Requiem for a Tet Survivor
By La Decker, Marines
Writing Type: Prose
Requiem for a Tet Survivor
“If I had known how much coming home would suck, I wouldn’t have complained about the war so much.”
----- Unknown Vietnam Veteran
Corporal Clayton Deckard Lawrence, known as Clay to his Marine friends, was promoted quickly during his tour in Vietnam. He was looked up to by peers and superior officers alike for his bravery and ferocity in a combat zone. Having come to Vietnam in January, he learned his craft during the infamous Tet offensive.
He also learned something else that was to haunt him the rest of his life. He learned to hate people enough to want to hurt them and kill them. This was not something to be unlearned easily, but without the proper therapy it could grow into a thing worse than the most aggressive cancer.
One incident stood out in Clay’s tour of duty: the time that a Vietnamese civilian (if any of those people could be identified as such) threw a can of gasoline at him and set him on fire. This Vietnamese was considered by Clay to be his friend, and they talked together often when Clay saw him. The man’s name was Nguyen Van Houng, and Clay ended up killing the man (or, in his words ‘wasting the gook’). He survived without any long-term disability or disfiguration, but after that incident his favorite expression was “the only good gook is a dead gook.”
When Clay finally boarded a plane in Danang to leave Vietnam, he had been newly promoted to sergeant. After arriving in Okinawa, he spent the next 35 days there in Camp Smedley Butler awaiting transportation back to the United States. When he landed at the El Toro Marine Air Station and touched the ground of his home country again, he was at first ecstatic to have survived Vietnam and be back home. But then, as he received his orders and was told that he would get 30 days leave and an air ticket home, he was cautioned not to interact with demonstrators at the airport in Los Angeles.
“What demonstrators?” Clay asked.
“The peaceniks,” the processing sergeant told him. “If you get into a fight with them you will probably end up in the brig.”
“What kind of bullshit is this?” Clay shouted.
“Political bullshit, Marine,” the sergeant told him. “I just got back from ‘Nam six months ago. Don’t you remember? Life sucks and then you die anyway. Welcome home.”
At the airport in L.A., Clay got into a fight with demonstrators, but the police broke it up and let him board his plane home. When he landed and met his wife at the airport, they embraced and kissed, but in the background, he heard demonstrators yelling “Baby killers!”
As he and his wife walked to the parking lot, he thought, “What the f… is this all about?”
The last year that Clay and his wife spent in the Marine Corps was not pleasant because of Clay’s difficulty adjusting to the stateside military and getting along with people around him. He was not used to the stateside spit and polish and related everything he encountered to the “way we did it in ‘Nam.”
He spent his last year as sergeant of the guard (24 hours on/24 hours off) or as a brig chaser. He was at first assigned to train young Marines, but after two incidents in which he hit a young Marine, he was relegated to duties that “kept him out of trouble.” In August 1970, Clay was discharged from the Marine Corps under honorable conditions and got a job in a foundry as an electrician. Clay still had adjustment problems with civilian life; he would be ready to fight at the least perceived insult. References to the still ongoing Vietnam War would sometimes throw him into a fit of rage.
The worst of these fits happened during a news broadcast when Clay and his wife were having dinner with a group of friends. A small band of National Guardsmen was trying to protect property at Kent State University, Ohio, from peace demonstrators. The television was on in the adjacent room, and it was announced that the demonstrators were throwing things at the guardsmen. Clay got up and ran into the other room and shouted at the television, “Shoot the bastards, God dammit! Shoot them all.”
Then, when the guardsmen lost their control and actually fired on the demonstrators, Clay totally lost his control, “That’s it! Kill the motherf…ers! Kill them all!” It took his wife and several of their friends an hour to calm him down. Never again would his wife and friends look at him in the same way; they all were afraid of him from that day forward.
Clay continued to have trouble with his peers and had picked up the habit of drinking more than he used to when he was younger. He did not drink on the job, but he drank a bit more than just “socially.” One day at work in April, a man was talking about the end of the Vietnam War and how it was a waste of all the lives of the men that fought there. Clay started to argue with the man and said, “You never served, you f…ing coward. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The man got into Clay’s face and said, “Right, just what I would expect from another crazy Vietnam veteran.” This was too much for Clay and he kept hitting the man until several of his co-workers grabbed him and restrained him until the police arrived. The man he hit did not press charges, but, not for the last time, Clay lost his job. After four months of unemployment, Clay went to work in a steel foundry known for recruiting its employees from the ranks of the previously incarcerated. Clay now began to drink on the job like his new peer group.
After losing his job at the steel foundry, due to participation in a fight that included a number of his on-the-job drinking buddies, Clay took a job at an aluminum foundry where there were fewer ex-cons but plenty of on the job drinkers and dope smokers. He told his wife, as he always did when he was fired, that he quit the job to better himself, but she was all too familiar with his habit of concealing the truth.
His relationship with his wife was not the best, but it could still be said that they loved each other. It was his wife’s suggestion that he should go to college at night to earn a degree. He enrolled in a local college in a curriculum that would lead him to a degree in computer science. He could only take two courses each semester and still keep working, but against the odds, Clay graduated seven years later with a bachelor of science in computer science, graduating summa cum laude no less.
