Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1964
© Harvey Weiner, 2014
On May 16, 1970, I returned to the States after a tough 365 days in a combat role in South Vietnam. I was an advisor to the South Vietnamese in one of the most obscure and Viet Cong controlled provinces in South Vietnam. On the way home, I somehow contracted the flu and was feeling awfully sick when I landed in San Francisco at the military base there. I shuttled over to the main San Francisco civilian airport to buy a ticket to the East Coast, where my wife and parents were waiting, eagerly, I hope. I was in uniform because soldiers in uniform could get a military discount on a civilian flight. As I walked over to the counter, I ran into an anti-war demonstration. A woman protester ran up to me, yelled “baby killer” or something like that, and spit at me. She missed my face, but the spittle landed on my shoes. I was too sick and shocked to respond and proceeded to the counter to buy my ticket.
This unexpected expectatory greeting upon my returning home, among other reasons, caused me to hunker down for about 30 years and barely mention my time in Vietnam to anyone. I thought nothing good could ever come out of my war experiences. However, events unfolded such that this repression was not permanent and, in fact my war experiences, had some positive and surprising ramifications decades later, including relative to the Boston Marathon bombing last year. [I am coming out of my military closet for you, my classmates.]
Thirty years after I returned, 9/11 happened and I sensed another unpopular war was on the way. I wanted Americans to separate the war from the warriors and their families, as they had not done when I was a soldier. My wife had been harassed and ridiculed when I was at war and I had received no support from anyone, other than my family. Ironically, both my wife and I opposed the Vietnam war, but I was not a conscientious objector so I went, although reluctantly. After 9/11 happened, I joined several veterans groups, something I never expected to do, and hoped to make a difference in this regard, separating the war from the soldiers and their families. Fortunately, there was really no need. Because there was no draft and perhaps because the country had matured, the distinction that I had wanted made was made. “Oppose the War, but Support the Warrior” was one sign I saw and it was true. Instead, through veterans’ groups, my focus changed and I have made VA hospital visits, made speeches in various venues, helped send care packages to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and have helped serve dinner at the Chelsea Soldiers Home every Christmas and Thanksgiving for over a decade. I am now the National Judge Advocate of the Jewish War Veterans of America, our nation’s oldest veterans group. I continue to help veterans and soldiers and their families, not what I had started out to do.
Also, 35 years after I returned, I developed two types of leukemia as a result of exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. These cancers were diagnosed about 15 years ago and are now in remission, thanks to chemotherapy at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. I made frequent use of the Forbes Chapel at Dana Farber, which was founded by our deceased classmate, Jeff Forbes, and which many of you helped fund decades ago. Jeff was a Vietnam vet who died of leukemia caused by Agent Orange. Because I was grateful to Dana Farber, I have become active there as a counselor and training assistant in a program called One to One. We talk one to one to those new patients who have just been diagnosed with the type of cancer we have—to inform them, to support them, but mainly to give them hope as living proof that it is possible to make it over the treatment and disease mountain. I even helped train John Henn, our Class Committee Chairman, to be a One to One counsellor.
Now, the pièce de résistance, as Ventroux might say in his Boston accent.
In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing last year, my Boston law firm, where I have been for over 43 years, was assigned pro bono, for free, to help bombing victim #1, Kaitlynn Cates, a 25 year old single woman, who had much of her calf blown off by shrapnel and had suffered PTSD. She became bombing victim #1 unofficially because she was the first injured person to arrive at a Boston hospital, where she was driven by her heroic friend, whose car was nearby. You can see on the internet the iconic photograph of her being carried by her friend. There was a striking full page photograph of her in Sports Illustrated last month in the Boston Marathon bombing issue. She has approved this talk. Tuesday, May 27, 2014 Harvey Weiner
So how could I gain the confidence and trust of such a person so different than myself, someone who didn’t pick me or my firm? I did so by relating an experience we had had in common, surviving a road bombing. On February 15, 1970, I was involved in a roadside bombing when a Viet Cong planted land mine blew up a friendly jeep and killed or wounded the people in the jeep. I was in the second jeep, which should have been first, but had taken a wrong turn. Karma. For some unknown reason, for over 43 years I had saved a piece of shrapnel from that bombing incident and showed it to Kaitlynn when we first met. We discussed our two bombing experiences. Through this, we connected. She requested a bit of it to wear around her neck to give her strength. All of the shrapnel from the Boston Marathon bombing had been gathered by law enforcement officers as evidence and was unavailable. So there is a piece of shrapnel missing from the top, of this, which I had cut off and gave to her. She wears it in a locket around her neck. This is the message she sent me when she got the locket:
You will be pleased to know that I have found a brand new adorable locket to keep the piece of shrapnel safe which signifies the following:
- Our personal connection: random acts that put us in a certain place at a certain time (we survived)
- Inspiration—anything is possible if you put your mind to it (recovery)
- Beauty lies within everything, you just have to find it (this act of terror brought us together)
- A lesson: there are things in life that we do not have the ability to control, however, it is what we take/learn from those things that truly matters.
Thank you for continuing to be one of the greatest men in my life. Your continuous support is greatly appreciated.
In January of this year, I was returning from work to my car, which was parked on a side street near my commuter train stop. It had snowed that day, a wet snow, and I was worried that I had gotten a ticket for parking in the street during a so-called snow emergency. Sure enough, there was wet paper under my windshield wiper and I was somewhat relieved when I took it off the windshield, because I saw it was not the infamous glowing orange color. However, it was not a parking ticket, but rather was this unsigned note, which said in part, “I hope this makes your day. Thank you [for your service].” I have a Vietnam veteran’s license plate, which has saved me many a ticket, and obviously the writer of the note had seen it. This belated wet “welcome home” was markedly different than the other wet “welcome home” I had received over 43 years earlier at the San Francisco Airport; however late the message on this note may have been, this welcome home was deeply appreciated by me.