Musings on Memorial Day Weekend
(Incoming at Khe Sanh, Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam.)
You know, I never understood it when people wished me a "happy" Memorial Day. I know their intentions are the best but this time of year is never a happy time for me. Never. And I've been that way ever since I rotated "back to the world" (i.e., home) from Vietnam in the Fall of 1968.
Now don't get me wrong here. Nearly 49 years have passed since I completed my second tour of combat duty in Vietnam and life has been good to me. Sure, I've endured my share of emotional and psychological stress over the years but the bottom line is that I returned home in one piece...physically at least. I am grateful for that fact. And as I've grown older I've become even more grateful for the fresh chance I was given when so many never got that chance, including three fine young men (two of them 19 years old and the third 20) who deserved better than to die in that shit hole. Because that's what it was...at the very least. What chance am I speaking of here? The chance to live a full life, get an education, raise a family, and be here right now with you. I am unbelievably lucky and blessed, especially in light of what could have happened.
You know, for a lot of years (decades) I was angry and bitter about Vietnam. I focused on all the negatives of that experience (of which there were many) instead of focusing on the fact that I was alive and able to continue forward along any path I deemed fit. Initially I chose the path to misery, self-loathing for having survived, and self-destruction. I won't go into all the dark details but you can trust my word that I could have ended up like some other Vietnam Vets, taking my life by my own hand intentionally (or unintentionally via drugs, alcohol, etc.). That's a horrible, horrible thing you know? Suicide means you've lost all hope, that the emotional and psychological traumas are just too great to bear, and that ultimately...life has no meaning. You have just simply given up.
In Vietnam there were days when I didn't think I could stand another minute let alone another day, week, or month. Most of my buddies felt the same. I won't lie to you...there were times when I considered taking my own life in Vietnam and in the difficult years that followed. But I didn't. Something kept me driving forward, picking up the pieces and moving on. Just like Vietnam. No matter how bad things got someone would mutter "Don't mean nothin' bro'" and we'd sigh, pull our shit together, and get to it once again. ALWAYS looking out for one another. Always. We didn't give one good goddamn about the red, white, and blue, mom and apple pie, John Wayne's cinema bravado, certain chickenshit officers writing themselves up for medals, or a select group of alcoholic NCOs making us do all the dirty work and feeling the pain while they kicked back in the "rear with the beer." I'm speaking both literally and figuratively here but you can count on the fact that what I'm telling you is truer than you will ever know. Our leadership (or lack thereof) in 1968 was absolutely deplorable. Sure there were a few exceptions, but very few. The rest were ticket punchers, shit heels, non-hackers, morons, and yes...cowards. All this during the worst year of the Vietnam War in terms of overall fighting and casualties. And where were we? Operating in the worst possible region, the I Corps area, in the northernmost province of Vietnam, Quang Tri. Not far from the DMZ and North Vietnam. Ask any marine, sailor, airman, or soldier who ever served there (mostly marines and sailors though) about "I Corps." If they're willing to talk about it I guarantee you it won't be with wistful nostalgia. That place and that area was the absolute tight end of the funnel. The so-called "shitty end of the stick." And I served there. So did my buddies.
Some of you are shaking your heads after this last and saying, "Wow! He's still angry and bitter." Perhaps. But I try not to focus on all the evil and the inconsistencies. I try hard each and every day. Why? Because not one day has passed since I was 20 years old where I didn't think about Vietnam in one way, shape, or form. Sometimes those thoughts are fleeting or ephemeral...other times they are so real I can reach out and touch them. I remember faces, things, places, incidents, and most of all...buddies. Some of whom are alive this very day and whom I still love like brothers. I am grateful, so grateful, they made it back too. They went through the shit with grace and dignity and courage. Kids 18, 19, and 20 years old. Put yourself in their place and in mine. How would YOU feel?
Nope. Don't wish me a "happy" Memorial Day. I know you mean well but I don't want to hear it. It'd be better if you bowed your head for a moment and said a silent prayer of remembrance for all those who didn't make it "back to the world." I don't care what war they fought in either. We're all brothers in that regard, those of us who fought and sacrificed our youth, our hearts and minds, and our bodies. We are the ones who NEVER forget those who didn't make it home. We never forget.
(c) Jim Rocha 2017
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