These families, too, lost loved ones forever.
I am classified as a Vietnam-era vet but I spent my entire time stationed in Germany. Intellectually, I know I served during this time. I volunteered. I know I could have ended up there, but I hold in the deepest respect those that were on the frontlines. They are, to me, the true veterans of the Vietnam era. Although many in my cavalry unit did tours in Vietnam, if one Staff Sergeant had not shared this experience with me, I never would have fully understood what he survived.
I hadn’t known him that long but I knew he was different. He never seemed fully engaged: never talking, never joking, never cursing and swearing, and absolutely, never laughing. At times he was completely gone, lost in an internal world no one was allowed to enter—a place where no human could walk with him. His desk was just across the office from me. Sometimes I would see his shoulders slump and his eyes glaze over. One day I summoned the courage to ask, “Sergeant, are you okay?”
He got up and grabbed his hat to go outside, but as he was walking by my desk he stopped to sit. His eyes never left the door though, looking through it to a place beyond.
He spoke softly, “I was responsible for a lot of young lives in Vietnam. Too many times we walked into the jungle only to exit with fewer men than when we started. I fought to keep them and myself alive, not for glory. There was nothing glorious. When a new man arrived I hoped to shock him into caution, but nothing can prepare a person. I warned each one of them to not have a heart, to never care. And one day I was too slow to act.”
He lifted his arm as if the scene were playing out in front of him and let it drop.
“A child came walking toward us. ‘Chocolate’ was probably the only English word that child knew. Before I could do anything a bomb strapped to the child detonated killing a young life entrusted into my care.”
His eyes watered, but there were no tears. He had long ago learned how to stop a tear—an open expression of emotion. I saw though, because there was no confessional door.
He continued, “I don’t know how long it was after that day, but it felt like we were again walking down that road. . . . Another one of my men caring . . . another child saying . . . this time I shot . . . I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t pause. I didn’t think about right or wrong. I just killed a child.
“But it was different this time. No explosives. . . . no explosion. . . . just a child’s mother’s screams. Not directed at me in anger but filled with the pure agony of the god-forsaken. Her cries exposed all the evil I had seen. . . . all I had done. It laid bare all the pain I had inflicted to avoid having pain myself.”
He turned to look out the window, “Every now-and-then, a sound catches me unaware. I will only hear it faintly, but it will have the right pitch and that day returns. I hear her screams . . . I will hear them for the rest of my life.
“May God forgive me because I will never be able to forgive myself.”
He got up and walked out the door.
This Memorial Day, may we remember all the men and women who never returned to us—those who made the supreme sacrifice and those who, though they walk amongst us, seem forever lost?