Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A second life after Vietnam

Once was enough.
After you make it through a tour of duty in Vietnam, the last thing you want to do is watch movies about it. Not that I haven't seen a few. Platoon wasn't bad — in terms of what it was like to battle mosquitoes if not the enemy. But I couldn't make it through We Were Soldiers. I just couldn't handle it.
A lot of veterans feel the same way, from what they tell me.
One of them is Len McLean. He finally got around to seeing Forrest Gump in 1998. He rented the video and watched it with his daughter. He was doing okay, he said, until he got to the part where Gary Sinise, as the wounded Lieutenant Dan Taylor, lights into Gump — who had saved his life.

Now, you listen to me. We all have a destiny. Nothin' just happens. It's all part of a plan. I should have died out there with my men. But now I'm nothin' but a goddamn cripple, a legless freak. Look. Look. Look at me! Do you see that? Do you know what it's like not to be able to use your legs?
Did you hear what I said? You cheated me! I had a destiny. I was supposed to die in the field with honor. That was my destiny and you cheated me out of it. Do you understand what I'm saying, Gump? This wasn't supposed to happen. Not to me. I had a destiny.
Look at me! What am I gonna do now?
What am I gonna do now?

McLean had never talked about the war, not really, not in any great detail. But now suddenly, there he was, telling his daughter about the Minnesota boy he had rescued — only to have him die at the 12th Evac Hospital in Cu Chi. The nineteen-year-old had lost an arm and a leg when the armored personnel carrier he was driving had hit an antitank mine. The force of the explosion had blown the engine half a football field away.
"I wonder how he would feel if he had lived," McLean said. "Would he thank me or hate me?"
"I think you're about to find out," his daughter told him the next morning.
Because there I was, on the front page of the Albuquerque Journal. The paper had done a big story on my reunion with my nurse, Kay Layman, who lives thirty minutes from McLean.
I had no idea the two were neighbors.
McLean had no idea I hadn't been dead for thirty years.

—Excerpt from Left for Dead: A Second Life after Vietnam, by Jon Hovde and Maureen Anderson. Hovde is a Vietnam veteran, and is WCCO's featured Veteran of the Month. He is a retired 3M executive and former president of the Minnesota School Boards Association. He is now a motivational speaker.

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