Ken Burns’ documentary on Vietnam is hard to watch!

Ken Burns’ documentary on Vietnam is hard to watch!  It reminds me of a time when the daily news was hard to watch—it was a time when in Medical School, it was difficult to embrace the value of life, when so much was destroyed each day and played out on the TV screens on the 6 o’clock news.  We would have to look away—because the truth of it was overwhelming—it was mired in bureaucratic maneuverings and lies. Perhaps it was then, or maybe a few years earlier when my father retired in protest over the lack of courage and commitment by those in charge of the University where he was chairman of his department., that I hung the meaning of life on my wall.

“Go now into the world in peace and know how much an old world needs your youth and gladness. Recognize that there are words of truth and healing that will never be spoken unless you speak them, and deeds of compassion and courage that we never be done unless you do them. —Never mistake success for victory or failure for defeat”…and it goes on…

I can no longer offer up my youth as a means to truth and healing, but I can offer up gladness and determination. Gladness that we have been able to create a system of care for children, youth and families in this County that protects them, encourages them to succeed and advocates that they too find gladness. My determination is that regardless of changes within the bureaucracy, that this focus, this goal will be a core element of what drives us and that we will not participate or support any person in power who vetoes attempts to normalize and legitimize care for all people regardless of social-economic status, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, age or immigration status. There will be no walls here to keep people out. We want our doors to be wider and more inviting in order to accept everyone in need.

So I spent some time weeping today as I watched another episode of “Vietnam” and realized that so many of those who spoke out against the injustice and the cowardice of leadership at that time were vilified and dismissed as criminals. As everyone of you know, I have never run and hid from the hard stuff…and listening to a grown man recollect about his leadership role on the ground in Vietnam—determined that his path had allowed him to hide from going to Vietnam—he cancelled his Rhodes Scholarship to volunteer for duty. He was unwilling to run and hide when he might be able to lead in such a way that not only could he preserve the lives of his fellow soldiers but he would work to protect their morality and goodness. This is courage—-doing what is right in the face of fear or danger.

There is an apprehension across Los Angeles today as we face the fact that leadership of health in Los Angeles is going to change. That the person who came to my office his second day in Los Angeles and promised to help me achieve more and better for the highest risk families, youth and children is going to New York City.  Is it possible that the children, youth and families that we serve will yet again slip to the bottom of the priority list—or do we have enough courage to “say the words and do the deeds.” I hope that our County leadership will listen and that they have the courage to insist on excellence and commitment to the children, families and youth of this County.….and equally so to those who charged with protecting and healing.

– Astrid Heppenstall Heger.


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