"What If...?"


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I originally wrote this story in July of 2005 for a class I was taking. It was also published in the college newspaper a few weeks later. I felt it appropriate to share this story again for those of my friends who have not read it, in light of the approach of Veterans Day. It's personal (as it was meant to be) and so, I admit, "it's all about me." Or is it?

What if I had not served in Viet Nam?

I would not have the nightmares, waking up in cold sweat in the middle of the night that I still have on occasion. I would not have the ability to hear helicopters (we called them choppers) approaching moments before my friends hear or see them. I would not have the ghosts of war visiting me throughout my life, reminding me of the faces and scenes I had witnessed – the little girl by the side of the road crying…the blank stares of civilian casualties stumbling past me.

I would never have experienced the physical and mental stress of living in fear day and night; wondering if I would ever make it home alive, and I would not be able to tell the difference between fireworks and automatic weapons fire as I am able to do each Fourth of July and New Years Eve.

I would never have met my first love, a beautiful Vietnamese girl with whom I spent many happy hours until she was blown away in a rocket attack. Would she have died anyway (I know part of me died with her), had I not served in Viet Nam?

I would not have started a Vietnam Veterans of America chapter in my neighborhood, or involved myself for years in veterans affairs, nor have been founder and curator of the Viet Nam War Museum for fifteen years, nor been active in the Vietnamese community working with refugees, boat people, teaching English and citizenship classes. I guess my life would have been pretty dull and uneventful had I not served in Viet Nam.

What if I had not served in Viet Nam? I would not be as passionate in my beliefs, steadfast in my convictions or determined in my goals. I would not be so intolerant of racism, bigotry, prejudice and hate. I would not be as skeptical of my government or unbelieving in the words of politicians. I would not believe so strongly in the sanctity of life and preciousness of freedom. I would never have seen the worst men can do to one another, but would also not understand the meaning of sacrifice, heroism, courage and bravery.

There is much about having served in Viet Nam that I hate. Things that I saw that no one should see; things I did that I am not proud of, but had to do. But the experience has also strengthened me and influenced my life and made me into the person I am today.

What if I had not served in Viet Nam? Well, I wouldn't be so nervous, nor apprehensive, defensive or distrusting, but, and more importantly, I would not be living life so fully, loving so tenderly, caring so deeply, working so diligently, writing so passionately, laughing so heartily, had I not served in Viet Nam.

What if? Well, I really don't like to think about that, but if one looks introspectively at life and asks, "What if…?" certainly you could imagine how different things might have been if you had done this instead of that. But it doesn't matter.

Life is a series of decisions with consequences. It's being thrown into situations that demand response. It's called living and you take what comes and make the best of it. Life is precious. Life is survival. Life is brief, a vapor, here and gone. What we experience and how we respond can make us into beings with substance, fortitude and determination. It is not so much what life does to us; rather what we make of those experiences.

You'll make right choices and wrong choices. You will do things to be proud of and you will do things that will make you cringe later when you think about them. All of your experiences, and how you handle them, make you the sum total of who you are.

And, you will be hurt.

The secret of survival is that when you are wounded, to allow the wound to heal. If you pick at it and leave it unattended, it will fester, become infected, and possibly kill you. If you address the wound and allow it to heal, you will wind up with a scar. Later, when you look at the scar you will remember the pain, but that's all, you will just remember.

What if I had never served in Viet Nam? I cannot imagine the person I would have become. I do not regret my decision, painful as it was back then, because it has made me a better person in the long run. I cannot see myself in any other light. I am a survivor. I am who I am because of the Viet Nam War experience, and I am proud of it.

My only regret is that I can't help thinking, sometimes, on thunderstorm nights, what if…she had lived.

Edited by RevRainbow
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My friend,

You wrote, "What if? Well, I really don't like to think about that, but if one looks introspectively at life and asks, "What if…?" certainly you could imagine how different things might have been if you had done this instead of that."

You speculate about the consequences you would not have had to endure. You speculate about the person you might not have become, the person who you are now.

A little ways back I wrote, "It is impossible to look into the past to predict a future that never was. For once a stone is thrown into the lake, we do not control the ripples."

The horrors of war that you experienced might have been replaced with experiences of other horrors that would have equally entered your psyche and in their own way provided the same types of perspective that molded the beloved Rev. Rainbow whose wisdom and gentleness we on this forum respect and revere.

The answer to "What if...?" must always remain a tantalizing, but unsolvable, mystery.

What is within our power is to assess the present, live in it and try to build the future. As Eleanor Roosevelt put it, "The past is history, the future is a mystery, the present is a gift."

Remember, too, my friend that the question we each will have to answer before the heavenly court will not be "Why were you not more like Jesus/Moses/Mohammed/...?" The question will be "Why were you not more like you?"

Baruch hah-bah-ah b'shaym Adonai. Blessed is he who comes in the name of G-d. You are, and may you always be, so blessed.

Edited by RabbiO
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I have been blessed at least twice today. First in seeing you're posting again and second by your thoughful words.

Rabbi (for you are indeed a teacher), I am certain that you know of people who have endured much more, and suffered far greater and seen more horror than I care to imagine.

John G. Whittier wrote: "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been.'"

I no longer think of what might have been (well, accept for those thunderstorm nights, occasionally), for to do so, infers I am not happy with my present state. That is not so.

Someone also wrote, "That which does not kill us, strengthens us." Perhaps this is so, at least in my case.

I have been richly blessed, and I would not dare complain about that which I do not have or did not receive, for in all things, I have learned to be content. Thank you for your kind comments. You have been in my thoughts and prayers.

Shalom aleichem.

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wow - absolutely amazing

I can hear the voices of my father and grandfather,

my uncles and cousins

your words are a gift tonight, thank you

and your experiences have made you a bit of a sage to some of us

I wanted to say, too, that anyone who has ever "left me" has never gone far;

they have always become a part me somehow; as surely something of her

has been a part of you all these years now, right?

love and gratitude to you this Veteran's Day, Reverend Rainbow

(and all the Veteran's out there!)

my birthday! no wonder I have an affinity :rolleyes:

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I read it twice over and have thought something like it many times.

There are so many things that I would like to have changed in my passed life so that I or those around me would have not had to suffer.

But, if I were ever offered to have God change any one thing in my life before today I would have to firmly say no because everything no matter how bad it was to endure and how strongly the worst of situations made me wonder where God was in all of this, there are too many things that I hold dear now that I would not have had if it were not for the worst of moments.

I still dream of ways that just maybe if this or that had not happened I might still have my wife and my sons and I might still know all my other friends. But, then I realize that had I not been in that one place at that moment I would never have been in that other place at the time I met that person and really all of the people I knew as friends no matter how long or short of a time that time with those people was priceless and I could not endure the loss of those memories.

I do wish though that the ghosts would go away and the memories of certain past veterans' next of kin and the phone calls (when I could not tell them yet about their sons' sacrifice) would go away. Those are not fun at all and though I have been in places where my life and limb were on the line, it is the loss of those others that haunt not the pistol or rifle aimed at me and not the knife at my throat.

What if is a hard dream to get rid of; but it is like a candy cane to a starved refuge, It is sweet and pleasant for a moment but it does not provide the nutrition needed to survive.

But like you, I can't help but think what if they had lived. The one good thing is that for a moment when I think that I find it easy to forgive the others but just for the moment; and then I go back to being distrusting of a certain people and angry at the Sin that killed my friends. So perhaps in small doses a bit of 'what if' is a good thing just as long as we do not let it rot us from the inside out.

Edited by Br. Josef
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