By Katie Shatzer
During the Vietnam War, the most adept Morse Code operators could receive upwards of 40-words-per-minute.
Take a moment to swallow that statistic: in 60 seconds, these operators could comprehend 40 words, composed of several characters, transmitted in a rapid series of blips. Can you imagine the level of concentration required?
Feel the oppressive tropic humidity of South Vietnam as you hunch over a radio, focused on receiving and transmitting low-level tactical intelligence as long hours pass.
Next to you sits a linguist, interpreting enemy transmissions spoken in a language foreign to most of those who pledge allegiance to the flag you wear on your uniform. Lives depend on the messages you transmit, receive and interpret.
Last month, I attended an event that was part of the 265th Radio Research Co.’s annual reunion. This group of Vietnam veterans spent their service in signals intelligence on mountaintops, bringing U.S. Army units the information they needed to prepare for and avoid enemy attacks.
Many of these veterans returned from their service without a warm reception, to a nation that preferred not to talk about them. Most of them aged little older than I.
I enjoyed hearing their stories, reaching back 40 years to an explosive time in our history that now provides fodder for the debate over the United States’ presence in the Middle East. “Is it Vietnam all over again?” critics of U.S. foreign policy over the last decade continue to ask.
At 21 years old, I decline to touch that question. What I cannot refuse to touch — rather, be inspired by — are the thousands of Americans my age dealing with the reality of war. This summer saw the deployment surge of thousands of troops to Afghanistan, followed by a heavily politicized withdraw of combat troops from Iraq.
Not only are these individual troops impacted by the Pentagon’s decisions, but thousands of families are affected by their loved ones leaving for or returning from a combat zone.
I write from speculation rather than experience, but an exercise in empathy is worth the while. The challenges soldiers face do not diminish my own, yet I listen to myself each time I think, “I couldn’t do what they do.”
Part of me knows the validity of that statement, part of me recognizes my shameful lack of resolve and discipline.
My image of a patriot invokes feelings of selfless dedication to one’s nation. This definition, however, falls flat.
Soldiers are not superheroes; they are my friend’s husband, my former classmate, my co-worker’s son.
They are ordinary people like you and me whose experiences required them to push their limits. In the case of the 265th Radio Research Co., these experiences continue to be a significant part of these men’s lives, decades later.
I remember their example, their sense of humor and, most of all, their stories, and hope my experiences as a young adult will so mark me.