Vietnam Veteran Tells Students – War Is Real

Posted on 08. Dec, 2009 by in Uncategorized

by Shane Dixon Kavanaugh

Mike Palo spent years thinking he would kill himself or someone else. Now he hopes that his experience as a soldier and Vietnam veteran can save lives.

Palo is the vice president of the New York City chapter of Rolling Thunder, the Vietnam veterans group that is known for its leather-clad motorcyclists but is also been a strong voice on behalf of POW and MIA soldiers, past and present.

When the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, Palo formed a new mission for his group – to educate students about the men and women who’ve served their country.

Since then, Palo and a few other members have appeared in countless classrooms throughout the city.

Palo says that whether it’s before fifth graders in Sheepshead Bay or high-school freshmen in Brooklyn Heights, the message Rolling Thunder tries to present is a simple one – war is real.

“I don’t want to scare them but I want to let them know,” said Palo, who dresses head-to-toe in black, stands six-foot-five and has a shaved head and goatee.

“When you shoot 100 guys in a video game you go to the next level. You shoot one guy in real life and that’s it. You’re changed forever.”

At the age of 21, Palo returned from service in 1969 with PTSD.

Back home in Brooklyn, he found that he lost his temper easily, often in front of people he didn’t know. He’d wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. He sometimes forgot where he was. The blinds to his house were always closed.

“I was suicidal. I was homicidal,” he said.

But Palo didn’t seek help for his problems until he was almost 50. He stayed away from hospitals and veterans organizations. His condition worsened.

“I wanted to put the war behind me,” he said. “I didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to forget.”

It wasn’t until Palo joined Rolling Thunder in 1997 that he became comfortable enough to talk about the effects that Vietnam had on him. Speaking with kids on a regular basis helps the process.

“It gives me so much back,” he said. “It’s really like therapy for me.”

Palo, 60, said he also takes insulin and 30 pills a day to combat injuries he suffered during the war – depression, anxiety, peripheral and retinal neuropathy, among others.

But his biggest concern is not his own health. Palo worries most about the generation of veterans who are now returning home from overseas.

“If people don’t have family in Iraq and Afghanistan or a veteran at home they’re oblivious,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s that they don’t want to know about it or they don’t care.”

Palo continued, “When 26 soldiers get blown up in Afghanistan it hardly crosses people’s minds. Those soldiers had real lives. Those people had names and mothers and fathers and wives and children.”

Todd Florio, who has put together programs at the Brooklyn Historical Society between Rolling Thunder and high school students, said that some students at the programs demonstrate a lack of awareness about Vietnam and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Florio described how at one program held in October, some of the high school sophomores didn’t know about Vietnam. One student, said Florio, thought the U.S. had finished its war in Afghanistan.

“It’s interesting to think about how disconnected some of the kids can be,” he said.

But Florio also said that it’s the work of groups like Rolling Thunder that can diminish this disconnect.

“If you see the same headlines every day, then there becomes some kind of desensitization for many kids,” said Florio. “This desensitization gets foiled by having a real person there.”

Palo agreed.

“If we do this over and over and over,” he said, “Eventually it’s gotta make a dent somewhere.”

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