It was the Summer of 1967 and I was in the Army.
I had been loading up flat bed rail cars in Texas in 1966 as my unit prepared to deploy to Vietnam. My mom died suddenly (she was 43 years old), my father was ill (he had epilepsy) and my younger brother was already in the war zone. He had been drafted.
My father bitched to a local Congressman and I was given a "compassionate reassignment" near home. So here I sat that Summer (I would be out of the Army by Thanksgiving) in the "Personal Affairs"office at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, best known as the headquarters of the Chaplain School.
"Personal Affairs" was a misnomer. Six staff were assigned to the office and responsible for making notifications to the New York State next of kin of Army soldiers killed in Vietnam. That’s what we did.
During the Vietnam war fully one third of the casualties were conscripts. Their families lived in the neighborhoods; not on the military post or in an Army town around a massive base. The were predominantly lower and middle class kids who lived in Bensonhurst, Harlem, the Bronx, Troy or Buffalo. Their families were working people living in little houses or apartments just trying to get by and praying for their kids to come home safe. They never wanted to see that Army staff car prowling the neighborhoods looking for an address.
A name would be transmitted to us through Headquarters, First Army at Ft. Meade Maryland. We had the names and rank of every active duty officer in the state and we would call him directly instructing him to make the notification. Only one Colonel ever bitched about the duty to my face. He got a call from the Commanding General and called me back apologetically, took the information and made the dreaded knock on the door. Since I knew the neighborhoods I would occasionally accompany the officer and a chaplain on the notification.
Mine was a duty which left you emotionally dead. I would try to compensate by finding out from the family if the soldier had a friend or relative over there, someone he was close to, someone he mentioned in his letters. The Army wouldn’t tell the family they could have anyone they wanted to escort the body home. I told them. When they gave me a name I moved heaven and earth to find that guy and get him out of that hell hole. They came home with the body and never went back, assigned stateside afterwards. It was my way of giving back in payment for my own safety and expiating my guilt. I tried to save a man for every man who died on my watch.
I wanted to kill no one. I wanted to touch no one’s fate except in a positive way.
One hot day an old jarhead came in wearing his Semper Fi baseball hat. He was WWII and had been in the Pacific. He son had been drafted and was carrying the war to Ho Chi Minh.
"My son has been reported AWOL in Saigon. I want him found and returned to his unit".
Over coffee I said what he already knew. "He’s probably just shacked up in his hootch with a local lovely. He’ll be back soon enough. Afterall, he can’t go very far."
"Nope. I want him picked up and returned to his duty so he can complete his tour over there. Can you send a message through channels to send the Mps out for him?"
Sure I could - but I didn’t want to; I had a sudden dark foreboding about this. I should have listened to my inner voice. But I didn’t. I did my duty; I told him I would and I did. The military police picked him up and returned him to his unit.
Three weeks later his name was on the list. I was sick. Someone else had to handle the file - I couldn’t. I had been touched - been involved however peripherally in a death.
I was angry. That sonofabitch jarhead had involved me. I was going to look that bastard in the face. I wanted to scream at him. "Are you happy now!!?"
I never went to wakes and funerals. Never. But I was going to this one - not for the soldier’s sake but for my own.
I went in dress uniform wearing my staff sergeant stripes and my two decorations, drove out to Queens and walked into the funeral home, every bit a soldier. No one knew who I was of course but the family glared anyway - they saw the uniform. The kid had been drafted and now he was dead. I walked right up to the jarhead and looked him dead in the eye - and could say nothing.
Jarhead couldn’t look at me. He knew why I was there. He could only mouth a silent "I’m sorry", a tear in his eye.
Suddenly he and I were in a long embrace. We were the only soldiers there who knew what we had done - who knew we could have left his boy alone.
His momma burst into tears when she saw the uniform. She hugged me like I was her own.
I paid my respects. "Thank you for coming". I left, my duty done.
I often wondered if the Jarhead ever told our secret or if he carried it to the grave. I often wondered if his momma knew what he and I had done when she embraced me.
High indeed the price of honor. When duty called the jarhead served. The domestic conflict over the Vietnam war made no difference to him. The nation called and he did his duty. He expected his son to do the same.
Have we anyone to blame but ourselves?
It’s been a long time since I visited the Wall and looked at certain names still familiar from that long ago Summer.
Strange indeed and sad it is I can no longer remember his.
Photo - Denver Post - "A Look Back at Vietnam" - 2010