Peering into the souls of vets who gave a lot

When I was in high school there was a course called “Vi­et­nam.” It was a class de­voted to the his­tory of the con­flict and its ef­fect on our na­tion. Guest speak­ers, all vet­er­ans of Vi­et­nam, vis­ited the class reg­u­larly to re­tell their war ex­per­i­ences. It af­forded stu­dents the op­por­tun­ity to learn things that wer­en’t in the text­books, but it es­pe­cially en­abled them to form a com­plex hu­man con­nec­tion to a group of people of­ten mar­gin­al­ized, even vil­i­fied, by his­tory and the pop­u­lar me­dia. 

Un­for­tu­nately, I nev­er took the class.

As a res­ult, men and wo­men in uni­form re­mained just that to me: men and wo­men in uni­form. I had a few fam­ily mem­bers who served in Korea, but they were dis­tant re­l­at­ives. While I ad­mired them for their strength and cour­age, I knew little about them per­son­ally, or the ex­tent of their sac­ri­fices in de­fense of our freedoms.

My edu­ca­tion about the ser­vice­men and wo­men of this coun­try began in earn­est last year, when I de­cided to do a story and photo es­say for the Times on some of the men and wo­men who served our na­tion dur­ing times of con­flict. 

I reached out to sev­er­al non-profit or­gan­iz­a­tions that work with vet­er­ans in an ef­fort to learn more than simply the de­tails of their ser­vice. I wanted to un­der­stand how that ser­vice shaped their lives. 

I even­tu­ally found the Phil­adelphia Vet­er­ans Com­fort House (PVCH), an or­gan­iz­a­tion that provides shel­ter and oth­er re­sources for home­less vet­er­ans, as well as vet­er­ans re­ceiv­ing med­ic­al treat­ment at the nearby Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion hos­pit­al.

As I vis­ited the home week after week, I really got to know some of these men. I was fas­cin­ated by what they had gone through and humbled by what they had to say. It was like my own private class, ten­fold. Not only did they share their poignant stor­ies of ser­vice and the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of re-ad­apt­ing to ci­vil­ian so­ci­ety, but I was offered a glimpse in­to the hearts and minds of these men, a win­dow to the soul typ­ic­ally opened only to oth­er ser­vice­men who un­der­stand these emo­tions. 

It was an hon­or get­ting to know men like Wal­lace Pres­ley, Frank Tra­montano Jr., George Roache and Ed Bridges, all of whom have struggled in their own ways after re­turn­ing home from their ser­vice. Wheth­er cop­ing with phys­ic­al in­jury, emo­tion­al scar­ring, be­ha­vi­or­al ad­just­ments or ad­dic­tions, the trans­ition back to ci­vil­ian life is not easy for many sol­diers. 

These four men, and many oth­er men and wo­men like them, have faced their own demons and have fought, some­times harder than when they were in uni­form, for a place in this world.

I have come to re­gard them as her­oes not only on the bat­tle­field, but as her­oes on the street. They were will­ing to sac­ri­fice so much for us; we must al­ways re­mem­ber that and be grate­ful for it. 

It takes dis­cip­line and strength to put one foot in front of the oth­er while march­ing with your fel­low sol­diers. It takes a whole dif­fer­ent level of dis­cip­line and strength to put one foot in front of the oth­er back in a world where every day is an­oth­er battle. •• 

Times staff mem­ber Jenny Swi­goda is re­spons­ible for the pho­to­graphy in the Vet­er­ans Day sec­tion.

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