Vietnam Vet Recounts Story for First Time in 40 Years
No older than eight-years-old, she approached the heavily armed, camouflaged foreigner with cupped hands, looking for candy, the way countless other children had done during the American soldier’s grueling 36-month deployment in Vietnam. But her hands were closer to her body than was natural, concealing an unidentifiable object tightly against the dirty shirt draped over her small torso. This, mixed with the timidity with which she approached, her eyes fixated on the ground, put Mike Frandsen on high alert.
With his voice booming, Mike yelled at her to stop, but the little girl continued. Her bare feet shuffling toward him, kicking up plumes of dust in the humid breeze, the young Vietnamese girl slowly closed the distance between the two of them. Begging, pleading for her to turn around, Mike saw the unmistakable outline of a US military vehicle crest the hill behind the small child, barrelling toward them.
As is often the case in war, Mike was forced to make a split-second decision, the repercussions of which would echo in nightmares and flashbacks for decades to come. Lifting his rifle, he zeroed it on the child’s small frame, her cherubic gaze meeting his, unaware of what was coming.
Exhaling slowly to steady his rifle, the sound of his own heart beating in his ears like a drum, Mike squeezed the trigger and hit his target squarely in the chest. The girl exploded, pieces of burnt flesh and dirt spraying out in a wide radius, leaving behind a six-foot hole in the road where, just moments later, the truck of US troops passed. She had been carrying a bomb. Turning its larger rubber wheels, the truck careened past the crater to the soft dirt shoulder of the unimproved road, its occupants dismounting to ask Mike what had happened.
And that was the last time Mike talked about that experience for over four decades.
It wasn’t until mid-December, just weeks before Christmas 2016, that Mike would share his story again, this time with Objective Zero Co-Founder Justin Miller, an Operation Iraqi Freedom Veteran who had shared a similar experience while deployed in Western Iraq.
After hearing Justin’s story, Mike’s eyes filled with tears, his bottom lip quivering as he asked if he could share his story—a story, he told Justin, he hadn’t told anyone since coming home from Vietnam.
Honored that Mike would open up to him, Justin welcomed Mike’s story and listened intently as Mike recounted how he had been forced into a moral dilemma to save himself and his comrades by killing a young girl. Watching Mike’s body tremble and shake, tears streaming down the creases in his leathery face, Justin saw four decades of pent up regret and shame break free.
Thanking Justin for listening, Mike reached into his shirt pocket, grabbed a small notepad, and scribbled Justin’s contact information on it. He then looked up and said, “Let’s keep in touch.” “I’d like that.” Justin replied. Picking up his coffee and jacket, Mike stood up and walked away.
Traumatic memories and moral injures like Mike’s, when buried inside our veterans’ hearts, build up like a pressure cooker. While some, like Mike, find a way to carry on under such strain, many do not and end up taking their own lives. Through the simple act of listening, Justin helped Mike process his war trauma and release a burden that had been weighing heavily on him for more than 40 years.
Such chance encounters are rarer than we would hope, however, because it’s oftentimes difficult for Veterans to connect to each other or to anyone willing to listen to their stories. Unfortunately, many Veterans and service members carry invisible war wounds around with them every day, unknown to a public that is yearning to help, but simply doesn’t know how.
Objective Zero breaks down these barriers, replicating on a wide scale the chance encounter and connection between Mike and Justin, enabling Veterans and service members to share their stories with a support community made up of fellow Veterans, current service members, behavioral health specialists, religious/spiritual counselors, and concerned citizens. Even more, through tutorials and training regimens, the Objective Zero app teaches people how to listen and, just as importantly, how non-Veterans can approach and engage Veterans about their combat experiences.
We believe Veterans shouldn’t have to bear the burden of war alone. We also believe that the hardest part of war shouldn’t be coming home. As Americans, we sent our Veterans to war. Therefore, we have a duty, a responsibility, to help them adjust to life at home, to help them shoulder their burdens and overcome their traumas. And, because of Objective Zero and major technological advancements in recent years, we now have the ability to so.
It’s as easy as listening.