Prior to Vietnam, in times of war U.S. soldiers went with their specific unit to the war zone, remained together, and came home together all as part of the same unit ,e.g., 1st Infantry Division, 82nd Airborne, etc. My outfit, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, followed this pattern half-way. We trained for nearly a year together in the United States and ultimately ordered to travel to Tay Ninh via Vung Tao. We sailed from Boston to Vietnam on two troop ships.
The comparison ends there. Once we started needing replacements for casualties, the new guys came from training centers and assimilated into the 196th. Half way into our tour the Army split us up: half the guys, me included, stayed with the 196th and the other half went to the 25 Mechanized Division. That is a long introduction to a story I would like to share for Memorial Day.
When the first hostile bullets came at my platoon, everyone hit the ground, everyone except (I will call him) Joe. Joe got hit in the forehead. He was far enough behind me in the serpentine formation that I didn’t see him. We had to fight out of the ambush and were ordered to keep moving toward our initial objective.
In Vietnam casualties were mostly evacuated from the battlefield by helicopter and, if their injuries were severe enough to take them to a hospital somewhere, e.g., Japan, we never saw nor heard from them again. The same, obviously, for those who died. When a replacement was available, he was assimilated and the war went on.
The same scenario applied to soldiers completing their tour. We were sent to Ton Son Nhut Airbase and flown, for me, to Oakland, California to be mustered out of the Army. This extraction and going home aloneness was new to American warriors. We didn’t return with our buddies, the one’s we went to war with, we returned one-by-one, alone. For many, this brought on the onset of survivor’s guilt.
Back to Joe
When the Vietnam War Memorial in New Jersey was dedicated, I was there with my oldest son. A peace-filled, appropriately solemn tone filled the day. After the speeches we all paraded up to the beautiful, circular wall. Along the path were bricks dedicated to the fallen, and on the magnificent wall the names of every soldier from New Jersey who died on a particular day of the year were etched into a slab dedicated to that day. I tried to estimate the date of Joe’s demise but could not find his name. Frustration. Could he have been missed? Subdued anger.
Several years later I was at a brigade reunion and was talking with a friend whom I knew even before we were drafted. We talked about “things.” In the midst of this “Hi, how are you” conversation, Tom starts to tell me that he was at the New Jersey Dedication. “You know,” he says, “I couldn’t find Joe’s name.”
We puzzled over that for a while, then happened to see a guy we knew lived close to Joe. Mystery solved. Joe was indeed hit in the forehead, but he did not die. Thank God.
I don’t expect the entire country to be maudlin about our war dead, except each Memorial Day. But neither do I apologize for the deep, personal wounds I feel when I think about the fallen. For tis veteran, Memorial Day is every day.