It’s Memorial Day, which reminds me especially to appreciate the two veterans in my life, one being the smiling 18-year-old in the photo above, Richard Cabe, fresh out of Coast Guard boot camp in 1968 during the war in Viet Nam. Like so many young men then, he didn’t have much of a choice about his service.
His draft number was low, so Richard enlisted in the Coast Guard with dreams of saving drowning people from the surf, or doing something useful that didn’t involve killing. Instead his intellectual brilliance sent him into electronics school and from there into maintaining the LORAN stations that guided nuclear subs and bombers to Viet Nam.
Even though he was never “in country,” serving in a support role for a war he believed to his core was wrong injured something in that sensitive young Richard, something that never really recovered. He felt complicit in the death and destruction.
Also like so many veterans of that incredibly polarizing war, he wouldn’t talk about that part of his service. Because so many others lost their lives or were seriously impaired, I think he felt awkward claiming his role.
Ironically, it wasn’t until the Veterans Administration became a part of our daily lives as we journeyed through Richard’s brain cancer and four brain surgeries, one course of radiation, two courses of chemo, and innumerable MRIs and other tests, that Richard began to bring up his feelings about being involved in the war.
It was partly that we spent time around other veterans of “his” war in the Denver VA Medical Center. But I think what spurred him to talk was more the simple phrase that everyone greeted him with, from receptionists to aides and ICU nurses, from physical therapists and pharmacists to oncologists and neurosurgeons: “Thank you for your service.”
Richard, AWOL from the VA Hospital (he’s sitting on a bench across the street where there was wifi access) with Molly in September, 2009.
At the end of our first full day at the Medical Center where he had an appointment with neurology to figure out what had caused him to see thousands of birds that did not exist outside his brain, we learned that his right hemisphere was so traumatically swollen that his team was surprised he was not in a coma on a breathing machine.
“It’s weird,” he said as we sat in the car after discussing the bird hallucinations and the MRI images, and the fact that instead of driving home over the mountains that night, we would be staying in a Denver motel so that he could be admitted to the hospital in the morning.
“What’s weird?” I asked. His answer had nothing to do with bird hallucinations, traumatic brain swelling or the reason we were sitting in the car on the side of a residential street near the medical center.
“Being thanked for my service,” he said. “I didn’t do anything worth being thanked for.”
“You spent your late teens and early 20s involved in a war you didn’t believe in,” I said, “doing the best you could with a situation you didn’t choose. That’s a form of service. Maybe being thanked for it will help you make peace with those years.”
Richard nodded, and then started the car.
That conversation came up now and again as our lives began to revolve around brain cancer treatment and VA healthcare. He began to talk about the war years without as much anguish. I think that being thanked helped him let go of some of what troubled him about those years, and I am grateful for that.
Dad in the middle between his two Norwegian cousins, Halvard (right) and Ingvar Tveit, on their visit to the US in 2014.
The other veteran who is on my mind today is my dad, Bob Tweit, who was drafted into the US Army Chemical Corps at the end of the Korean War. Like Richard, he served without ever being in country. He didn’t take to the Army, but it was a different war, and serving was what he did.
Like Richard, Dad is treated by the VA healthcare system. And like my late love, Dad’s care has been by and large excellent. We hear so much negative news about the VA, but as I’ve said in print before, in our experience, the people who deliver the care are professional, knowledgeable, thorough, and deeply caring. They take seriously the agency’s mission to tend our veterans.
So to my own particular veterans and all of the others, and to the thousands of healthcare staffers in the VA healthcare system, from receptionists and clerks to nurses, residents and doctors, I say on this Memorial Day: Thank you for your service.