The sun erupts from the east over the tiny cul-de-sac in South Glens Falls, New York. The air fills with the sounds of children playing and coffee having been brewed long before dawn. Michael Gagne, Vietnam veteran, chases his granddaughter around an Adirondack-style living room, trying to convince her to wear socks. Like so many other parents, Mike allows his son, his daughter-in-law and their three children to live with him. Since his retirement he has acted as the primary caregiver of a 5-year-old, a 6-year-old and a 13-year-old.
At 17, Mike was drafted to Vietnam. Growing up in a small Adirondack town did not prepare him for the ostensible horrors that lay ahead of him. War memories are intertwined into every fiber of his daily life. Veterans try to compartmentalize the lingering violence the best they can, though Vietnam vets are a unique group of people who I feel have been overlooked and mistreated.
At the time, little was known about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I would argue that remains true today. However, these particular veterans were denied the acknowledgement of its existence and therefore were never properly treated, Mike included.
Mike, and many other veterans, are expected to come home and return to the normal cycle of everyday civilian life. That expectation is omnipresent in all military separations. Go out into the real world, be viewed as a hero and live a “normal,” happy life. Don’t talk about your pain; that’s weak. Don’t ask for help; that’s also weak. Don’t tell people about your real experience; it makes them uncomfortable. They just want to see you as a hero. They do not want to gain a true understanding of what you experienced in the name of American exceptionalism.
Mike was shot during his tour in Vietnam. His pride hides his limp the best it can, but his gait will forever be altered by that single moment. He tries to stay busy all day, sweeping his driveway to stay in motion.
There is freedom in mobility after one is threatened with the loss of limb. There is also a certain kind of freedom in a job that does not require a reason, just an action. Mike keeps moving all day and never stops. Perhaps he is freeing himself from the grip the war still has on him, or perhaps he just likes to have the cleanest driveway in the cul-de-sac.