journey post 3: Memorial Day Pause
Today is Memorial Day, the day on which we honor those who have died in our wars. It is one of the days I spend thinking about the men I served with in Vietnam, men who died, men who nearly died, and the many who somehow died inside: these men have come out of Vietnam, but Vietnam has never come out of them. They performed their every day duty to our country and paid dearly for it. They are worth honoring by remembering what they and their lives teach us.
What they did, and my memories of them, is totally germane to what I’m trying to do here and played a large part in launching me on my zigzag journey the day after I was wounded at Iron Mountain in June, 1969. The sacrifices they made and the death we faced in a war that none of us quite understood left me questioning—for the first time—whether there was a God, whether I could believe the people who told me about God all my life, and whether the America I loved was really about freedom and democracy and equality for all, or whether our leaders and other power brokers simply sought to hide the arrogance of their power?
Larry Toler, Carl Bott, Me, Joe Dietler (Photo by Gene Holland)
If you have seen the Tom Cruise movie, “Born on the 4th of July,” you have some idea of what many of us went through. Our nation was deeply divided over the quagmire that was Vietnam: “LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” In those days Americans did not distinguish the soldiers from the war itself. Our men were screamed at and spit upon. Please understand this about that war: for most men, it was not about stopping the Communists. For most of us, the war became very personal. There were people trying to kill us, and we couldn’t distinguish friend from foe. Our buddies were dying around us, and all we could think of was getting ourselves and our friends home in one piece when our tour was up.
James Hopper, Dick Kiene, Me, Mike Cipov (Photo by Dick Kiene)
Vivid memories of June 10th and 11th are deeply etched: I see and hear James Hopper, a meter behind me, as he catches a .30 cal. bullet in the neck. I hear the whistle of an incoming round, then the sound one can experience only on the inside of a gigantic bell as it clangs. I am flying to the right, watching a hedgerow as it passes in slow mo across my vision. I see Chaplain Max Sullivan–the angel of God– running through the bush to help me as I lay helpless, check on Hopper, then pick up my M-16 and spray the immediate area. He and another man (Russel?) help me up and I hop along between them on one leg. Arriving at a clearing, they lay me down. There is Joe Dietler, walking by and pausing to say, in anguish, that we’re getting cut up bad. They lift me into the chopper, and I see the chopper pilot looking over his shoulder, smiling at me as I give him a blood-leaking thumbs up. I think about the questions I asked the next day on that hospital bed. I remember the first dressing change and the cavernous hole in my thigh. The doctor comes by and tells me to get up and walk. He wasn’t Jesus, but that first walk is invigorating and makes me feel like everything would be okay again—until I come across two of my closest friends, Gene Holland and Royce Lowman. Sgt. Holland, (“Show me”), had been a mentor to me from the time I arrived in the mortar platoon. Lowman, (“Lo”), had taught me to be a gunner. Holland had taken six machine gun slugs in the gut. He was the first casualty and the first medivacked out and no one expected him to live. (Years later I find out he has no physical side effects.) Lo’s head is bandaged where he had taken a bullet in the face.
Top: Gene Holland, Royce Lowman
Bottom: Joe Dietler (Photos by Gene Holland)
Another friend, Michael Cipov, came by to visit us. Cipov (“Tommy Tucker”), had spent his year in hell, and now he was going home. He had left Alpha Company when we took off on our ill-fated operation. What should have brought incredible happiness for him had turned to agony, particularly now as he came to tell us that our beloved, fun-loving, non-gung ho but heroic Captain David Walsh had died, had given his life for his men, chasing down two snipers before being brought down by a third. I can see the pain all over Tommy’s face: “I should’ve been there with you guys.” Alpha Company is decimated, and now the General who came by to present us with Purple Hearts tells us, “They’re refitting to go back out.” I just want to jump out of that bed and floor him, but all I can manage is some muttered acknowledgement.
Top: Russell, Mike Cipov, Larry “Doc” Holliday
Bottom: Captain David Walsh (Photos by Gene Holland)
I spent nearly two months recuperating from my wounds in Japan and California before returning to full duty at Ford Ord. In between, I managed to see my family and witness the first moon landing on TV—something good to finish out that miserable decade.
Memorial Day is very personal to me, as was the war I fought in, as is any war to the men who fight it—whether they ever come back or not. Please today remember those who still carry their war around with them.