By Guest Blogger, Journalist Daysha Eaton
The very first interview that I ever conducted was with my father. It was a high school English assignment to interview a veteran of a war. My dad was a Vietnam Vet so, naturally, I went home on May 20, 1993, sat down in the living room of our house in Port Townsend, Washington, set up a tape recorder and started asking questions. I didn’t know it at the time, but the assignment set in motion something bigger, putting me on a path that led to graduate school in journalism, a career reporting about social justice issues, and now to an upcoming trip to Vietnam to explore the legacy of war with SalaamGarage.
In January I will go with SalaamGarage to Quang Tri Province, which is considered the most severely bombed battleground in the history of the world. Today people in Quang Tri are still being injured and killed by undetonated explosives leftover from the Vietnam War. And instead of avoiding these dangerous devices, many farmers, unable to cultivate their land, now hunt out the explosives to sell on the scrap metal market. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines estimates that there have been nearly 34,000 deaths and more than 65,000 injuries in Vietnam since the war ended in 1975; the majority of deaths and injuries have been in Quang Tri Province.
This Project has special meaning to me since my own father is a vet. My dad, Charles ‘Bud’ Eaton went to Vietnam in 1967, at the height of some of the most violent fighting of the war, arriving just days before the battles that preceded the Tet Offensive. “It was hot, and it smelled like sewage,” he told me. “I was 18 years old and I was afraid … they put us on a bus and they told us, if anything happens stay low.”
During our interview back in the early ‘90’s Dad explained that he was stationed near the Cambodian border in North Vietnam where he quickly went into combat. “I was there a week and we were mortared and we were under a ground attack … we had a 140 guys dug in and we were firing at them.” He explained that part of his job was to sweep for landmines. He said that there was a lot of boredom, boredom that was broken up by attacks, mostly at night. “You would wake up in the middle of the night and the siren would be going off on the little compound that we lived on and so then you’d go get in the bunker, and we’d go do that every night.”
Night after night of such attacks in Vietnam added up to problems when he came home, including nightmares, mood swings and unpredictable reactions to everyday life. When I asked my dad if he felt he had PTSD, he clammed up and said only, “I’ve always said that it really didn’t bother me to much … my situation was nothing compared to a lot of people that I’ve talked to … I felt as though I was lucky.” I’d heard this line before and I didn’t buy it.
Dad may have been lucky, as he says, but now that he is in his sixties he is suffering more frequent PTSD attacks. He’s tried to get help from the Veterans Administration, but they wanted to give him drugs. My dad is one of these guys who doesn’t even take aspirin, so he has not had any help and he continues to suffer anxiety and confusing episodes in the middle of the night. Then dad told me that if he had to go to war again he would never do it. And he firmly told me that his one wish for his children was that they would never join the military.
One of his biggest laments was how the war affected the people of Vietnam. “You take the poor people, what it did to their country. You know you just have to see not only the aspects of war, but the aspects of the military and what it brings into a country and what it turns people into. You have to see it and you never forget it.” What he meant, I didn’t quite understand. And, like any budding journalist, I pressed him to be more specific, chiming in that, after all, he could tell me, now that I was 18, exactly what he meant. Taking a deep breath dad continued, trying to find a way to explain war to his teenage daughter who was so determined to know. “This is the thing that always kind of bothers me,” he said “that you get people who are right in the middle … you know they wiped out whole villages … its always the poor innocent civilians,” he explained.
In 1993 we were watching a new war on TV, in the Balkans. “Its just like in Sarajevo and Bosnia,” he said. “Whenever I see war now, I see these poor innocent women and children who are raped or murdered … because one side or the other felt as though they were on one side or the other … the poor innocent women and children are always the ones that suffer and that’s the sad part about war.” He closed our interview by explaining that his experience in Vietnam reinforced his belief in diplomacy, and that he hoped in the future the world’s problems would be hashed out in the political arena rather than on the battlefield.
I know going on this reporting trip to Vietnam won’t reverse my father’s PTSD or bring back the lives that were lost or the limbs of the people who were injured on both sides. But maybe it will help those of us who are still affected by the war, in various ways, not to forget. And it is my great hope that by remembering we can move forward, building a world where leaders and people reflect more carefully, and employ every possible alternative before sending someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, mother or father into battle. As America is currently on the tail end of one war in Iraq and continuing yet another in Afghanistan, let us reflect on how war affects us. As dad said during our interview, “the sad thing about it is that people forget … so then the same thing ends up happening again.”
-Daysha Eaton, SalaamGarage Vietnam 2010 participant and subject of the previous post, “Daysha Eaton is Superstringer.com”
In January, reporter Daysha Eaton and documentary Photographer and SalaamGarage founder Amanda Koster will collaborate to file stories with GlobalPost, World Vision Report and other media outlets and to come face to face with the legacy of war.