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″ […]

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 […]

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 […]

Remembering Memorial Day

The Legacy of Vietnam   May, 2017, marks the 48th anniversary of my husband’s death in Vietnam. I don’t like to pin it down to May 17 (1969) because of the peculiarities of the time difference between where I lived at the time in Connecticut and where he died in Southeast Asia. The 8000 miles between us made it seem that we were days apart. Perhaps when managing this kind of tragedy, we play with anything that offers freedom from exactitude. The Life-Cycle of Grief Each year, remembering this event takes on a different shape in my inner world as it reverberates through wherever I am in the present. This “anniversary” is the only aspect of the experience of his loss that is locked in time, irreparably, so I note the similarity of the weather, then and now, and who I am, today. I remember that it was finally spring, trees were blossoming, and I remember the commencement of the grief process back then as I reabsorb this moment from long ago, again. Each year at this time I pay more attention than usual to my life navigation and where I’ve sailed from that lightning bolt of catastrophe. The most important thing I’ve done in all the years since his death was to understand the experience of war and loss by writing about it. Richard Hoffman says about writing difficult stories that you can never entirely redeem the experience, but you can make it beautiful (human) enough that there is something to balance it. When we restore balance, we integrate our experience and feel our own truth. It becomes manageable. Writing […]

Gold Star Wives of America: Resilient Survivors

(This article originally appeared here in April, 2015, commemorating Gold Star Wives Day and the 70th anniversary of the founding of Gold Star Wives of America, an organization devoted to educating and protecting those whose spouse died in combat or from combat-related causes.) 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 MIA 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 medical care, commissary privileges and even their home 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 […]

Truth Be Told

“Do you swear to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” We’ve heard this intimidating oath on every television show with a courtroom scene. Fortunately, writers of memoir and personal essay don’t have to make this declaration – at least under oath. Or, if they did, it would be with the caveat that, “This is my truth. This is the way it was for me, so help me Goddess of Imagination.” It turns out that “truth” has many levels of being, depending on what one is writing about. For most of us, our truth is what we think we remember. Other people might recall the same event differently, but if what you are writing is a memoir about your life, then even other witnesses, like your brother or sister, might  remember details differently than your recollection. This is an important concept to keep in mind when writing your story because, if you are swayed to consider some other rendition, based on what someone else claims is the almighty truth, you may not get to the essence of what you are after. Intention matters. As Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz describe in Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, “If our intent is to capture the messy, real world we live in, we fulfill the first obligation of creative nonfiction. Intent helps us resist the urge to change facts, just to make a better story. It stops us from telling deliberate lies, even as we let our imagination fill in details we only vaguely remember.” In my memoir, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, describing my experience of […]

Veteran’s Day 1968

Veteran’s Day, 1968. An excerpt from Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion after War. He spoke of his time in Vietnam as unavoidable, a river to cross, an obstacle to remove. Once the orders are issued, he said he would face court martial if he didn’t go. “There’s no other choice,” he said. “I have to go even if Dad says the war is a mess right now.” What his father had said was that there was a disconnect between what was happening on the ground, in the jungles, and what politicians and the Pentagon perceived the war to be and expected it to be, a reality which would not be unraveled from the fundamental untruths and hyperbole of the war until years later. But, I understood nothing about what he was about to step into. “We’ll survive – I’ll be home by Christmas next year,” he said. “Then I have only one year before I can get out of the army completely.” I promised to write every day and prayed for the rash to go away. “Letters – that’s all we’ll have over there,” he said. “Where I’ll be, there won’t be any other communication except mail.” The anticipation of verbal silence, physical distance, had its own power. It began slowly with long silences and idle activities, constant unspoken preparation. We could drive for an hour together without a word between us. We unpacked and repacked, organized cleaned, straightened, made lists. On our last night together on November 10, 1968 we barely spoke. We expressed our love for each other only with our bodies. The poison ivy scourge had […]