Something you have yet to see me talk about much here on my blog is my tour of duty in the Marines back in the late 60’s. Sometimes I think there is a bit too much military exhibitionism that displays itself by too much flag waving. I don’t begrudge those who make their service known but for those of us who saw the ugly side of war, there is something about being reserved in public that seems proper.
About half of my time served was spent overseas away from home and a lot of what I experienced in Vietnam is not something I want to share because like most people who have seen the ugly side of war, it’s not something we care to revive. No one relishes in the thought that they killed another human being or saw one of their own die tragically from being ripped apart by the weapons of war.
I saw very little combat compared to some so my experiences were less traumatic than the grunts who fight the close encounters with opposing forces. I may have seen none of the brutality of war had it not been that my deployment was timed just before the whole country exploded following the massive Tet offensive of January 1968.
But experiencing the death of another human being, whether they are the “enemy” or not makes us all aware that we are all the same on the battlefield; fathers, mothers, brothers, dads and wives who have family back home. Anyone who talks up a storm about their “battle” experiences probably never got close to one and usually filed paperwork safely back at headquarters. But even that job duty in the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are no longer safe where any suicide bomber can walk in and take out a large number of people.
I dropped out of high school in my junior year to enlist. That was May of 1966 and was honorably discharged following my tour of duty in Vietnam in December 1968. I had volunteered for service because I wanted to serve in Vietnam. I was caught up in the political saber-rattling of the time to stop Communism’s spread before it reached our shores. It would be a few years later when I educated myself about the causes that led to this war that created a hurt inside that my country had gone to war for less than honorable reasons, unlike that generation who fought in perhaps the last virtuous war we have engaged in to this day, the Second World War.
Men and women who have been in combat and risked their lives and seen their friends perish in battles are a part of brotherhood that is unlike any other I think. What my dad experienced in the jungles of Guadalcanal in WWII were similar in many ways to what I experienced in the jungles of Vietnam. Military combat troops become close when they encounter near death experiences that combat brings. The horrors of bodies being torn apart or even obliterated is psychologically devastating and the generation that fought in WWII saw such brutality on perhaps the largest scale ever.
The aging veterans of WWII are dying at a rate of 1000 each day and there is a move afoot to get as many of these survivors to the WWII memorial in Washington, D.C. before their time expires. The movement is simply referred to as Operation Resolve and is explained in this short clip.
I was moved by the three aging vets who are shown at the beginning of the film as they describe what it means to lose friends in war. It’s a feeling that is kept deep inside for years and when it is brought out, can be very emotional for those who have held it in all those years. I can identify with this emotion even though I lost no one close to me while serving in Vietnam.
There was a time nearly twenty years ago when a miniature of the Vietnam War Memorial was traveling around the country and stopped at a community just north of where I now live. My two other brothers and I went up to see it and as we looked at the many names on the wall my older brother reminded me of an acquaintance of his who died over there about the time I was serving. I knew this person and his family since we all went to the same Catholic Church and school when we were kids. We located his name in the register and found its location on the wall. I was surprised that I was overcome by grief when I saw and touched his name and broke down crying at the thought that this was someone who was a part of my life who died in that war I was also a part of.
The same emotion overcame me when watching the movie “Saving Private Ryan” at the end of the movie where the aging Ryan asks his wife in that cemetery where his comrades were buried if he was a good man, feeling remorse I suspect that he had survived while others he fought with had died. I wasn’t crying quite as hard as the younger man in front of me who most likely was a vet from the recent wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
We are all connected, those of us who are sent to wars, and the memorials that have been erected are a way that we reconnect. I would love to see this movement succeed where every WWII veteran who wants to go gets to see that Memorial erected in honor of those friends they left buried over in Europe or the Pacific.
I am glad we can celebrate warriors without celebrating war. Wars are not glorious and should be avoided in every way possible. But people who fight them, though they might not always do so with conviction and heroics, are worthy of respect and recognition because they survive these holocausts they are sent to for whatever reason that is contrived. How much more meaningful for those who fought in WWII knowing that civilization as we knew it then may have perished had they not stepped up.