Thank You for Your Service

Bruce Beyer called me today. I could tell, as his voice seemed to struggle, that he might be fighting back a tear. By the end of this call, I was. He brightened my day.

Bruce shared with me the deep feelings of compassion and care for reconciliation that he experienced while watching a documentary produced in Viet Nam about the funeral of my father, Walter Eugene (Gene) Wilber. The short video won the silver medal for documentaries at the National Film Festival in Hanoi in 2015.

As a result of my many fact-finding trips to Vietnam since late 2014, a producer from Vinh made a short documentary about my receiving a piece of one of the jet engines of my father’s wrecked plane. The family who kept that bullet-nosed shape from the front of the engine had used the piece as a flowerpot for Tet each year. In May of 2015, they gave it to me to return to him, which I did. A few weeks later, my father passed away, so we used the “flower pot” as a vase for flowers at his funeral. The film is a story of reconciliation, in addition to realizing the “beating swords into plowshares” metaphor. Imagine that a piece of one of the most formidable systems of military technology was repurposed as a flower holder.

It means so much for me to hear such a favorable reaction about the message of that documentary from Bruce, for a number of reasons.

I first heard of Bruce when he returned to the United States in 1977 after having to leave to the country to avoid the draft. Edison Miller, a retired Marine Corps Colonel, was among those who accompanied Bruce across the Peace Bridge from Canada back into the US. Edison is a friend of mine, who shared a room with my father for many months, as they were both detained in Hanoi.

I was so happy in 1977 to hear about Bruce’s return.

You may wonder: if my father had spent 56 months in detention camps in Hanoi as a captured pilot, why was I so happy with the return of someone who had avoided military service? There are a number of good reasons.

My father was a good leader, and a good influence on me. Only a few weeks after he was released, he took a risk to let the public know that his statements against the war – that he made while detained – were voluntary. That was alarming for many to hear – as I evidenced personally from the negative reactions I received in school the next day – but what was even more significant were his words ending that 60 Minutes segment:

WALLACE: The President says no amnesty for deserters or draft resisters. What’s your view?

WILBER: The war in Vietnam – in fact, all of Southeast Asia – was very controversial. These young men were faced with service, military service, and not just plain service. I’m sure that most of them love their country. I’m sure that some of them are cowards. I think, personally, to make it short, that anyone who has not created a criminal act against our government or against the people of our government should be given a general amnesty. These men have had to make a very serious decision. I wouldn’t want to face that when I was a teenager. They have been punished by the very act of leaving the country they love and the country they were born in. They had to leave, for some reason. I think they should be brought back in the spirit of the peace agreements, and given the chance to be a first-class citizen. 60 Minutes interview April 1, 1973

Over the years that my father was away in Hanoi, he influenced me in other ways regarding the American war.

On my fifteen birthday, Radio Hanoi broadcast a greeting to me. In it my father’s firm, clear, and kind voice told me that, at fifteen, I was “old enough now to work for peace.”

He ended the message – just before the “Love, Dad” closing – with these words: “I am fine.” That was all I needed to hear to know that everything is all right.

We were reunited on February 16, 1973, but it became clear to me, from his words, in those months and years before he returned, that the war was not what I was hearing from my government. I valued his perspective from prison. I trusted him. It was good guidance for a teenager.

Around the world and here in the US, there were many, many facets to the call to end the war as the morally right thing to do. My father’s work was a small – perhaps obscure – piece of that effort. It was often tamped down the next day by commentary from our government that it was obviously forced, perhaps dampening its effect. However, my father, with more than 25 years of military service by the time he was released, took a small risk for peace. The risky position taken by Bruce Beyer and many others, some who were never able to return to the US, was a significant and compelling facet of the peace effort. There were so many facets to this call to end the war, that I can’t begin to name them all, but what they shared was taking action on whatever piece of it that they each could influence or control.

In my mind, Bruce Beyer, was, and is – to put it in my father’s terms – a “first-class citizen.” I hope he has lived my father’s wish for him. Having been blessed by meeting Bruce, now I know another aspect of him: he is a first-class human being.

One of my fears is that American culture does not remember those who gave voice and action to calls to end the war against Viet Nam, nor for the significant role they played in bringing about peace and protecting our freedoms, nor does that aspect of the culture understand and appreciate the sacrifices to career, livelihood, personal freedom, and social acceptance that those who took at stand have experienced.

However, one of my hopes is that more and more will join me in saying, “Thank you for your service, Bruce Beyer. Welcome home.”

For those who work for peace, thank you for your service.

Tom Wilber October 23, 2017

May 28, 2018

Thank you for reading this letter.

I served in the U.S. Navy from 1966 until 1970. I was a veteran of the Vietnam War, or as some prefer to say, “A veteran of the American War in Vietnam.”

I served on the USS Chicago, a guided-missile cruiser, where big guns were replaced with guided missiles, mostly used to shoot down enemy planes. The Chicago was usually stationed off the coast of North Vietnam and, with special radar equipment, could control US aircraft launched from Navy carriers off the South Vietnam coast along with US Air Force bombers when they were conducting raids on targets in North Vietnam.

Put another way, when the US Military hit their assigned targets, hospitals, schools, government buildings, power plants, sewage and water plants and other infrastructure were destroyed with high loss of life.

While those on my ship knew what was going on in the war, we never actually saw the effects, witnessed the suffering, or understood why in the hell we were even at war with this small country.

The Vietnamese are good people. They work hard, worship their God, raise their families, and grow the food needed for their survival, just like folks do in other countries.

How do you suppose we got our country involved in this war? Or any war. I don’t think there is a simple answer to this question. There was the prior occupation of South Vietnam by the French. Eventually, they gave up, packed their bags and went home.

Then there was the theory that, Communism could spread unchecked, like dominos, and the balance of peace in the world would change.

Another thing to think about is just the scale of the killing in this war. Take a look around the monument before you. It represents the Americans who died in this needless, ugly war … over 50,000 American soldiers! But did you know that the lives lost by Vietnamese fighters, farmers and civilians has been estimated to be between 2 to 3 million people? Try to visualize just how large a monument would need to be to include both sides of this war.

In conclusion, you probably have heard that it’s easy to start wars and difficult to end them. I believe we can agree on this.

Thank you for coming to this monument today. I hope you find comfort and solace in paying respect to friends and family members whose names are engraved on the wall.

If you have interest in learning more about Veterans For Peace, you can go to VFP’s website: veteransforpeace.org.

Here is a two-sentence description of what Veterans For Peace advocates:

Our collective experience tells us wars are easy to start and hard to stop and that those hurt are often the innocent. As veterans, we draw on our personal experiences and perspectives to raise public awareness of the true costs and consequences of militarism and war — and to seek peaceful, effective alternatives.

James N. Woods
Olympia, Washington
Member of the Rachel Corrie Chapter 109 of VFP