06/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Lessons Learned

I graduated from high school in 1969. During those years, the draft was in full play. "The War" in Viet Nam, though it wasn't really supposed to be called a war, was a constant subject of conversation and heated debates. We were all touched by it in some way. My brother, who is two years older than I am, waited nervously for his number to be drawn. All of my young male friends, relatives, and neighbors who were of eligible age, were either already in Viet Nam, or enlisting, worrying about their number coming up, or trying to find a way out of fighting a war many of my age group didn't believe in.

I remember when Viet Nam's deadly net was cast around my relatively small universe. One of my neighbors - a kid we all went to school with, Louie, was killed there. Another very close friend, Frank, joined up, flew helicopters, and went back to Viet Nam on multiple extremely dangerous missions. He survived.

One of my second cousins fought in Viet Nam, and became addicted to drugs there. When I think about the horrors of war, it's easy for me to imagine why taking drugs to shift that reality would be appealing. But the drugs didn't erase his memories, and my cousin Eric had been around so much death, that he wanted to kill himself. When he was shipped back home to the US, I went to visit him in the Naval Hospital in San Diego. He was a handsome, gentle guy, with blue eyes that still had a sparkle in them. I guess I had a schoolgirl crush on him, but since he was a cousin, our friendship remained totally platonic. But as it turned out, he needed more friends. Eric was eventually released from the hospital, and though he tried to get back into the swing of everyday life, his addiction and the reason for it was never extinguished. A few years after coming home from Viet Nam, Eric succeeded in taking his own life - by overdosing on drugs. What a waste. I blame the war - it never left him. But I also think Eric was set adrift, and didn't receive enough societal support to overcome the demons unleashed in him.

What could have been done differently? In my first year of college, I was among the peaceful, hippie protestors that engaged in sit-ins and street-concerts to try to get our government to change course - to stop. Now that I look back on it, I can imagine that this display of protest was very difficult for the veterans of Viet Nam to take. Could we have done a better job of communicating our admiration for those who fought? Yes, I believe we could have.

Though it was the war we were protesting against, not the warriors, sadly, many civilians lost sight of that fact when our warriors returned home. The returning soldiers tried to resume a 'regular life,' but they were wounded psychically and physically, with injuries and memories most of us couldn't begin to fathom. Plenty of veterans felt shame and blame, rather than the support and gratitude they should have been feeling.

I hope we never repeat this mistake. Our service men and women and our veterans deserve better than that. This Memorial Day, I am remembering all the Erics, Franks and Louie's - the warriors of all the wars. Some of them couldn't handle the stress, and either took it out on others, or themselves. Some died in battle. And others survived, and signed on for tour after tour - bearing the difficulty and dread of war so that the rest of us can go on about our usual routines.

This weekend, I'll be thinking that while we have the right to protest against war, the right to state our opinions and beliefs, and the right to work hard to use peaceful methods to bring about the changes we seek, we wouldn't have many of those rights without our warriors. We owe our way of life to the men and women who have stepped up, followed the orders of the Commander in Chief, and too many times, given the ultimate sacrifice.

I will bow my head and offer my respect, admiration, and gratitude to our service men and women, past, present, and future. And as a peacenik, I will also be praying that one day, we'll find another way to resolve our differences.