By Gary Gill
The Veterans' Retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh last April was attended by Vietnamese, American veterans of the war, and Americans who did not serve in Vietnam. During the first few days, we were in silence together--eating, meditating, walking, listening to talks by Thay. This had the double effect of bringing our feelings and memories to the surface as well as creating an atmosphere of bonding and acceptance among the participants regardless of service record or nationality. In this setting, many of us were freed of our shame and were able to see what had happened in a new light, bringing to an end much of the torment and anguish we have been carrying so many years.
During the last two days of the retreat, we broke up into groups of eight to ten people to talk about what we'd been through and how we could heal. Each group included several vets and non-vets and at least one Vietnamese. The sharing was deep and intense. People spoke from the heart and went directly to their deepest pain.
I came to see how much of the power of my thoughts and memories of shame and guilt lay in my inability to talk about or even look at them directly. Once I was able to feel them and then say them to the group, I understood that I felt that way under the pressures of war and misunderstanding. I also understood that I didn't need to continue to feel ashamed and full of guilt.
All this was revealed to me as I talked about my feelings in the group where there was enough love and support to keep me from being overwhelmed with shame. When the shame is strong, I start to fight it and often go into a rage or depression rather than sit with the actual feelings and examine their content. Instead of being able to deal with the memories, the shame kicks me out of myself and sends me into another cycle of rage, addiction, and numbness. Even though this cycle has been going on most of my life, breaking it once in the retreat seems to have released its power over me. Shame breeds on a mistaken sense of responsibility for things over which we have no control. It maintains its power by staying a secret and avoiding the light of day. Like mold or mildew, a good airing out does a lot to kill it.
A Vietnamese monk in our group shared that he had lived 33 years in Vietnam. His village was bombed by the French Air Force on the day he was born. When he was seven days old, his father hid him in a sampan and pulled him out of his village. From that day to this he has remained homeless. Twenty-five of his relatives were killed outright or crippled. His sister's face was cut halfway off. He told us he had used Buddhism to harden his heart because he couldn't stand to feel anymore pain. Tears were streaming down his face as he told us how the Buddhists had taught him not to cry.
One of the vets spoke on behalf of all the Americans present when he said to the monk that he was sorry for what had happened to Vietnam and for some of his actions while there. Everyone in the room was crying and sobbing. The monk stood up and walked slowly across the circle and bowed to the American vet. He gave the vet an orange blossom he held cupped in his hands. He then backed up several steps, got down on his hands and knees and bowed to him until his forehead touched the floor. Then he asked our forgiveness for the way he had hardened his heart to the American people. He said he saw now that the American heart, when it is open, is truly beautiful to behold. He said he now understood that we had acted out of generosity and goodwill towards his country even if our policies and their results did not reflect our intent.
It was a profoundly moving moment in my life. The natural balance that is inherent in all events, and that shame disrupts, was restored. I saw that this monk and I were one in that we had both suffered at the hands of the same forces. Rather than feeling like I had ruined his country and destroyed his life, I felt like we had both been hurt and were now helping one another to regain our balance. He saw that I was not his enemy and oppressor, and I saw that he was not my victim. His tragedy and mine were the same. He had hardened his heart and so had I. He had sought to avoid his pain by blaming and so had I. We asked him to forgive us and he asked us the same in return. I found myself at peace with him, with my country, and with myself for the first time in twenty years. The war ended for me that day.
A great weight was lifted from my shoulders. I no longer felt like a war criminal. I no longer felt that I deserved to be punished for what happened in Vietnam. My allergies were lifted. I have had a rebirth in creativity. It amazes me how much of my energy has been tied up in shame.
I left the retreat understanding that there is only one battlefield and truly, only one enemy. Our wars and our hatreds live first in our hearts. We inflict our deepest wounds on ourselves. I see that reconciliation is our only true hope for peace in the world, that fighting wars, hot or cold, will never deliver us from war. Peace cannot be won with war. War engenders shame and shame begets further war. I realized I have been at war with my country, my family, myself all these years since I came back from Vietnam. I have reacted to my shame in destructive behavior that has harmed everyone I have been in contact with, those closest to me have been harmed the most. When I left Vietnam, I was relieved of my M-16, grenades, and radio—the tools of war—but I was sent home with my rage, blame, and shame intact. No one disarmed me of the weapons I carried in my heart. Now I know what great damage I have wrought. And I also know how it feels to have this burden lifted.
Gary Gill was an advisor to the ARVNs in 1970-71 in Binh Dinh Province, II Corps. RVN, and held the rank of 1st Lieutenant. He is presently a structural engineer living in Oakland, California with his wife and son.