Forty-six years ago today, in Viet Nam, I was wounded during an assault by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops on a village that my infantry company was defending. It would not be an overstatement to say that those few predawn hours reset the course of my life. That I had a life to reset was the result of a miracle.
I do not use the word miracle lightly. My dictionary defines it as “An event or effect in the physical world deviating from the known laws of nature, or transcending our knowledge of these laws; an extraordinary, anomalous, or abnormal event brought about by superhuman agency.”
I came close to death two times that night, just seconds apart: first from a hand grenade, then from a 60mm Viet Cong mortar round. Others came closer than me – too close. Their lives were destroyed that night.
So, I am grateful that, for whatever mysterious and extraordinary reasons, my life and that of the man in the bunker with me were spared. I’d like to say that the fact of my miraculous avoidance of death caused me to thereafter dedicate my life to some high and selfless purpose, but my survival did not reset my life in that way.
I came away from that burning village confused and shocked, and wounded in more than just my body. I don’t feel confused any more. Writing – and I have written about this many times – has helped with that. Writing has not helped eradicate the wounds I suffered that night, though, nor has it completely erased the shock that resulted from that wounding. I doubt I can ever put enough words down on paper to accomplish those tasks.
It’s almost the reverse, actually. I did not begin to write about that night, and the other days and nights I spent in Viet Nam, until almost 40 years later. By that time, a thick scab had formed over the wounds. I had not forgotten what happened during that year of my life, but neither did I talk about it. Not because I was ashamed, or even that I found it all too difficult to talk about. I just felt that no one was really all that interested any more, and in any case, it was all done and over with. Right?
The act of returning to Viet Nam, both in memory and in person, and the act of writing about it all, tore that scab off, exposing a wound that had never healed.
As anyone who has had similar experiences, regardless of time or place, can tell you, it’s done, but it’s not over. It’s never over. As I write this, it’s 28 degrees and snowing here, but it wouldn’t take much effort on my part to take me back to that earlier hot, damp, February 1st. I could close my eyes right now and conjure up the violent awakening, the deafening noise, the blood and the explosions, and the fear I didn’t notice until later because I was so pumped up on adrenaline.
I could, but I don’t want to, because no matter how many times I revisit that night, it does not lose its power and its devastation. Neither has it lost its ability to make me wonder just why the hell I’m still here, and what chance of fate, or superhuman agency, let that happen?
Perhaps the reason is simply this: that I am called to bear true witness to what happened that night, and what happened other days and nights to me and many other people. To bear witness, and let others decide how to make sense of it all. To bear witness, and not let the reality of those experiences be forgotten, or glossed over. But also, to bear witness to the possibility of survival and, perhaps most importantly, the possibility of healing, something we all need to find eventually, in our journey away from the darkness, and toward the light.