Journal Entry Sat - 1 AM - 29 March 1986 First hour of work is over - slow tonight. Trying to convince myself that seeing the memorial is more important than the beach. It's not much of a story. Men who shouldn't have died brought realization of my contribution to the war effort.

Journal Entry - Sun - 30 March 1986 My contribution. I used a weapon that could maim as well as kill. A projectile loaded with an explosive would be dropped down a reinforced tube by me and be propelled as far as four thousand meters. It was easy to be ignorant in the position I held. The more ignorant I was, the greater the burden of truth when it arrived. But enough of this, let's return to the memorial.

The one I speak about is not fastened to the earth on a concrete pedestal but is moved on a flatbed trailer, touring the country. It's a facsimile of the larger original in this nation's capital, which is unique in its design. It is a list of names, nearly sixty thousand, of people who died at a time this country was caught in a period of change that still continues.

It seems that time does not heal all wounds. Even as I write these words, I sense the physical tension building within me. My facial muscles have grown taut; breathing is shortened and restrained by the increasingly vivid pictures of the experience. My script's become hurried and flowing with the emotion evoked by specific memories of fear and pain and grief and rage.

Once upon a time, this country put my group of veterans into the same category as criminals of war. Five million criminals wandered this country. I wasn't aware of the permanent changes in my personality until I returned home and witnessed the changes that took place in people's attitude towards me. An uncle thought I was stronger and more fearless, a noisy auditorium fell silent at the very mention of that war, new friends and acquaintances did double takes on learning that I was a Viet Nam Veteran.

I've wandered again. As I write, I'm more determined to see the names of the people who interrupt my thoughts, to see the dates that changed my life. But I know that one name will be omitted. It's not because he lived or if dead was overlooked. He was a native of that country in which so many died over too long a period of time.

I remember the day we first met. It all began when Dave and I walked down the hill to procure badly needed supplies. Candles and STOCK 51 Brandy were staples in the tent we occupied. I don't recall how often we journeyed from our hilltop position to the village vendors, but on this particular morning a jeep rolled to a stop at the crossroads joining the airstrip and the village. Out jumped the pawnbroker trading thousands of C-ration cigarettes for whatever wares the Vietnamese would offer. Standing some distance behind the vocal crowd was a boy, seemingly timid and definitely more restrained. I approached him knowing he was more than old enough (had to be seven or eight) and after gaining his attention with a touch to his shoulder, I asked him what brand he smoked. He pointed to the pack in his hand, and I went to the other side of the jeep to rummage for several of them. That was the beginning of our relationship. It was based on a gift of Lucky Strikes from me to a child growing in Khe San.

I underestimated my new friend's personality. The next time I saw him he was running, playing and being a child like any I could recall from my neighborhood when I was growing up. He only broke the mode of his activity to join me where I sat waiting for Dave to finish the bartering. Squatting beside me, he drew a pack of Lucky Strikes from his pocket, offering me one as I offered him in exchange a Winston. After he lit them both and smoked quietly with me, what I then considered pleasantries ended as he put out his butt, returned it to his pocket, and ran to join his playmates.

I learned something else about my friend that day. He was both deaf and dumb. But it didn't mean anything to him and certainly didn't affect his ability to join in with the crowd or prevent the same discipline being mete out to him by his seniors as to any other healthy child.

My visits to the market increased in frequency and duration. I learned of the prejudice between the villagers and the Montagnard tribe, though personally could see little difference in their life styles. I dined with the villagers on brine shrimp and rice and traded with the Montagnard for quan, a local white tuber much more sweet than any potato purchased from a supermarket in the States. In a foreign third world country in the midst of war, I was finding the quality of life greater than what I had experienced during my younger, more cloistered years. And still there was friend and now the ritual exchange of cigarettes.

I became aware through his mimicking, of how I appeared to others. Aware of my puckered lips as I took a drag from my cigarette, aware of my protruding Adam's apple, a medical anomaly to the Vietnamese. Both were points of humor to them but, like my friend's infirmities, did not alter their acceptance of me.

A familiarity developed between us that permitted the freedom for my friend to surprise me one day with a leap onto my back. Playfully reaching behind me, I pulled him around, inverted him and held him extended in one hand, dangling upside down by his ankles. While he struggled to gain his release, I feigned looking around in wonderment of where he could be. Everyone enjoyed the humor of the apparition, and I could never feel more affection for my friend.

