The Vietnam War – Fifty Years Later

  May 17, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the death Captain David R. Crocker, Jr. in Vietnam. We were married on June 9, 1966, the day after his graduation from West Point. Each year, remembering his death on this date reverberates through whatever I’m doing. This “anniversary” is the only aspect of the experience of his loss that feels anchored in time. Each year I note the weather, then and now, and who I am, presently. I remember that in 1969 it was finally becoming spring-like and trees were blossoming, although it had been chilly in the northeast like this year. By Memorial Day, when his funeral was held, we were jettisoned into summer with temperatures in the 90s. My great-uncle wore a black suit and passed out from the heat when we gathered in the cemetery. I would have liked to have shared my secret then with Uncle Ephraim that Dave wasn’t really being buried that morning. Perhaps he wouldn’t have collapsed from sadness and the sun. Only our letters and other memorabilia were in the coffin. Dave’s sister and I would take his ashes to the Eiger in Switzerland later that summer. It was my attempt to control uncontrollable events. I remember the commencement of disbelief and grief back then as I reabsorb the chain of events from long ago; the notification, the decisions, the identification of the body, the acceptance that it had really happened.  Each year since, at this time, […]

Wanted: Words That Describe Experience

How many times have you heard people say in the aftermath of a traumatic event: “I just can’t talk about it right now.”  They experience a muteness, as if the right words have not yet been invented to pinpoint their feelings. Some eventually find expressive relief by writing poems, essays, memoirs, keeping a journal or even describing what happened on Facebook.  For those who are visually oriented, they may speak through the creation of a painting or other art project. There are no rules or even guidelines for self-expression at the boundary of trauma but many who have been through the experience say that describing it -somehow- to another person does help. The Process of Healing Our body tells us when we’re ready to unpack and codify feelings, to put words or other artistic expression around painful experiences. For some, even the recollection of the experience can stay tucked away for years and emerge later, perhaps when another life-changing event bumps up against old memories. A Vietnam War veteran once shared with me that he didn’t speak about the war he experienced until years later when his son was about to be deployed to Desert Storm in the early 1990s: “It hit me like a ton of bricks – my son might be about to experience the same horrors that I had witnessed. I had to start talking, sharing my own experience, after twenty years of silence.” Owning the Story Sometimes the burden of owning […]

National Gold Star Spouses Day, April 5, 2019

It was a muggy July evening in 1946 when five women, whose husbands had died in World War II, traveled to Hyde Park, New York, to meet with a soon to be war widow, Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt later wrote in her news column, My Day,  “…they came for supper, and then went to Poughkeepsie the Lafayette Post of the American Legion had given them permission to use a room… It was a small meeting, though the casualties among servicemen from Dutchess County were pretty high.” In fact, more than 175 men from Dutchess County alone were killed or missing in action  by 1945. These five young widows had first met together in Marie Jordan’s apartment in New York City in 1945 to talk about how they might band together to support the needs of all war widows and their children. Losing a spouse in combat meant also losing income, medical care, commissary privileges and even a place to live if they lived in military housing. Most had married young and had no job training. They had little or no resources from the U.S. government and often relied on the charity of family and friends. Out of desperation they formed a support group called the American Widows of WWII.  Their appeal to Mrs. Roosevelt was auspicious. When FDR died in 1946, she counted herself among them and became one of the original signers of the group’s charter. The name was changed to Gold Star Wives of America in 1948 (GSW) and the mission expanded to seek benefits for both the spouses and children of persons who died in combat and/or as a result of service-connected illness. [caption id=”attachment_823″ […]

