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.