Towards the end of January 1967, our movements from our base camp were restricted. During the first week of February, we broke camp and moved down to the airstrip for the night. We would await a flight and then a ship, which would take us to Okinawa for training with the M16 rifle. It would also permit rotation for a few lucky men and the building of a full battalion armada to float along the coast of Viet Nam for what would appear to me as random assaults and operations. It would be during this period that the full realization of war would be implanted deep within me.

Walking in formation past the crossroads, I didn't see my friend, until farther down the road he caught up to me. I passed my helmet and rifle to the Marine behind me to enable me to carry him as I removed my mezuzah and placed it around his neck as a gift.

Later that evening, he surprised me with a visit into the compound. Everyone knew of our relationship, and we were permitted time to be together, to have one more exchange of cigarettes even though his presence was taboo. It was sad to walk him to the perimeter afterwards, sad to share a last good-bye.

A short company transferred from the Mekong Delta replaced our battalion. Before we arrived at Okinawa, we received word through dispatches of the '67 Tet offensive at Khe San. I felt a great loss and an emptiness I couldn't express to others. I lost my first friend since arriving in Viet Nam. My friend became my MIA.

****

The first month of our return to Viet Nam was uneventful. We would wake early everyday, moving out long before the sun was up, but for the past few days, upon reaching the foot of each hill, mortar rounds could be heard exploding on the peaks most recently vacated by us. It didn't take much intelligence to realize the enemy was following us and they were playing with us. Why this morning should be different was not immediately known. We made ready to debark again before dawn but we didn't. We waited. Nervousness set in, but after awhile I assumed patrols had been sent out to silence the Vietcong mortars during the night and I relaxed.

By mid-morning the sun was having its effect on the barren hill. A few of the men had been struck by the heat and were being moved down to a landing zone. Most of us took to the prone position to enable us to squeeze our water to its limit. We were directed to fill our foxholes and again we waited. The 81mm mortar was set up with the base plate not yet seated. Three men were needed for the first round to be dropped. Canisters filled to their potential were stacked close by in anticipation, though never to be used that day. Word spread we were awaiting orders. At high noon they arrived.

The first incoming round fell harmlessly, and we cleared the hilltop gaining whatever cover was available. Lakey and I were together, out of sight of the rest of the company. I remained huddled against the earth, thinking my destiny not to die in war, thinking my purpose in life greater than to die on this foreign soil when suddenly a frantic yell could be heard. "Get on the gun! Get on the gun! They're killing us down here!"

I didn't know Lakey. He had only arrived several days before and was not yet a part of the team that I scanned the horizon for. With no indication to me, he bolted for the mortar. I yelled to him to get down a split second before he met the shrapnel of the next exploding round to his right. He fell, scrambling towards the spot he had left but lost the momentum a short distance from the crest of the position I held. Trying to urge him on with words was useless. Lakey laid there, apparently immobilized, repeatedly calling help.

It seemed too long a time before my fear partially subsided. I brought my left leg over the ledge in an attempt to move closer. I was scared as I moved my body flush against the ground, right hand stretching out, touching his fingers, still inches short of a firm grasp of his hand to pull him to the safety of the steep grade. A new explosion to our right, just feet away, showered us with dirt and burning metal. Lakey hesitated, then raised himself to a standing position and screamed. His face was contorted and gray as he rushed to join me.

I called anxiously for a corpsman only to hear that others were hurt, to become aware I was alone. My limited training could not prepare me for being on the receiving end of war. Lakey violently fought off any attempt to treat the wound the size of a quarter, two bits in the left side of his neck. Reasoning it was more important to keep him calm, I ignored his wound. His incessant raspy voice could only cry for water. His eyes, blue-gray, lacking moisture, never blinking, looked through me.

"There was death on the hill,
young and old,
as the shells randomly hit,
exploded and randomly killed."

Yelling to the corpsman the location of Lakey's wound and his desire for water, I was told to moisten my T-shirt to let him satisfy his thirst. My initial attempt to let him suckle on my shirt wet down with water from my canteen didn't work, because he grabbed my wrist with both his hands, forcing it to his mouth, nearly swallowing both shirt and hand. On the second attempt I had more firm control. Time stopped as I asked myself why they were doing this to us when they didn't even know us. And I understood what war was all about, and I was in it. I was a member of that team I had scanned the hilltop for. My question became an indictment. The charge was that for six months prior to the mortar attack I had thoughtlessly and randomly killed, never seeing the results of my actions. My sentence was to carry guilt for seventeen years. Silently.