Veteran’s Day 2018: Grief and Gratitude 

On Veteran’s Day, November 11, 1968, my husband departed for the Vietnam War. I was twenty-two and could not fathom that he might not return. That rainy Tuesday morning, fifty years ago, would be the last time I heard his voice. September 2018. I’m at an airport hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, where three giant, air conditioned buses are loading veterans and family members for a trip to the Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia, a US Army post where many trained for the infantry.  I have a front seat, right behind the driver. Most people have boarded already but the seat next to me is still empty and it seems I’ll be traveling the one-hour plus journey without a seatmate. I know several veterans of the Vietnam Triple Deuce at this reunion of the 22thInfantry Regiment Society – especially the guys of A Company who served in Vietnam during ‘68 and ‘69. They knew my husband, Captain David R. Crocker, Jr., as their beloved Company Commander. When he was killed in a booby-trapped Viet Cong bunker on May 17, 1969, the entire unit grieved and had to be taken from the field for several days. I didn’t know any of them until we met, by chance, in 2006 and they opened a window to our shared past. Since that first reunion in Omaha, I’ve met them at reunions around the country every eighteen months. More and more veterans of the Triple […]

The Gift of Story

Child development professionals agree that reading and telling stories to children builds motivation, curiosity and memory. It also helps children cope during times of stress or anxiety, and creates a relationship with books and fosters a sense of being loved and nurtured. As a small child, stories and books were a slim bridge between me and my father. After I became an adult, they were a life-line. He could be an eloquent speaker if he was engaged in a discussion about the interpretation of some bit of Bible scripture, but he was not a conversationalist with his children about everyday events. Most evenings after supper, he withdrew into the Encyclopedia Britannica until it was time for me and my brothers to go to bed. Then, at our bedside, he magically became an animated storyteller of tales by Thornton Burgess, along with Bible stories. I don’t remember that he held a book but it was dark. As I pulled the covers up to my chin in the blackness of our tiny room with barely enough space for our three small beds, he would start with a dose of biblical lore, perhaps Daniel in the lion’s den or Jesus with the moneylenders, and then launch into the adventures of Sammy Jay, Blackie Crow, or Mr. Toad. The details were colorful and precise. I could see the forest creatures in their hats and vests as Dad spoke, and I imagined them cavorting in the woods outside our window. The next day my brothers and I combed the backyard for evidence that Uncle Billy Possum or Bobby Coon had been there as Dad had described. My older brother might spot a […]

National Nurses Week 2018

During National Nurses Week we acknowledge the excellence and dedication of those who choose the nursing profession. It begins each year on May 6th and ends on May 12th, Florence Nightingale’s birthday. I grew up surrounded by nurses in a nursing home that my family owned and operated from the mid 1940s until 1960. We lived in a small village in Connecticut and my mother’s skills as a Registered Nurse also made her the go-to person for emergencies  – cuts, burns, broken bones, head injuries and even emotional problems. I remember my mother calmly cleaning and dressing a bloody wound after a neighbor fell from a ladder and, on another occasion, carefully positioning a child’s possibly broken leg after a fall from a tree. Eventually, a doctor might arrive. But watching my mother and her colleagues in action, day after day, offered me firsthand knowledge that nurses were unsung heroines who never hesitated to respond to an emergency. Nurses in war zones and military settings have done their job quietly and largely unnoticed as well, putting their lives in peril on the battlefield for centuries. Yet, little is known about their experiences in war or exactly how many participated. Appropriate financial remuneration in the nursing profession has also been meager and long in coming. Only at the end of the twentieth century did nurses’ pay, both in military and civilian life, begin to become commensurate with the risks and responsibilities of their jobs. Many women served as nurses during the Revolutionary War, but they are barely mentioned in history books. The Second Continental Congress, heeding George Washington’s advice to […]

Thanks for the Hope!

