Veterans seek healing by cycling through Vietnam

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

In 1998 a group of American veterans joined their former Vietnamese enemies on a bicycle ride from Hanoi to Saigon. They rode through villages and countryside, much of it unchanged since the war. The venture was documented in a recently released video, “Vietnam: Long Time Coming,” from Kartemquin Films. Villagers waved and children, who had been playing in the paddy fields, ran shouting and laughing towards the stream of brightly clad cyclists. These idyllic scenes highlighted the enormous shift in perspective between the past and the present.

Outside, in the world around them, the world seemed peaceful, while much of the real drama was taking place inside their minds, where memories boiled and occasionally erupted into tears. I empathized with the courage it must have taken to face the country where deep scars were burned into their psyche, and several times I cried along with them.

I first learned about this movie because of my interest in a memoir by one of the participants, George Brummell. In “Shades of Darkness,” George wrote about growing up black in the segregated south, coming of age in Korea, and being blinded by a land mine in Vietnam. Back in the states he learned how to navigate without sight, earned a college degree, and eventually became a director of the blinded veterans association. (Click here to read the essay I wrote about George Brummell’s book Shades of Darkness.)

George and the others who returned to Vietnam for this ride were reaching out towards a new relationship with this place where their lives had been changed forever. Through the documentary movie “The Long Time Coming” I was able to witness that experience and gain a deeper understanding of the psychological aftermath of war. This may seem like a highly specialized concern, but the pain spills out to family, friends, and the community. People are affected for decades when combat veterans feel that they have crossed over a chasm that can only be traversed in one direction, and once on the other side, they cannot find their way back. The existence of that pain in my fellow human beings stirs my desire to understand more.

The movie “Long Time Coming” illustrates that revisiting the past is one of the tools that can help heal in the present. Even though you can’t always return to the scene physically, you can create some of the same effects by writing. Visiting the past through writing can enable you not only to recreate the situation, but also to apply to those memories some of the wisdom you have gained in the intervening years. In some cases, building bridges backwards through time can create a pathway from pain back into hope.

While the most obvious healing strategy of the movie was simply revisiting the scene, there were other strategies being employed. One of the American veterans was a psychologist who conducted meetings and spoke individually with the American vets who were trying to cope with their emotional wounds. The discussions with each other and with a therapist helped them reorganize the thoughts and feelings awakened by this experience. And their connections, friendships, and warmth with former enemies soothed some of the war wounds, as well.

I’ve heard the claim that war is one of the greatest expressions of love, because soldiers must risk their lives for each other. The problem of course is that war requires a common enemy, and so it turns bloody and leaves lingering effects that are not loving at all. Team sports also have the ability to draw people together in a common goal, and that’s what the TEAM bicycle ride in Vietnam was about. These riders, instead of fighting against each other, were joining together to fight the common “enemy” – moving their bicycles towards Saigon. As their focus shifts from danger and betrayal to beauty and friendship, one of the American veterans says, “I feel like this happiness now, riding this bike in Vietnam, is pushing out some of the hatred that had been filling my cup.”

The camera followed bikers up a long mountain road in 100 degree heat. The hand cyclists struggled most because the arm levers did not provide the same mechanical advantage as the foot powered ones. As these slower riders reached the top, those who had already gathered there rushed forward to offer hugs and celebratory whoops. After this outpouring of affection, one of the Vietnamese hand cyclists said, his voice filled with excitement, “This is something both disabled and able bodied people dream of. This experience, though exhausting, is what gives meaning to life.”

He didn’t mean just climbing a mountain on a hot day in a bicycle built for someone without legs. He was surrounded by loving new friends, the honor of being part of a team, the rapprochement of former enemies reaching out to each other. It was a healing moment for him, and for me.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Writing Prompt: Write about a time when working together towards a common goal made you feel closer to someone.

Writing Prompt: Select a memory that you have bad feelings about, and pretend you are writing fiction. Applying your wisdom and imagination, reorganize the events so that this character learns some powerful lesson, or accomplishes or triumphs in some way.

Note, links and resources
The ride was organized by a non-profit group called World TEAM Sports –http://www.worldteamsports.org/. The documentary was produced by another non-profit, Kartemquin Films, best known for the award winning documentary Hoop Dreams about inner city youth looking to basketball to elevate their prospects in life. You can help the organization by shopping at: http://www.kartemquin.com/

An excellent book for understanding more about PTSD is “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character” by Jonathan Shay. Because of the profound effects of PTSD, neurologically and on the very foundation of character, many of the methods in psychology are not sufficient to unravel the damage wrought by combat. And yet, there is much research and compassionate work that has helped veterans suffering from PTSD. In addition to helping them cope with their specialized needs, I believe these therapies and strategies can help other people who suffer with an irreconcilable relationships with painful memories.

For an example of one person’s successful strategy to channel inner directed shame into bicycle racing read the moving memoir “Ten Points” by Bill Strickland. Another memoir in which a soldier seeks healing by revisiting the past is William Manchester’s “Goodbye Darkness.”

For more about revisiting the past, see my essay about the movie Pursuit of Happyness, which portrayed Chris Gardner’s life. For him, it was a return to the trauma and triumph of his youth.

To learn more about how two groups can join to become one by sharing a common task, see the famous sociology experiment by Muzafer Sherif et al (1954) The Robbers Cave experiment. For example, see the Wikipedia entry here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muzafer_Sherif

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here

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