Updated: Nov 12
November 11, 2023
The irony of flying to Vietnam on Veterans Day in 1970 and flying home and becoming a veteran on Veterans Day 1971 never ceases to bewilder me. How does one advance from soldier to veteran without knowing what it all means and what responsibilities it carries? I think my World-War-II-veteran dad struggled with the same questions, but he never talked about it. Sure, until he passed away in 2009, Jack Bradley and I would wish one another a happy Veterans Day every November 11. But without ever taking the conversation any further…
Still, the fact that we were both veterans linked us in ways only other combatants could know. And while we never talked to the other in detail about what we did and what we saw, our silence told the honest stories: the truth about fear and courage, the reality of pain and loss, the experience of coming home but - even though we both came back “whole” - never completely making it…
I’m still searching, which is maybe why on every November 11, I repeat my own Veterans Day rituals:
...re-reading the one letter I received from my dad when I was in Vietnam...
...and listening to Bruce Springsteen.
My wife usually reads me my dad’s letter because I get too emotional reading it myself. My mom was the one who usually wrote me letters while I was stationed in Vietnam, but this one time my dad sensed I was anxious about my relationship with the girl I’d left behind and about what I was witnessing in Vietnam, so he took pen to paper. A herculean undertaking for a guy with just a GED. But his words soothed me, comforted me, and helped me to keep on keepin’ on. A modest letter from a father to his son, but one I will always treasure.
Likewise with Bruce’s songs. Or are they poems? For me, they’re more like letters, letters from him to men and women like me who our country forgot about. One year it may be “Born in the U.S.A.” Another, “Shut Out The Light.” “Tucson Train” will sometimes take center stage, as will “Gypsy Biker” and “Brothers Under The Bridge.”
But more often than not, I come back to Bruce’s song “The Wall,” which for me is his letter to Walter Cichon and Bart Haynes, beloved friends and fellow New Jersey musicians, both of whom died in Vietnam and whose names are engraved like “skin on black stone” on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D. C.
During a concert in Charlotte, North Carolina, on April 19, 2014, Bruce gave what I believe is his purest, most honest and visceral rendition of “The Wall.” He called it “a short prayer for my country,” and later he officially released this live version in online-video form. Again, it’s a letter to America, asking us to not do this again, to heed the advice of our veterans themselves who say “never again.”
"But of course,” as Bruce reminds us, “it happens again and again…”
Give it a look and a listen, and let your heart sink and ache for all that loss...
And when you’re done listening, listen again. And then remember names like Cichon and Haynes and the 58,310 other U.S. citizens who died in that war. And the names of all of those Vietnamese people who died in our name.
“Apology and forgiveness got no place here at all, here at the wall,” Bruce repeats at the close. And then a trumpet echoes, much like a bugle playing taps, followed by a chorus of voices singing... no, wailing, in pain and loss.
Sometimes I hear my dad’s voice in that chorus. He fancied himself a crooner like Frank Sinatra or Johnny Hartman and even sang with a USO Band for a while. He’s in there, as are Walter and Bart. And Bruce and me.
I’ll read my dad’s letter again today and listen to “The Wall.” And thanks to my father and Bruce, I’ll make plans to keep pushin' 'til it's understood.
Vietnam veteran Doug Bradley is the author of Who’ll Stop the Rain: Respect, Remembrance, and Reconciliation in Post-Vietnam America, co-author with Craig Werner of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, which was named best music book of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine, and author of DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle, now also available as an audiobook.