Memorial Day has past, and I fear that while our soldiers bleed, America goes to the mall. My thoughts are after the fact, and purposely so. Remembering is not confined to a single day.
This story is taken from the first entries of my journal titled, “1970”. Life is defined in story and as I peruse the scribble of my first page I am hauntingly reminded that this maddening verse continues. “Soldiers leave; some return, and some never do”.
Here’s my story.
She was dressed in the traditional habit, a simple blue veil lined with white linen that hid locks of long gray hair. My only memory of her was the way her eyes spoke to those of us who boarded the 707 that sat lonely on a dark, stark runway. As each Marine crossed the tarmac she handed a handmade rosary and whispered “God bless you and bring you home safely”!
I was commanding the contingent of Marines going over; and was the last to board. As our eyes met I knew, that she knew, that I knew that God would not return all to safety. “God speed Lieutenant” and as she handed me the rosary, she began to cry. That was the first time that I knew fear.
The 707 was set to go, and so we did, high spirited for the ultimate adventure that lay ahead. We were going over…over there…across the wide Pacific…to a place called Viet Nam. We were freeing countries and were filled with a sense of purpose that gives credence to the old adage, “War is only for young men”!
A seat was saved for me, between two First Sergeants returning for a third tour. Anticipating a long flight I opened a brand new journal and thoughtfully crafted its title, “1970”, and recorded my first thought. It was an aberration of the 23rd Psalm recited to bolster a false sense of vibrato or to rationalize fear. “January 10, 1970; …though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…and I am the meanest mother in the valley.”
As we reached altitude a chorus of song broke out, “Over there, over there, send the word to beware over there, that the Yanks are coming…” Not everyone sang and I assumed that those who did not were veterans and had been there before.
The laughter, the card games, and the speculation of what to expect ran rampant and took us all the way to Hawaii. Those who didn’t speak sat silent, collected in their thoughts, my fear was that they already knew and were trying to cover up what waited. Their silence boarded on the macabre; “Why do they hide their fears and keep us from the things that we most ought to know”? It was unsettling…the realization of going to war would soon surface and this time it wouldn’t be a John Wayne movie.
We arrived in Hawaii at 4 AM for a tank of gas. The plane slept and being an officer I de-plane so as to call Farther Leo, my mentor at the University of Dayton. “Pray for peace Father”! I wasn’t asking for survival, instead, that I would do my duty.
After breakfast we left for our destiny, spirits continued to run high, and the men sang, “Over the seas, let’s go men, we’re shoving right off, again. Nobody knows where or when, we’ll ever return again…”
I wrote, “When would the realization of war hit these guys”? As we entered Viet-nam air space, it finally did. The pilot announced, “We are taking evasive action to avoid enemy rockets”. All stretched for the windows, the countryside was as black as the night sky and dotted by periodic distant red flashes. Silence consumed our 707 and as we landed I took a deep breath and said, “Sergeant, prepare the men”! We all looked to the Veterans, the ones who never spoke; they would be our salvation and we theirs.
I was last to leave the plane and lingered with the stewardesses; we had become friendly on the long flight over. I remember the tears in their eyes as they spoke of their anguish, for many of the boys they brought over, they would not bring back.
I’ll be seeing you”, I said. Saying nothing, they watched me go. I stepped off the plane and went to war.
As our soldiers ship off to Iraq and Afghanistan, it is essential that we connect. Although they are there and we are here, this maddening play goes on and on. “Soldiers leave, some return and some never do.”