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The Thread of War

By M. Todd Hunter

Whether photos of the Civil War dead at Antietam, a shell-shocked soldier in a trench in Europe or  Marines raising the flag atop Iwo Jima, the iconic images  of every major American conflict have revealed both  the horrors of combat and valor on the battlefield. For  better or worse, war photography has always wielded  an undeniable influence in the court of public opinion. 

That power grew exponentially during Vietnam,  when the proliferation of television allowed such  images to reach into homes on nightly newscasts  nationwide. Photos of the My Lai massacre and of a  young Vietnamese girl running naked through the  street as napalm melted away her skin began to sway  public opinion against the war. 

“Those guys came home to people spitting on them and calling them baby killers,” said Chris, a Marine  Corps veteran of Afghanistan who requested anonymity  due to concerns surrounding his current employment.  “That’s totally foreign to me. And to be quite honest, it  always made me feel like there was a difference between  us and them. Kind of like we fought the good war and they fought the bad one. Because everyone was  behind us after 9/11.” 

Chris attributed that disconnect to growing up  hearing from family members about how “we lost  Vietnam,” which he thought was supported by the  famous image of an American helicopter evacuating  diplomatic staff from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy  in Saigon in April 1975. 

But he knows a single picture doesn’t tell an entire  story and admitted that, before he joined the military,  he never sought out any Vietnam veterans to get  their take on the war they served in. That changed  last summer when the image of a Chinook helicopter  hovering above the U.S. Embassy in Kabul made its  rounds on social media. 

“I saw that and thought to myself, ‘Afghanistan is  my Vietnam now,’” he said. “And that hit me like a ton  of bricks. But it also made me feel far more connected  to those guys than I had ever felt before.” 

DAV National Commander Andy Marshall is one  of those Vietnam veterans. Twice wounded in combat,  the Army veteran said he also felt dismayed when he  witnessed what unfolded in Afghanistan. 

“I couldn’t believe they’re doing this again to our  troops,” he said. “It was pretty depressing to see it  happen 50 years later.” 

“I feel like something that ties Vietnam and  Afghanistan veterans together is all the negative  and conflicting feelings one can have after their  country pulls out from a war they were in,” said  Carmen McGinnis, a Marine Corps veteran of  Afghanistan who now serves as a DAV national area  supervisor. “But I don’t make the big decisions and  can’t dwell on whether I agree or disagree.” 

While each generation has its own unique traits,  Marshall said, the military experience—especially that  of a war zone—is a unifying thread. Veterans share a  distinctive connection, something DAV has seen passed  down from its members beginning with those who  fought during World War I. 

“You’re there because you were sent there to do your  job,” he said. “And you just hope your family and the  American public appreciate it.”

Marshall did note, however, that some of the most  heartwarming thanks he ever received from his service  came from the post-9/11 generation. 

“I heard things I never heard before because of Iraq  and Afghanistan veterans,” he said. “They’ve always  shown me a genuine gratitude for our sacrifices, because  they know we weren’t treated the way we should’ve been  when we returned home. There are no words that can  adequately describe my appreciation for that.” 

For Marshall, Chris and McGinnis, one strong  connection they all share is that they don’t look back  at their time in uniform with regret. 

“I know I was there for a reason,” said Marshall. “If  I had not gone into the military, my life would be so  unbelievably different. It changed it for the far better.” 

For his part, Chris echoed the sentiment. 

“I gave the military some of the best years of my life,  and it gave me some of the best experiences in return,”  he said. 

“And although it wasn’t the end any of us wanted, we  did make a difference over there,” Chris added. “There’s  an entire generation of Afghans who got to live in a way  they otherwise might not have if we didn’t help out. But  what good is that if it can’t be maintained for the next  generation? I guess that’s what I’ve been wrestling with,  and I’m not sure I’ll ever find the right answer.” 

“What continues for us is the war inside ourselves,  and that’s a war we can all win,” said McGinnis. “What  I focus on is taking care of my mental health and that  of my fellow veterans, however I can, and on the good  I know occurred for the people of Afghanistan.” 

Marshall saw many of his fellow Vietnam veterans  struggle to cope with the emotional wounds of war  during his four decades as a national service officer.  Similar to Chris, they wrestled with the meaning of  the sacrifices they and others made on the battlefield. 

“I know all too well the range of emotions that  veterans of Afghanistan have been feeling lately,”  said Marshall. “My biggest concern, though, is that  their emotions and attitudes toward how things ended  over there could negatively affect their mental health.  More than anything, I want them to know that their  service and sacrifice matters, and no picture can ever  change that.”

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