It was opening night for the Chesaning Association of Performing Arts winter competition play "Tracers." Within the first five minutes, during a scene when my character was at boot camp in the push-up position, I noticed several large, elderly men walking out of the theater.
This was the first time I had acted in a high school play, and it was a very meaningful performance that would change the way I viewed the subject of the Vietnam War.
I played the character "the Professor" — a bookworm type who enlisted to serve in Vietnam.
In preparation for this, the cast trained in close-order drill, weight training and even sat down with local Vietnam veterans who told us of their experiences.
"I held my best friend as he was dying after being shot in the chest," one veteran said as he wiped tears from his eyes.
Since that day, I have researched the war and the effect it had on these veterans. I discovered that more than 4,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall are lance corporals like me. There are eight women whose names appear on the wall alongside 254 Medal of Honor recipients.
Upon returning home, most military members are welcomed by their home community with open arms, but not these men. Instead, people would spit on them and call them things like "murderers" and "pawns." They weren’t given a ticker-tape parade or even a "thank you."
Since then, Vietnam veterans have been slowly gaining the respect and recognition they didn’t receive when they came home.
I recently visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., where veterans and family members spent three days reading off the more than 58,000 names of U.S. men and women who were killed or went missing in action during the war.
It was there that I had the great honor of speaking with several veterans of this terrible conflict, stopping them and just telling them something long overdue, a few little words that brought some of them to tears: "Welcome home, and thank you for your service."
One veteran asked me through his tears why I had chosen those words, and I told him of my history with this play and how I learned of the harsh treatment they received upon arriving back in the states. He wiped his tears and told me how when he got home, his own family turned their backs on him for years and that he didn’t even meet his grandchildren until 10 years ago.
"I can count how many people told me ‘thank you’ in the first 10 years of being back here in the states," he said. "Eight people; and they were other veterans."
As he spoke with me, unfolding more stories of the years following the war, I recognized the thousand-yard stare that I had been taught about from the veterans I had talked to my freshman year of high school.
Finally after 20 minutes of talking, he asked me if I served, and when I told him I was currently enlisted in the Marines, he said, "It means more to me that you, a young Devil Dog, would go out of your way to recognize me and my brothers of our war than if the president came here and told me, ‘thanks for serving.’"
As a young woman approached him, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.
I walked along the wall, reading some of the names engraved into the wall, periodically stopping to thank other vets for their service and to welcome them home. A letter, laminated and placed at the foot of the wall, caught my eye. It was written to Steven H. Adams, an airman who went missing in action, from an Iowa native. The writer explained how he wears Adams’ name on his MIA bracelet even though they had never met.
As I knelt beside the wall and read this letter, I was instantly taken back to the stage, to opening night. I remember how, following the show, several veterans in the audience came and addressed the cast concerning our performance.
I took that opportunity to ask one man, whom I had seen walking out earlier in the night, why he had left. As his smile slowly faded he said, "The opening scene triggered a flashback of things people asked and said to me when I returned from the war. Also of the first day of boot camp when I met my best friend, and it reminded me that he never came home."
For those who returned from the war, it was a flight home only to be ridiculed and hated by the country they loved and were willing to die for.
For me, this war was defined by the heartache felt when these men and women returned home. It was the pain and sorrow for those lost. But the most important thing is remembering and honoring those who never came home and thanking those who did.
Lance Cpl. Cory D. Polom is a Cherry Point Marine who works in the base’s Public Affairs Office. He can be reached at 466-6131 or by email at cory.polom@USMC.mil.