He eventually left the foundry and got a job as an engineer with a local food processing company. Although he was good at his job, it required him to travel a lot, and his drinking continued. Also, he was known as a man with a short temper and was regarded warily by his associates. When his wife asked him to leave this job, spend more time at home and seek help from the VA for some of his problems, he would become angry. He told his wife that he was not a crazy Vietnam Veteran with PTSD and that he did not need help with problems that were everyone else’s fault. He drank, he insisted, but he was not a drunk. He had an anger problem but said he could control it. Over the years he had become proficient in the art of lying, not only to his wife, not only to his employers and friends, but also to himself.
Clay was asked to leave the food processing company, not for his drinking, not because of a poor work record, but because people had become afraid to be around him. He still refused to seek help as his wife begged him to do over and over again. He did however become self-employed by starting a business as an independent consulting engineering contractor.
Surprisingly, he was good at this and was able to easily acquire clients. However, he traveled more often but was able to restrict his drinking to the hotels he lived in after work. When he was home, he argued with his wife, and their relationship deteriorated. On the other hand, since he worked for different places all the time, he was able to keep a job for a short time before moving to another. Therefore, he did not stay in one place long enough to become an irritant. He made a few friends but lost more than he made.
After working as a consultant for many years and continuing his drinking and his hyper-defensive attitude, which he always blamed on the legacy of Tet, Clay ruined what was left of his life. He came home one weekend and got into an argument with his wife. During this aggressive confrontation, Clay hit the love of his life and knocked her down. His wife was not the type of person to let this pass, but it can be said that for over 40 years she had stuck by her man in good times and bad. She had him charged with domestic abuse, and a merciful judge sentenced Clay to two years’ probation.
Although his wife did not leave him, things would never be the same. Clay was very bitter about the charges his wife brought against him; after all, again, it was not his fault. Like most things after Vietnam, it was always somebody else’s fault.
Clay did notice something that, had he understood it the right way, could have turned his attitude around. His wife had bought him a hat that displayed ‘Vietnam Vet’ on the frontt. Whenever he encountered people, wearing the hat, they would often say, “Thank you for your service.” Sometimes they would even shake his hand. Clay would think to himself,” What’s going on? Has everyone had a change of heart? Have I acted like an asshole all these years and all of the misery in my life was my fault after all? NO!! NO!! I know you’re out there somewhere Houng, waiting for me to drop my guard. Well, f… you. I’m ready for you this time.”
Right before Clay was to finish his probation, he got into another argument with his wife. This time it was because she begged him to get help before he destroyed himself. He flew into one of his old rages, and this time he not only struck his wife he put her in the hospital. As an encore, Clay got into a fist fight with the arresting officers and injured one of them severely. This time the marriage ended in divorce. The judge was not lenient after this caset, and Clay ended up spending three years in jail. The judge commented sarcastically at the trial, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”
Clay, at 66, was no longer able to work and lived in a one room flat by himself, existing on some savings and his Social Security. He spent his days at a bar near where he lived, drinking mostly beer. He was known among the regulars as that “crabby old Vietnam Vet.” He would sit for hours, reliving the Tet Offensive again and cursing and swearing at people on the bar’s television. Most of the bar’s customers considered him an eccentric character who was enjoyable to watch because you never knew what he would do next
From the people outside the bar, the reaction to him was not as charitable. He was considered a dangerous old man by his neighbors, and children were not allowed anywhere near him. At the end of 2020 he became unable to care for himself and was put into a veterans’ home.
One day, a few years after Clay was admitted to the home, a group of school children visited the veterans before Memorial Day. When some of them saw Clay sitting in a wheelchair in a corner by himself, they went over to him and said in unison, “Thank you for your service, sir.” Clay glanced at them and thought to himself,“What’s this? They are thanking me and not calling me a killer or a mercenary. Is this real? NO!! You are behind it aren’t you Houng. You’re getting ready to throw the gasoline. I’m no fool. F..k me once, shame on you. F… me twice, shame on ME!”
As Clay gripped the arm rests of his wheelchair tightly, he scowled at the children. “Don’t bother Mr. Lawrence, children,” said the nurse nearby. “He is not right in the head, but it was nice of you to thank him, because deep in his heart I know he appreciates it.”
“Houng, where are you, I know you’re there.” Clay sighed.
“Who is he talking to nurse?” a child asked.
“A person named Houng, honey.” The nurse answered. “No one knows who he or she was, but they must have been important to Mr. Lawrence.”
At 10 p.m., right before Clay Lawrence’s birthday, his heart was failing, and the nurses called for the veterans’ home chaplain. Rev. McKinley rushed to Clay’s bedside so that he could be with him before he passed. As Clay took his last breath, he gasped, “Houng…..are you there?” And then Clay passed away.
The chaplain made the sign of the cross and said gently, “God bless you, brother. May you find the peace with the Lord you didn’t find in life.”
Then Chaplain McKinley looked at the two nurses and quietly spoke, “And, let us not forget: thank for your service, Sergeant Lawrence.”