Ernest Drew – PCVI 2021 Graduation Speech

Last month I was in Williamsburg, VA with my family.  I wanted to see the Virginia War Museum and what was remaining of the civil war monuments. While in the museum I fell and ended up on the marble floor.  My son-in-law and the museum staff eventually got me in a wheelchair and out to my car, but I soon realized that I couldn’t communicate with the lower part of my left leg. At the emergency room, it was determined that my injury was the result of a catastrophic failure of the quadricep tendon of my left leg. I went through surgery. The day after I was feeling out of sorts and complaining of chest pains and it was determined that I had a heart attack. 

I spent a total of 24 days in the hospital and had to come back to Rhode Island in an ambulance. I had hired a long haul ambulance company that comes with drivers and medical personnel. The EMT on my trip was a USMC Vietnam veteran wearing a Vietnam hat.  I asked him about his Marine Corps service and he wanted to know if I had been in Vietnam. I answered in the affirmative. We immediately connected on the combat veteran level and although my wife was in the ambulance with us he started sharing his Vietnam experience to include incidents that he had never talked to his wife about. He, like many others, has not spoken of disturbing experiences that he had while in Vietnam. 

The EMT was concerned that politicians that send young people off to war do not have the experiential base to understand the impact of that decision. He said that anyone who is going to run for president of the United states should have combat experience.

We had a long discussion about moral injury. He confided with me that he was still coming to grips with the impact of moral injury. The EMT told me that he was taught to kill prior to going to Vietnam, and that he became very good at it.   He did not understand justifications for the Rules Of Engagement that determined  who was an enemy and what was hostile intent.  Some actions he took based on ROE decisions  that he and superiors made still haunt him. 

When his tour of duty ended there was no discussion about the use of deadly force in the American society. He knew where to turn in his weapon but didn’t know how to mitigate what he had learned through training and experience.  Because of his skill set, 20 plus police departments would offer him a job.

When he left Vietnam, he came home and eventually ended up getting a college degree and becoming an emergency room technician and an EMT.  I found it interesting that he had spent a lot of effort and time in order to be able to help other people. The EMT told me that he had given up on the VA and its ability to help him. He had a strong work ethic and didn’t want to be declared disabled or be given a label.  He told me the best advice he was given while in Vietnam was from a gunny Sergeant who told him to go home and suck it up. In the 50 years since he has returned from Vietnam he has definitely done more than suck it up. It was a pleasure for me to have met him and for our meaningful conversation,  if it had not been four PCVI my conversation would probably have been like this

I see by your hat that you were in Vietnam…   yes …  me too 

When were you there….    in the 70s ….      I was there in the 60s

where were you…..     near the Cambodian border ….      off the coast

Nice to have met you

What I’ve learned in PCVI is that if a veteran  is willing to share information with you, be an active participant. Conversations with veterans do not have to be at the polite level but can be at a very meaningful level. Much of the course material covered the ground wars of the various conflicts. Being in the Navy, and naval aviation, much of my experience has been distant from the troops on the ground.  My understanding of the ground war was developed through the class discussions. The EMT’s concerns and questions about the Vietnam War and his participation very much mirrored the discussions that we had had in class.

My trip in the ambulance served its purpose of getting me from Williamsburg, Virginia to Providence RI. My story is not over yet. It has been five weeks since I fell, my leg is still in an immobilizer, and physical therapy will be ongoing throughout the summer. 

I will recover. I will also not forget the meaningful conversation that I had with Vietnam vet EMT. Sometimes, these conversations are not easy to engage with, but if you ever find yourself amid one and a veteran is opening up about their experiences, I can give you one important piece of advice…listen, engage and be empathetic.