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Janet Thomas: Days of War and Remembering

  • Written by Janet Thomas

Yesterday, on an afternoon stroll at the beach, I had an encounter with a man. He was inspecting logs; I was spacing out after too much time at the computer. We grinned at each other and it felt natural to chat. So, we did. He loves his wood stove more than his furnace and was checking out logs accordingly. He also knows his logs and educated me about the specific trees that were washed up on shore. And because he has been connected to the island since the 1950s, he knows about everything else that has washed up on shore over the past 60 years too. We talked about it all.

Then, in context of something or other, he mentioned he was a veteran of the Vietnam War. My internal and external ramblings stopped in their tracks. Then I seized the opportunity. I was all over the streets in protest of that war I told him. And it was because I was an “officer’s wife” at Fort Dix, New Jersey during that war. And, as a volunteer at Walson Army Hospital, I had seen too many men come back from that war in pieces with ageless pain in their young faces. After the two years were up and I was back in Seattle, the first thing I did was show up on the anti-Vietnam War street marches.

As I walked the beach with my new acquaintance, I told him how painful it was to realize that my anti-war stance was perceived as being anti-soldier. Nothing could be further from the truth, I told him. It was precisely because of their suffering that I wanted that damn war to end. He smiled in understanding.

“I could never figure out why that war was happening,” I said to my new acquaintance. “Something to do with money.”

He nodded in understanding. “Yes,” he said. “Building weapons, using oil, transporting and feeding troops, it all makes money.”

“Ahh, yes, the military industrial complex and its profiteering,” I muttered to myself.

Then we carried on with our walk.

Inside, I was also strolling back in time to those Vietnam War army hospital days. I was most impacted by the way those injured soldiers looked at me. The grief in their gazes was riveting with intensity. There was no sign of youthfulness. Their very beings were utterly compelling with what they had experienced. Only those who were there could know the depths of it all--and its permanence.

I had my own grief, too. I had recently given birth at that same hospital to a son who died. The rule was that babies stayed in the ward for 24 hours before being given to their mothers. When the door to my room opened, I was too excited to notice the look on my doctor’s face. “Your son expired,” were his words. It was the end of my life as I had known it.

So, what those soldiers did not know was that it was grief that sent me to volunteer in their wards. It was the only place in my world where grief was known, felt, and recognized. To them, I was a young woman with good intentions who could never understand. To me, they were my salvation from an outside world that could never understand.

Grief does not go away. That is what I was thinking as I walked the beach with the cheerful Vietnam Vet who loved wood and wilderness. We laughed together about these darkening days, his love for Alaska and flying and boating, my love for morning walks taking photos in one direction and picking up plastic in the other, and the bounty of it all that we share here on this beautiful island.

It was an accidental walk, with an accidental stranger, on the accidental day right before Veterans Day.

There are no accidents.


Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 29 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."


Last modified onThursday, 12 November 2020 00:22

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