First Lieutenant David Barthman was in good spirits Wednesday afternoon.
The sounds of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” pulled out of her cell phone and filled the nearly empty living room. The pungent smell of fresh paint wafted from the interior walls of her modular home. Through the back window, burning logs littered the dirt lot, their shade gleaming in the bright light of the blue sky, remnants of the wildfire that ripped through his northern Arizona home weeks ago.
On the kitchen counter was a row of baseball caps facing the entrance. One was olive green, another patterned like the American flag, and another black with gold lettering that read “Vietnam Veteran.”
The day before, Barthman wore the latter cap over a navy suit, with his salt-and-pepper ponytail hanging down the back. He showed up to his ‘Welcome Home’ ceremony at American Legion Station No. 3 in Flagstaff dressed to impress, even though he only expected 10, maybe 15 people be there. The 75 who showed up – veterans, civilians young and old – took him by surprise.
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“And then the mayor and the representative of the senator [Kyrsten] Sinema, they gave me the congratulations and the letters and all that,” Barthman said. “I found that very instructive.”
The event was hosted by Command Sgt. Major Rick Kreiberg of Veteran’s Affinity, an organization whose motto is “proudly serving those who have served.” During the Welcome Home event, Veteran’s Affinity presented Barthman with a black box full of medals, service badges and challenge coins – keepsakes that Barthman lost when the tunnel fire burned his home down to the ground. at the foundation.
But Barthman was not so “broken” by the loss of these physical signs of his service. As he shook hands at the end of an alley of flags, his eyes were drawn to something else.
“The most enjoyable thing yesterday was seeing all these men in uniform,” Barthman said. “These older guys. Vietnam veterans. They can wear their memories in public and know they are proud.
This was not always the case. When Barthman returned from Vietnam in 1971, he returned to civilians who did not support his service.
“We never lost a battle,” Barthman said. “We lost the war because we didn’t have the support of the American people.”
Like many Vietnam veterans, Barthman learned to refuse service when applying for bank loans, to keep his uniform in the closet if he went to the grocery store or the hardware store.
To do otherwise would invite discrimination.
“You would never wear your uniform to avoid humiliation,” he said. “You would never wear your uniform as a means of protection.”
As a third-generation soldier, the treatment of Vietnam veterans was shocking to Barthman. He had grown up with admiration for his father and grandfather, who had served in World War I and World War II respectively. Service was a family tradition.
“I never hesitated,” he said. “I wanted to go into service because I knew later you would have a family reunion, and I didn’t want that to be the odd one out.”
But when Barthman returned home to find that his service had turned him into an outcast among the American people, he was heartbroken and angry. He found himself looking for a way to escape judgment and took work on seagoing vessels, where he could be at sea for months at a time, safely in the company of other servicemen.
“You can only take so many tomatoes and eggs to the head,” Barthman said.
For decades, Barthman grappled with the shame and frustration he felt over his treatment by the American people. Emotions came to a head when he saw the Gulf War victory parade on television in 1991. He said he was overwhelmed with anger.
“Where was my fucking parade?” he wanted to know. “My dad got it. My uncle had it. My grandfather had it. Why didn’t it happen to me?
But Barthman knew he couldn’t contain that anger forever. In the years that followed, he worked hard to let go, to move on and accept. During this time, he found guidance in the words of his favorite preacher.
“If you hold the hatred and hostility deep inside of you for long enough, it will simmer and grow, and pretty soon you’ll realize you’re not a very friendly person,” Barthman said.
By the time the tunnel fire erupted from the hills to claim his home, medals, and uniforms, Barthman had done a lot of work to heal the anger in his heart. He was then 74 years old, far from the young man who served in Vietnam.
“As you get older, you realize memories are important,” he said. “But some are more important than others after a while. And some that you thought were important are no longer.
Regarding what was lost in the fire, he said “there was nothing that couldn’t be replaced” – except for his original drab olive green military field jacket.
“Which I wanted to keep,” Barthman said. “But the good Lord had other ideas.”
While he appreciated that Veteran’s Affinity was able to give him new medals, Barthman was most grateful that Tuesday’s event gave him the welcome he’s been waiting for 51 years. He was grateful to be able to proudly see Vietnam veterans like himself in uniform.
“A lot of grudges from back then had diminished,” he said. “Yesterday was kind of the icing on the cake.”
“It was worth the wait,” he added.
Now Barthman is settling back into a life shattered by the tunnel fire. He moved into a house he was working on remodeling “sooner than expected”, and is trying not to work too hard to get the house back to life.
“The body speaks and you have to listen to it,” he said.
He will work with some help from his neighbors and knows that when the tunnel fire burned down his house and his medals, it also triggered the events that would help cauterize his oldest and deepest wound.
“The days ahead will be much nicer,” he said.