journey post 6: Time to think
Time. That’s what you have when you are laying in a hospital bed. Time for misery, time for pain. Time for reflection, even when you’re doped up. On June 11, 1969, no matter what pain-dulling agent was in my body, there was a series of sharp, vivid images and thoughts in my brain.
What I reflected on most was the events of the day before, when a 60mm mortar round dropped over the top of a mud storage hooch in a rice field: A face off in the bush. The faces of my buddies as we came under fire. The face of James Hopper peering over a dike before he caught a bullet. The face of Chaplain Max Sullivan emerging from the bush in response to my call for help. The anguished face of Joe Dietler as he paused to tell how bad things were getting for Alpha company and the mortar platoon.
The thoughts were few but clear. I almost really died…. Had that mortar round been a few inches closer or farther away…. Had the last face I saw before being put on a chopper been an NVA soldier instead of the concerned, assuring face of Chaplain Max…. Had an NVA soldier provided me that last installment on a ticket home in a body bag… where would I be? … heaven or…? Was heaven real? And God…was there even a God? Was Jesus simply a cosmic Santa Claus to assure us that life will turn out okay?
Time. I now had the luxury of time to think about my own mortality and/or immortality. I had time to recuperate—physically, emotionally, mentally—before going home. Vietnam was famous for soldiers being in combat one day killing people and at home the next. It was a full month from the day I was wounded until I stepped off a bus to see my mom. Going home to family, friends, and safety excited me. No more death—but I did face problems. At night in a lighted room, I could not stand in front of a window. Sudden loud noises sent me jumping and ducking for cover. Helicopters left me uneasy.
But I had survived. I was getting stronger every day. My wounds did not leave me obviously disabled. Being alive was great! God was still there, but the questions could wait awhile. I would still be in the Army until June, helping to train men for the slaughter. Thinking about marrying Michelle gave me joy, yet I was deeply troubled by Vietnam and by what was happening to my country. The upheaval and turmoil of the 60s had become, for me, the “new normal.”
It was against this background that I was confronted with my understanding of Christianity. I had assumed I was a Christian until Vietnam. Now I had to make some decisions. But decisions in the real world are never made in an intellectual vacuum. There is a context, a great community of factors to think about, and my “community” was bringing on an intellectual crisis of sorts.
The first “factor” was my friend. Watching him, I was intrigued by the reality of what I saw, a reality, he said, that had even saved his marriage, a reality I knew I didn’t have—but I was afraid to ask how to get it. I would have told you I was a Christian, but it made no discernible difference in my life. I didn’t want to be like those people who made you uncomfortable by acting “holy” or telling you what you should and should not do. My friend didn’t do that: he was just himself, without pretension. I felt like I was becoming the biggest hypocrite in the world, passing myself off as a Christian, but knowing all the time that I did not really know.
My Lai, March 16, 1968. (Photo by Ron Haeberle)
Kent State University, May 4, 1970. (Photo by John Filo)
Another factor was my own growing awareness of the My Lai massacre, which took place in March, 1968 and hit the press in December the next year. It was creating a new legacy of what American “boys” were capable of. Then, on May 4, 1970 came the Kent State shooting, in which American college students were shot and killed by American National Guardsmen. Americans killing Americans? How…?
My Lai took on a personal meaning. I discovered that the infamous “Charlie company” was the Charlie company in my own battalion: my unit was Alpha company. I had joined Alpha less than a year after My Lai, but I had heard nothing except that our men had had a “rough time” around some place called “Pinkville.” The guys who had been in country then were mostly gone, though I did remember seeing Capt. Ernest Medina in Duc Pho once. What haunted me was this: It could have been me.
My Lai and Kent State became emblematic for me of what was happening to America. America was losing its identity as the “good guys,” a generation teetering on the edge of disillusionment and revolution. Radicals were teaching in our schools (Communist Angela Davis was teaching at UCLA where Michelle attended). The war was now regarded as a “quagmire” with no end in sight, and the protest movement showed few signs of abating. The civil rights movement, so full of promise, now was losing direction and hope after Dr. King was murdered. Militancy was replacing non-violence. I was studying history and political science at Cal State, where it was now au courant to bash the war and the government, especially Nixon. “Vietnam syndrome” (not yet labeled) was setting in. I still loved my country. I had served honorably, as had my Alpha brothers. But we came home to a nation that saw us as criminals, agents of an evil empire. The old verities were vanishing or subject to suspicion.
Why my friend’s life is so important to this narrative is precisely because it pointed to something that just might be true after all. I felt like I should have known the answer already, yet was afraid to ask how I could be sure Jesus was who he said. On the shelf at home was a book, a modern English translation of the New Testament called Good News for Modern Man. I wasn’t interested in wading through the old King James, but this Good News read like something written today, that is, since “the War” (WWII!!). I was devouring it, asking lots and lots of questions: Did he really do those miracles? Did he really say this or that? What did it mean he was the “Son of God”? Did he really rise from the dead? Weren’t his followers deluded?
With such questions taking shape, I had some idea of what to do about that. It was not for nothing that my parents had instilled a love of history and books and research. The library was my internet.