THE TRADITION

THE TRADITION

From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Tradition

Yesterday, the adrenaline had been thundering through my veins as I battled in a firefight against North Vietnamese regulars. Today, I was in a Ft. Lewis, Washington, NCO club, munching peanuts and chips and drinking a cold beer, my face still slightly hued with the black and green camouflage that had shaded my face the day before in combat. My extended tour of duty was over. I was going home. I should have been elated, but all I felt was dazed.

The flight home did nothing to improve my disorientation. My service in the Republic of South Vietnam had turned my young life upside down and backward. I hardly knew where I was or what I was doing. Even now, as an attractive stewardess tapped me cautiously on my shoulder, reminding me to fasten my seatbelt, I jumped, expecting to see the battle-hardened faces of the soldiers in my rifle squad fighting for their lives in a merciless jungle. I felt like I had deserted them, and I certainly didn’t feel like I should be on this airplane.

The layovers at each airport only added to my confusion. We had all heard reports of protests against the Vietnam conflict, but either I hadn’t thought much about them, or I thought I was so hardened by battle that nothing could bother me. But as I cast my eye over the “welcoming committee” of longhaired protesters, my blood ran cold with anger. What did they know about fighting for your life in a jungle? And why were they screaming at me?

By the time my parents and sister arrived to pick me up, I was psychologically overwhelmed. For three days, I did nothing but lie on my bed in my old room, staring at the ceiling and trying to sort out the pros and cons of coming home. Everything seemed so incongruous. Old high school friends called and asked me to cruise Main Street with them, and some former football teammates suggested we wear our letterman sweaters to a Friday night dance at a crosstown roller rink. All of it seemed empty, frivolous. Letter jackets? Roller rinks? How did that relate to silently stalking the Vietcong in the monsoon rain? I wasn’t part of that crowd anymore, but if I didn’t fit in there, where did I belong?

I stayed in bed, sweating through nightmares when I could sleep and showering several times a day to wash away the terror. But when I crawled back to bed, the horrors of combat were still with me.

Finally, one morning, my mom cracked my bedroom door and peeked in. “Permission to enter,” she requested with a salute. I smiled faintly—the first time I had smiled since leaving Vietnam. Holding out her arm proudly, she displayed my freshly dry-cleaned uniform. My sister, Regina, marched in with a starched poplin shirt and necktie, and then my Dad, grinning sheepishly, carried in my spit-shined low quarters, which he had polished himself.

“What’s this for?” I asked gruffly and sat up on the side of the bed. Regina ran up, gave me the shirt with a kiss, dropped the tie and scampered out of the room.

“Just don’t you worry, dear,” Mom said, bustling around the room. “You’re going out with your father. He had your uncle Vito sew on your stars and things yesterday.”

“Those are stripes, angel,” Dad corrected her. He had been a company commander in the Philippines during World War II. “Stars are for generals and—”

“Well, Vince,” she interrupted him, “Tony should be a general, you know. Now both of you get out of the house because I have a ton of things to do.”

“Where we going, Dad?” I asked as I pulled myself out of bed. Dad looked hard at me but didn’t answer; then he left me to get ready.

I showered, shaved and gave myself a twenty-five-point uniform check before leaving my room. Dad was waiting at the front door. I was startled by the serious expression on his face as he watched me come down the stairs. “Dad! Are you okay?” I asked.

But he only grinned. “Come on, General,” he said, putting his arm around my shoulders. “Your grandpa took me out a few days after I came back from the Pacific. His father did the same when he returned from France after the First World War. I’m passing the family tradition on to you.” He paused. “I pray to God that it ends today.”

As we walked down the street toward the car, I noticed that my deep tan stood out among the winter-white New Yorkers. Again I felt conspicuous, as if I didn’t belong.

Our destination was a veteran’s service organization. An ordinary building, it didn’t show much promise from the outside. Surely this wasn’t the “tradition” that would make everything seem right again. Once inside, however, I was surprised. As Dad showed a burly bartender his metallic life membership card, he loudly greeted the men sitting at the bar by name. Everyone was lively and in good spirits; several waved at me as if I were their long-lost buddy.

Then Dad held up his hands for silence. “You guys shared my worries for my son while he was in Vietnam,” Dad said in a voice heavy with emotion. “Most of you already know Tony, but for those who don’t, here is our newest life member.”

Applause and hurrahs filled the room as Mr. Mizell, the post commander, hurried over to shake my hand. Soon, I was surrounded by a crowd of World War II and Korean War veterans slapping me on the back and welcoming me home.

Story after story unfolded that day as we drank together and shared our personal histories of war. My own father told me for the first time about the Bataan death march. My chest felt tight seeing the tears well in his eyes as he described the brutality he and his men had endured. Some veterans told of valor in Anzio, Iwo Jima, Omaha Beach, Guadalcanal, Midway, the Bulge and Bougainville. Others told tales of the Frozen Chosin, Pusan and the Yalu.

Then it was my turn to speak, and as I told about the bloody battles in the Ia Drang and An Lo valleys, the others listened to me attentively, nodding their heads or patting my shoulder in encouragement. As I talked and watched the men around me, I felt an inner calm come over me at last. I was surrounded by people who had experienced the same horrors of combat that I had, and they were now strong, noble Americans. Here were men worthy of my respect. They had found their place in this world because they knew they deserved it. I felt a shiver of pride pass through me as I realized that I, too, was one of these brave soldiers. I had earned the right to be here. And for the first time since I’d come home, the roaring confusion of battle and screaming protesters grew faint.

When we left that afternoon, we walked a little taller. Because my dad had had the wisdom to keep a time honored tradition, I was leaving the veteran’s service organization full of self-respect and confidence.

I was home, where I belonged.

Antonio Camisa

[EDITORS’ NOTE: During Desert Storm, Antonio Camisa’s son, Bryan, led an armor column of U.S. Cavalry swiftly across southern Iraq in pursuit of Saddam’s elite republican guard. In May 1991, when Bryan returned home, Antonio bought him a life membership in the same veterans organization. Bryan’s grandfather was proudly present at the post.]

More stories from our partners