Realizing the Slow Death

By Carole Garrison

It was 1995. Akron, Ohio’s museum of art was a bookend to an aging and deteriorating downtown. But the museum managed to thrive, bringing in both modern classical art and more edgy contemporary political statement art. The museum was hosting a traveling art show called “Vietnam.” It comprised mixed media from returning vets, Vietnamese war refugees, American soldiers, and Vietnamese nationals doing art in-country during and after the ravages of the war.

As I read about the exhibition, I could almost hear the familiar “Wop-Wop-Wop-Wop” sound that accompanied the television news images that bombarded my generation from the mid ’60s into the early ’70s, as news anchors and reporters kept me riveted to the Vietnam War. It was a pivotal time in my life journey. It influenced critical decisions to stay in school, marry my boyfriend so he could avoid the draft, and to have children.

By 1995, the soldiers had been forgotten, and the memories of student protest had slipped from America’s consciousness, and I was teaching my standard Ethics in Criminal Justice course for sophomores and juniors in the Criminal Justice program at the local university. My objective was to convince my skeptical students that we are informed by at least three forms of information: Sensory, cognitive, and emotional. And to really understand our position, reactions and feelings that inform our decision making – we need to tap into all three sources of reality. I decided to take the students to see the new art exhibit at the museum.

To them, Vietnam was ancient history – useless and stale.

My students trooped along behind me like a group of ducklings as we headed off from campus down the broad main street the several blocks to the museum. The weather was warm and sunny with a promise of an early spring. The class was ready to go, even to an art museum to see something arty about a war they didn’t care about, if it meant getting out of the windowless classroom and out into the fresh air. I came up with a simple mechanism to help them distinguish between feeling or emotional reaction and cognitive processing of information. When we reached the foyer of the museum I gave each student a 3 x 5 index card and a pencil.

“Ok, you are going up to the second floor. Use the elevators inside the double doors please,” I instructed.

“Hold on, there’s more,” I said as several boys were already rushing the big glass doors to be first in and undoubtedly with hopes of being first out. After all, to them Vietnam was ancient history – useless and stale.

“When you finish touring the exhibit I want you to write two things,” I went on, while keeping an eye out for more escape attempts. “On one side of your index card write a sentence about what you think of the exhibit – you know things like good art, not art, well crafted, I don’t understand what the artist was trying to convey – that kind of stuff. On the other side, write a sentence about how the exhibit makes you feel, an emotional response, like it made me sad, or I can feel the anger in the artist’s work.”

Some of the students nodded, others looked at me blankly.

“Can we go now?” asked one of the boys who had tried to escape earlier.  “Yes, and try not to be rowdy – indoor voices and all that good stuff, right?” I said as they began to disappear through the glass doors and into the opening elevator.

I stood by the front door 35 or 40 minutes later to collect the cards as each student left to return to campus. They came in small groups, some thanked me, others just tossed me the card, and a few made comments about the exhibit. Sarah was almost the last to leave. She handed me the card, but hardly met my gaze.

“You okay?” I asked, not really very concerned, and taking her index card and putting it somewhere in the stack. “Yeah,” she replied noncommittally. “Here’s the assignment. Thanks for bringing us here. I don’t think I would have come otherwise.”

After she left I stayed back – they didn’t need me to chaperone their way back to campus – and began thumbing through the cards.

“Wow, good stuff.” “I liked the caskets in the mirror case, it was cool.” “I didn’t understand what a lot of it meant. I don’t know much about that war.”

Then I picked up Sarah’s card. One side was blank. I turned it over and read, “Now I know why my dad committed suicide.”

In that moment the years and the generational divide evaporated. Momentarily stunned by what I had read, I finally ran after her, hoping I could catch her before she was gone. I found Sarah, about three blocks from the museum. She was walking alone, slow enough that catching up to her was not difficult.

“Sarah,” I caught her by the arm and she turned to face me. “I read your feeling comment. Do you want to talk about it?” I asked, trying to cajole her but not force it. We lost over 58,000 American lives to the Vietnam War, and 100,000 or more to suicide – and most of those occurred after the men came home.

In that moment the years and the generational divide evaporated.

“It’s okay,” she said looking up the street and not directly at me. “I don’t remember much about my dad. I was little when he came home from the war. My mom told me he became totally troubled, took drugs, and drank a lot. I think he was suffering from the war, but my mom couldn’t stand it, and left him. After my mom took me and left, he committed suicide.”

Then turning and looking directly at me she said, “But, Doctor G, I thought it was my mom’s fault my dad killed himself. I always hated him for making her unhappy, and her for leaving him. But now I think I understand. It was the war that killed him – it just killed him slower.”

I hadn’t paid much attention to Sarah before that day at the museum. Now I will never forget her.


Carole GarrisonCarole Garrison, professor department of criminal justice and police studies, Eastern Kentucky University, has worked with the U.S. mission to send home remains of MIAs recovered in Cambodia.