Thursday, May 25, 2017

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.

Ever.

(c) Jim Rocha 2017

Questions? E-mail me at jr872vt90@yahoo.com

12 comments:

  1. JR, I was never in the military, and can only imagine how it would have been through movies, and first hand accounts like yours. No matter how well done a movie is, you can never feel the true horror of it. The smell, sounds, sight,suffering, and pure fear. No matter how good your imagination is, you don't know shit about being there unless you were there.
    With any war, it is the politicians that come away winning. The guys like yourself that did the fighting are just nameless, faceless, expendable pawns, just a number. That all on it's own is about as bad as it gets. Those that sent you there for their own personal gain have a sure ticket to Hell if there is any justice.

    To say "Thank you" is not enough,not by a long shot, but it's all I have to offer.....THANK YOU! I truly mean that.

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  2. JR
    You are one of the best people I have never met. You and I have agreed and disagreed on a couple of things (eoliean plackets) but I seriously look forward to every post every time. I am younger and so missed that shit but have many friends not so fortunate. Time marches on and some of my friends that experienced that are gone. Thank the lord that our military superiority is enough that we don't fight that way anymore. Keep the faith my friend and thank you for your sacrifice. It is not unnoticed.
    Jack McDade

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  3. Thank you Jack. Much appreciated.

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  4. Hi Jim..
    Thank you for another very interesting account of your life. Part of me wishes I could have been there with you.
    You and I are the same age and I could have easily ended up somewhere in Nam.
    My draft board was in Phoenix and I ended up taking my physical in downtown LA one Saturday. I was 18 years old and the other 2 or 3 hundred other guys probably were as well.
    I figured I was going to be drafted because I had a low number of 83,4,6 or something like that.
    I did good on the written, almost 100%, but many guys in that room were talking about intentionally failing and thinking that would keep them out of the draft. I think many found out later that wasn't the case.
    We eventually finished the testing and prodding and were lined up waiting for final paperwork before heading out the door.
    I remember it very well. This gruff old bastard asked me when are those blasces coming off your teefh. That's what it sounded like. I was kinda dulled out at that point. Then he half yells, When are those braces coming off your teeth?!?
    All I could say was, I don't know, and I didn't either. He said, Well you have your dentist write us a letter in 6 months and let us know. I nodded my head and he handed me a temporary medical deferment.
    I left there thinking you guys can find my dentist and ask him yourself in 6 months.
    I kept that classification until after the war was over. I never heard from the draft board until I was 23 and just married to my first wife. They briefly classified me 1A until I got a different one. Every 1A person in the country would be drafted before they started on my new classified group of guys. That never happened.
    But to think about how many guys fled the country and getting braces on your teeth would have meant deferment. My my.

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    1. Count your blessings brother. You may have escaped a death sentence...

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  5. yup ... we = I WILL NEVER FORGET ..... i was a navy hospital corpsman -
    as always = you responses are right on target (no pun intended)

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  6. Doug, most people don't know that Navy hospital corpsmen provided direct field medical attention to Marine infantry and naval surface units in Vietnam, just as they do today. The KIA/WIA rate for corpsmen in Vietnam was atrocious...The North Vietnamese targeted them especially. God bless every corpsman in existence, living or dead. They were the bravest of the brave over there...

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    1. not sure of the 'bravest of the brave' - never felt brave
      = we did not have time to be brave = just very-very-very busy
      AND scared 'shit-less' most of the time = but, we lots of fun too
      thanks too for your service - 'once-a-marine-always-a-marine'
      oh --- one added adventure that has been added to my life - i have to share
      === one of my grand-sons (he is 19)
      - did his first 'jump' out of an airplane this past week
      --- he is on-track - he hopes - to be a 'ranger'

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  7. Congrats to you and your grandson Doug! I wish him the very best...and you as well.

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  8. I will take this day to thank everyone who sacrificed all, so I in return can have all that I have.Thank You.

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