It was the Summer of 1967 and I was in the Army. My four years of service would be up on November 17, 1967.
I had been loading up flat bed rail cars in Texas in 1966 as my unit prepared to deploy to Vietnam. I had just returned from a couple of years in Asmara, Eritrea. My mom died suddenly (she was 43 years old), my father was ill (he had epilepsy) and a 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 (counting the days to 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. Afterwards we arranged to transport the body home; a Survivor Assistance Officer was appointed to help the family with “final arrangements”. We arranged funerals; presented medals.
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. They 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 New York state and we would call the closest one directly, ordering him to make the notification.
Only one Colonel ever bitched about the duty over the phone and refused the order. He got a call from the Commanding General First Army and called me back apologetically, took the information and made the dreaded knock on the door. Since I grew up in the city and knew the Brooklyn and Manhattan neighborhoods I would often accompany the officer and a chaplain on the notification. I knew my way around the city while most officers from outside of New York didn’t.
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 did not go to Vietnam with my unit. Someone else went in my place. 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 a middle aged jar head 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. After all, 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 M.P. s 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 the kid up and returned him to his unit.
In a matter of days his name was on the list. My C.O. knew what had transpired and brought me the file. 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 was going to scream at him. “Are you happy now!!?”
I never went to wakes or funerals for KIAs. Never. But I was going to this one – not for the soldier’s sake but for my own.
I donned my dress uniform bearing my staff sergeant stripes, my badges 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 jar head and looked him dead in the eye – and could say nothing.
Jar head couldn’t look at me. He knew why I was there. Now he was just a middle aged father with tears in his eyes for his dead son.
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 Jar head ever told our secret or if he carried it to the grave. I often wondered if momma knew what he and I had done when she embraced me.
High indeed the price of honor. When duty called the jar head served. The domestic conflict over the Vietnam war made no difference to him. When the nation called 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.
P.S. My younger brother came home without a scratch. I saw him from the window of my office, ran outside and embraced him in the street.
photo: The Denver Post – 4 – 20 -2001 – “A Look Back at Vietnam”