An intergenerational brotherhood

The war in Vietnam ended nearly four decades ago, but for some veterans their war lasted much longer and for many it has never come to a close. Beyond physical wounds that have dogged so many, the Vietnam vets’ experience has greatly expanded our understanding of the emotional and psychological toll that inevitably accompanies combat. While acceptance of this fact in the military and among many veterans themselves took time, most today recognize post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a wound every bit as real as lost limbs.

The past decade has seen tens of thousands of new wounded warriors return home from other distant battlefields. While their reception, by any measure, has been warm and embracing, they still face a hard and uncertain future, just as veterans of Vietnam did. But one irreplaceable advantage they have is the cohort of Vietnam-era veterans who are stepping up to lend them a hand.

Barry Fixler, author of our grunt’s-eye-view lead story about the hell on Hill 861-A during the 77 days of Khe Sanh, has pledged the royalties from his recently published memoir, Semper Cool, to help wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, for the past eight years, Hal Koster, through the Aleethia Foundation, has provided more than 300 “Friday Night Dinners” to veterans whose serious wounds leave them hospitalized for long periods of time. As Koster, who served 25 months as a gunship crew chief in Vietnam and is a board member of the Rolling Thunder organization, says, these service members who are in their peak years don’t need pity; they need friendly nurturing of their spirits and souls. They need, if only for a few hours, a taste of normalcy, a break from the sterile confines and routines of their life in hospitals. The story of how the “Friday Night Dinners” and the Aleethia Foundation got started is told in the “Rolling Thunder XXIV Event Guide,” which we present inside this issue.

But the intergenerational veteran support isn’t just a one-way street. As Iraq War veteran Drew Cameron and fellow Iraq and Afghanistan war vets grappled with their own traumas, they developed a therapeutic artistic means of releasing and coping with tough memories and expressing their feelings. What has evolved into the Combat Paper Project (“Rags to Redemption”) has recently reached a number of Vietnam veterans, unleashing some exciting and healing synergies—not to mention some outstanding artwork—as the different generations work together on a common creative process.

And, speaking of art and expression, this month we take a look at the humble Zippo lighter in Vietnam and how, with the messages and images engraved on them, they came to be one of the war’s lasting cultural icons.