Some Veterans Day reflections on my uncle that I published for the first time last year. Reading back over them, I realize they are as true now as they were then. Uncle David helped to shape and to form who I am today in a way unsurpassed by anyone but my parents. I am forever in his debt.
Today is a day for remembering.
Remembering and honoring those who have served our country; friends and family members, and those we know only tangentially (or not at all). But for me, today is and will always be a day to remember my Uncle David. He and his brother (Michel) are Vietnam veterans, and were featured in a book by Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller: “Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did To Us.”
The book says that it “is not a military history. It is not a record of battles or a moral commentary. It is instead a chess game viewed by the pawns. It is a collective memoir of the war and the homecoming, filtered through time and pain, anger and guilt, bitterness and forgetfulness.” And when The New York Times reviewed the book — “54 Who Came Home and 6 Who Didn’t” — they mentioned my uncle’s story in particular:
The story of David Rioux is one of several that evoke deep sympathy. A former seminarian from Lewiston, Me., he volunteered for service because he thought the cause was just. So did his younger brother, Michel. They got special permission to serve together.
David was blinded and crippled by the explosion of a booby trap.
For many, as The Times notes, this is a story that triggers sorrow and sympathy, even from the safe distance of the newspaper’s pages. A 19-year-old boy, crippled and blinded when he had so much to look forward to; a dream, snuffed out. But while he would never begrudge anyone their sympathetic tendencies (and he surely appreciates them), he would almost certainly suggest (gently) that they expend their sympathetic efforts elsewhere. Because he’s doing just fine.
I had the very great privilege of living with him for nearly 25 years while I was growing up, and sympathy was never something he sought. Or needed. Because he didn’t see his injuries as the end of a dream; he saw them as the next steps along the path he was being asked to walk. Unexpected steps, yes; and painful ones. But undesirable? That, he never said. Nor do I think he ever thought it.
Great suffering there was, surely; both physical and emotional. Suffering which he offered up with a stubbornness and humility (and even joy) that astonishes me to this day. But the anger and guilt mentioned by Goldman and Fuller and The Times? The bitterness? The forgetfulness? Those, I never saw.
Again, The Times:
Since then, sustained by his own courage and faith and helped by Michel, he has completed college and is working toward his doctorate.
Like many of his comrades, David Rioux thinks that once the United States had become engaged in Vietnam, it made a mistake in not fighting the war to a finish. ”Michel and I saw clearly a lot of things that other people didn’t see,” he told a Newsweek reporter. ”We both knew why we were in Vietnam, and the men around us didn’t, for the most part, or saw it only confusedly, but we saw why we were there and we were proud to be there, defending a people who were being oppressed by Marxist Communism. We were doing something that was commendable, in the eyes of God, our country and our family.”
He finished that doctorate, of course. And remains the most well-read, most intellectually honest and curious, most cerebral (yet simultaneously practical and down-to-earth and generous) person I have ever known. He’s also the most prolific letter writer I’ve ever encountered, corresponding with hundreds of folks on a regular basis. I have no idea how he does it. But I am proud to know him; immeasurably proud. And honored to remember him today.
Thank you for your service, Uncle David. And for everything you have meant to me and so many others in the years since.
Attribution(s): Newsweek Book/Ballantine Books’ “Charlie Company” book cover via Amazon; “Young Uncle David” via my uncle.