Today is Memorial Day, observed. It has been 34 years and seven months. Do you remember the day the music died for Alpha’s CP? It was a Wednesday, and when I think of you, I smile. I hear the elephants from “Magic Carpet Ride” and remember our pact about passing a bowl if one of us were ever hurt. I recall how you and Doc Ray tried to get me high on the litter before I got dusted off, for pneumonia!
I wish we could have become Vung Tau lifeguards as we had planned. You will probably remember that after the Army, we were going to open a Mobil station in San Luis Obispo, where we could surf, repair dune buggies and desert bikes, and maybe even sell a little gas.
I remember our LPs, when only one of us had to be outside the perimeter, but we always went together. We were sentinels and brothers: listening, but not understanding. We celebrated my 21st birthday with a firefight that night, just four days before you died, at age 19. That was the last time I saw you, and you were laughing.
In 1992, and again in 1994, I ran my fingers across your name, engraved on a monolithic black wall that is called the “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” or, “The Wall.” Sacred to many, meaningless to others, it stands in a public park across the street from Lincoln’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. It took until 1982 to get it built, with private donations, and it probably wouldn’t exist if not for the efforts of a fellow grunt, Jan Scruggs, and his reaction to a popular Vietnam War movie called "Deer Hunter", which he watched in 1979. You and 17 others from Alpha Company are listed on two granite slabs, W37 and W38, in alphabetical order, along with everyone else killed or reported missing in Vietnam on November 27, 1968.
It is appropriate that, as in death, you, Lt. Parr and Doc Ray are only inches apart. One hundred and forty panels include the names of more than 58,000 killed or missing in action. Some preceded you but more followed.
Once, in Austin, I gazed at your father’s name listed in the telephone directory, but, regrettably, I never called him. I feel sorry for your family’s loss and wish I could console them. Now that I have the courage to call, your dad is not listed anymore and may have moved or died.
On March 29, 1973, the last U.S. ground forces departed Vietnam with little ceremony. Twenty-five months later, April 30, 1975, South Vietnam surrendered. The 7th NVA, remember those people, were part of the force occupying Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City. It is reasonable to believe that some of the same enemy soldiers we fought ended up drinking in the same Tu Do bars, getting hustled by the same bar girls! There are stories about the drugs, drinking and prostitution eventually corrupting the Communists, too. Capitalism had the last laugh.
In a VA treatment center, they asked me to write this “grief” letter to say “good bye,” but I do not choose to do that. Your smile and your spirit will always live with me. I think of you every day, and especially during my most cherished experiences, for example, when John, my son, was born.
Two years ago, I went snow skiing from a Huey helicopter in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. ‘Up, Up and Away’’ played through my mind every time we lifted off, and I could feel your physical presence as though you were again sitting beside me. I don’t listen to Steppenwolf on purpose, but it still gets radio air play and I can visualize the grin on your face when those elephants started trumpeting. I really miss you, and I am struggling to “Keep Up the Fire.’’
After you died, I did not want to be a lifeguard anymore. I got home okay on January 18, 1969. After bumming around until 1972, I settled into a comfortable and successful career in the radio broadcasting business working in New York and Dallas. In 1989, I quit my job and moved to Colorado to become a ski instructor.
Mercifully, I did not hear your radio transmissions the day you died, but I heard some gruesome accounts of the battle. Alpha had 18 KIA and 36 WIA, and we lost some slicks and their crews. There was no react force to help you that afternoon, like this is NEWS to you!
The next day they found no dead NVA but worked out that some REMF plotted the wrong LZ and you landed inside an L-shaped ambush of heavily reinforced positions instead of behind them. It was probably an oversized platoon of regular NVA, with at least one anti-aircraft 51-caliber plus half a dozen RPG-7s and B-40s. They did not even scavenge up our weapons, except maybe a Missing M-60, and they cut the handsets off all the PRC-25s.
In 2000, I was diagnosed with PTSD, a kind of delayed reaction to combat stress. In therapy, I am beginning to feel a little better about the Vietnam experience. I have heard that Vietnam veterans have the highest suicide rate in history of returning U.S. combat soldiers.
You are still my best friend, and I am thankful for the eight months that we spent together. I am learning about letting go of my sorrow, but I am not letting go of you. I hope you are with God, but where ever you are, I pray that I will end up there, too.
When my dog, Mo Fat Chi died in 1988, I prayed that he could join up with you and that one day we will all be together again, wherever they send the dead Vietnam vets and their pets. The counselors at this hospital are caring and competent, and they are teaching me about “letting go,” but you do not need to worry. I will never let go of my memories of you.
May God bless you always. I pray that you rest in peace. Thank you for being my friend. Keep your powder dry.
Your brother in combat.