The evidence that people have hope for a more peaceful and compassionate world can pop up at some unexpected moments. Our local independent bookstore, Bank Square Books, is offering an unusual window display as we make our way through the holidays. Rather than using precious window display space to tempt the passerby to buy beautiful books, they have created a tableau of hundreds of small, yellow post-it notes – each describing something the contributor is grateful for. From across the street, it looks like a constellation of tiny square stars.  Up close, it is a delightful collage of how people pay attention to goodness surrounding us. At the end of this unsettling and frightful year, this window is a small oasis in the middle of downtown for the community to eavesdrop  on a collective sprinkling of grateful moments, each just a few words. David Schiller says in The Little Zen Companion that words can never be a substitute for experience. “Reading about fruit just isn’t the same as biting into a warm peach. But give the words time to work, and you might find – not the truth, but a glimpse.” Many people are struggling to survive tragedies, abuse, precarious life situations, and how to understand what actually is true. What action can we participate in that will keep our sense of communal hope alive when one tragedy is followed by another and another? After the mass shooting of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, Deepak Chopra offered some suggestions for behaviors that can give hope to those who are suffering and feeling hopeless. He suggests that we should pause over […]

Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh: The Story Whisperers

The Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh started out quietly enough. First, a few vets gathered for breakfast once a month. Eventually, there was a trip planned to visit a monument in Washington, DC. Stories that had been bottled up for as much as fifty years began to pour out on that bus trip. Stories of what war was really like. Everyday should be Veteran’s Story Day. I believe in the healing power of telling true-life stories, especially the ones that are hardest to tell. Not only is it good for the teller, but the world needs first person accounts in order to know what actually happened during calamitous events. One of the great qualities of the recent PBS Vietnam War series, created for television by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, was the relentless telling of stories by people who lived through it on both sides. The stories were often brutal, but we need to hear them. Third person summaries that supposedly supply facts cannot do justice to the horror and terror – or the exhilaration for some – of war. A group of less well-known documentarians in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, have been collecting and recording the oral histories of veterans and survivors on podcasts for several years. Kevin Farcas, founder, and Todd DePastino, historian, have reached out to find veterans of all wars and produced a unique archive of stories captured in a warm conversational style. In 2016, in his 90th year, Gene McShane was recorded describing what it was like to land on Omaha beach in Normandy having been […]

Why We Need War Stories

The first time I met the survivors of Alpha Company of the 2/22 Infantry in 2006, I was scared. It had been almost four decades since my husband, Capt. David R. Crocker, Jr., died in Vietnam in a booby-trapped bunker. I had never heard a first person account of precisely what happened, and I still wasn’t sure I was ready to hear the stories. What was I afraid of? Perhaps simply the peeling back of the protective layer of years since I was informed of the tragedy on that warm spring day in May, 1969. Back then, I had avoided the nightly newscasts by Walter Cronkite. I couldn’t bear to see bloodied young men carried out of battle. Before the worst happened, superstition about what might protect my beloved governed every move I made. Charmed thinking was my armor.   War stories are hard for both the teller and the listener. For some people “the beginning “ – that first telling – might not happen for years after the event. Veterans and other survivors of war may hold back their untold stories for decades. Despite their courage on the battlefield, describing that experience requires a reach back down into gut-wrenching details that they had tried hard to forget, back to a place where they may have felt guilty to be a survivor.   But, remembering has its power, too. Meeting the men from Dave’s company and hearing their stories of life with him in Vietnam was my first big step towards a kind of healing, and an understanding of what had actually happened in […]

Sparking the Writer’s Imagination

Let’s agree on one thing: the writer’s imagination is impossible to describe. But, for some of us, life without writing is also impossible. Is there a secret behind the sparking of imagination? Except for making ourselves sit down and start writing, it’s difficult to say what makes those words jump onto the page. It helps to believe that our writing matters, especially to us. Anne Lamott described in Bird by Bird that writing matters because of the spirit. “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed our soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.” It’s important to write. Storytelling is important – in words or paintings. Expressing the imagination on the page (or on canvas) restores our soul. But, there is also the mystery of why we stop ourselves from self-expression and how to get the process rolling again and pour yourself into the work. If you are in the area of Mystic, CT on September 25 or October 7, 2017, join me at the Mystic Museum of Art for […]