I'm certain the corpsman first studied me perhaps thinking he had two casualties to deal with. When he arrived, I was shading Lakey with my poncho, wiping his face with my dampened shirt while staring away into the distance. As I recorded the events, my head moved slowly left and right in shocked disbelief. Guilt of participation had been burned into my brain along with an overwhelming sense of inadequacy to change what had been done to us, to accept what I had done. The corpsman's voice prompted me to act, abandoning the confusion of reality. He attempted to apply direct pressure to the wound while I straddled Lakey in an effort to pin his arms. But his adrenaline was at the maximum, and my screams to have him keep still were ineffective, an exercise in futility, an outward expression of the terror within. Our combined efforts being fruitless, we carried Lakey to where others could assist.

I found myself helping carry another nameless Marine. In a short time I was reaching across with my free hand to support the load, throwing myself off balance in the process. At the wider shoulders of the Marine, there was little trail remaining for proper footing, and the four of us were moving much too fast. Determined to put and end to that, I had us slow down allowing more sure footing and curled my left hand into the poncho, picturing raw fingers as I told myself the burden was more important than the bearer.

"Young and old,
carried by poncho
heavy and light
the loads we bore
of dead and dying
and hurt in the heat,
in the heat."

We reached level ground and placed him with the other wounded. At last my right hand was permitted to reach across to peel the stretched poncho from my knuckles that remained unscathed. I was ready to return up the hill but was told there was little left to do up there and I should take a break. There was no way I could raise an objection. I turned away and saw a stream with rapids and could not comprehend why we were exposed to the heat on top of the mountain. Then I saw the row of dead, covered with their own green rain ponchos that blended in so well with the grass before the stream, they were only second to catch my eye. Ever so slowly I approached with my eyes held fast. Up and down the row I walked, stopping now and then to look intently at a tag on their exposed bare feet, never moving close enough or stooping down to be able to read them. Something held me back from really wanting to know who they were. I was aghast at how undignified death appeared. I didn't want my lifeless body to be the antithesis of my daydreams.

"Injured to the left,
bodies covered head to ankle with their litters,
boots and socks removed,
tags tied to their toes
to match the names upon a stone,
heads toward a running creek,
cool water,
grass so moist,..."

Before I noticed him, Dick was next to me, quietly saying that Lakey had died about forty-five minutes ago. He said that heavier men couldn't hold him down, and when he died, they discovered shrapnel wounds up and down his side. His flak jacket both hid the bleeding and the fact he was beyond being treated in the field.

I placed my hand on his shoulder, thanked him, and found myself staring at a tree as if it shouldn't be there. What was going through my mind was the surrealistic imagery of the setting, which had no compatibility with the present experience that never should have happened.

I was compelled to turn for a last look at the stream, row of bodies and tree, and numbly tried to make sense of it as I followed Dick back up the hill to dismantle the gun.

"... with shade trees
casting shadow
only vertical to the ground."
****

Journal Entry - Sat - 5 April 1986 The Viet Nam War Memorial. I visited it. Two names of tens of thousands drew me there. Gilberto Caballero Jr., plate number 23E, line 17, and some lines farther down, Randall K. Russell. On arriving, I approached it from behind, rounded the left face and was struck by a shiver through my body, and I gasped for breath to keep myself from immediately breaking down in anticipation of ghosts from the past. The ghosts were of faces and places and men who were close, or whose death filled me with terror, grief and guilt. The guilt is the most difficult to bear, guilt of having killed, and guilt of having lived when others died.

Many times I approached, lingering before the plate, then moved along the trodden path to other names. it was no longer necessary to hide the tears. My poem, quoted within this story, was placed among the offerings lying on the ground that irrefutably cried I no longer was alone. And many times I retreated to sit upon the grass, allowing memories to have their way, hoping a familiar face would surface from the crowd of mourners, waiting in silent vigilance.

The memorial did not itself keep me occupied those several hours. I read the many notes left by children who were never seen by their fathers nor ever saw them, and they spoke of love and caring, the messages from loved ones, from friends who served with them and survived. I saw the flowers, fresh and dying, the poems and thoughts of strangers, copies of last letters received, photographs and medals costing many lived to acquire, the procession never ending, of people who knew it as participants, and from the home front, of people too young to have been aware. All these in reverence before each tablet containing names belonging to the faces etched in time ...

Neal M Warren
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Copyright 2002 Neal M Warren