Today, I went to vote. I saw young people, some sporting piercings and tattoos, others wielding briefcases and braving high heels. I saw older Americans, many walking to stand in the voting line, stooped over and moving only with the aid of a cane.
Young girl scouts had set up a station near the voting line, and they handed out cookies and bottles of water to waiting voters. As they did so, they talked about the voting process, and some recited the pledge of allegiance.
Not surprisingly, tears clouded my vision for a second as I looked at the long line of people standing there, maybe 50 – 60 in all, waiting to cast their ballots in a process that has worked for this country for more than 200 years. This has been a contentious election, friends and acquaintances, even families, split however briefly because of choices and opinions.
I love my country. I have never fought in a war, but I have traveled abroad on several occasions. I’ve seen beautiful sights, tasted divine foods, and gotten to know people whose countries are just as dear to them. But to me, there has never been a better feeling than arriving back home, on American soil.
The gentleman standing behind me had fought in the Vietnam War. We began talking first about the healthy voter turnout this year, then about our backgrounds. Inevitably, we wandered onto the topic of the Vietnam War and his service. It’s a painful topic, especially for the men and women who were sent to fight. Millions of lives were lost – nearly 60,000 of them American. Most people under age 45 can’t even tell you why that war was fought, or why it was any of our business, or even if it was our business. No matter.
I always feel compelled to apologize to Vietnam War veterans, even though I was 12 years old when the conflict ended. They were maligned, spit on and protested when they returned to the United States. That was wrong, for so many reasons. Did protestors think for one minute that those soldiers went to Vietnam because they wanted to be there, because it was a free vacation to a tropical paradise? If so, they were worse informed than I give them credit for. The horrors of war, up close and personal, were given life in the Vietnam War, for U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese alike.
The average age of an American soldier fighting in Vietnam was 22 years old. Life expectancy of those soldiers, while a number that likely can’t be accurately quantified, was terrifyingly short. Both enlisted men and officers often turned to drugs just to get through each day. When they returned home, they were war ravaged, criticized and some, addicted. They served their country as every soldier that has ever been sent to war served, yet they bore the brunt of a dissatisfied nation, one that was tired of the war.
At any rate, as I talked with this man standing behind me in the voting line, I studied his face. Faces tell spellbinding stories, if you look closely enough. I thanked him for his service, and he smiled for a moment. Then his thoughts turned to the memories of combat, and the smile faded. He shared with me a couple of stories, the details of which were both terrifying and fascinating. He had been shot more than once in Vietnam. He had carried dead friends out of harm’s way. He had fallen out of a disabled helicopter into enemy territory. He had been told by his superiors to wear civilian clothes on his return to the United States. I think it was that last that bothered me the most.
The veteran waited in line like everyone else did, and when it was his turn to cast his ballot, he did something that I don’t believe I’ll ever forget. He pulled a faded photo out of his wallet, and he laid it on the voting platform as he made his choices. I couldn’t help asking as we both exited the building, why he did that. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. Then he produced a photo of him and two fellow soldiers, palm trees and muddy water their backdrop. He told me that he was the only one of the three to return home.
I hope you voted on November 8, no matter what choices you made. The right to do so has cost many dearly. Whether in World War II, Korea, Vietnam the current conflict in the Middle East or in any area where U.S. service men and women are stationed, they deserve our respect, even our admiration.
Carole Townsend is a Gwinnett author and freelance writer. Her fourth book, BLOOD IN THE SOIL, was published April 2016. It is the true tale of a crime that took place in Gwinnett County nearly 40 years ago. Her other three books are written with Southern humor. Carole often appears on network television talk and news shows, as well as on national true crime radio shows. Her books can be found in bookstores, on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, and at www.caroletownsend.com. When she’s not writing, Carole travels throughout the southeast, talking to groups about women, writing, family and living in her beloved South. For more information, visit www.caroletownsend.com.