That Time of Year Again
Well it's that time of year again. The long holiday weekend that marks the beginning of summer, family get-togethers, barbecues, camping trips, general madness and partying, and the relentless drum beat of Memorial Day sales blaring their come-ons on the television. But for myself and many others this is a weekend of reflection and more often than not...painful memories.
When I was 20 years old I spent Memorial Day in the northern part of the I Corps region of South Vietnam near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) marking the boundary or border between the two Vietnams that still existed back then...North and South. I don't recall even noticing that it was Memorial Day, nor did my buddies. It was just another day in a long war with no end in sight. The meat grinder that was the Vietnam War just kept grinding and we were focused each and every day on simple survival and getting the hell out of that very unhappy and dangerous place. Getting "back to the world" (home) again was all we thought about since, in truth, most of us didn't want to be in Vietnam in the first place. Home would make it all worthwhile, would make it right, you see?
Now that didn't mean we dropped the ball or gave up. Never. We fought on despite the shit and misery, the fear, and the knowledge that our sacrifices were mostly in vain. We weren't sheep or automatons, nor were we stupid. We knew "our" war was an unpopular one and that being in the military was even more unpopular at that time. Our contemporaries of the day judged us harshly while they remained stateside, partying and having a good time in college or in Canada or Mexico where they ran to escape the draft and ultimately, Vietnam. And then there were those with the draft deferments that daddy "bought" them because he was a big shot in the community, or one of those Congressmen or Senators who weren't about to send their sons or daughters to fight in the war that they themselves had created. Good for them, I guess. You do what you gotta do, right?
Well, we did what we had to do too. I can't speak for everyone who served in Vietnam, but it was a soul-shattering experience for me and some of my close friends. I lost every vestige of faith and belief in good over there, and when I came home I was sick in mind, heart, and spirit. Very sick. And angry too. After all, I simply was not interested in being a military "lifer" or a natural-born killer. At that time I despised both of those roles (although I participated in one of them), meaning no disrespect to those who made the military a career. This statement has to be seen in the ever-fading light of that era, not today. But at the same time I was no shirker or coward. And as I've said before, I was no hero either. Just another lucky survivor who did, in fact, "make it back to the world" without being conveyed home in an aluminum coffin draped with the red, white, and blue. So I had to learn to count my blessings. And I do 50 years after the fact.
Like most everyone who fought in Vietnam, I lost friends. And I had friends come home missing limbs or otherwise disfigured or maimed. I'll tell you something straight up that you may find hard to believe. But at times over there we used to discuss with each other the relative merits of being killed in action (KIA) or wounded in action (WIA). The consensus? Most of us would choose a quick death over being horribly burned, paralyzed, blinded, or transformed into some sort of monstrous-looking figure that would draw pitying looks in public or send little kids scurrying off in frightened tears. That's the truth of the matter and you can accept it or reject it as you may. But what was the ideal? The so-called "million-dollar" wound that was just bad enough to get you rotated out of Vietnam but not bad enough to fuck your life up permanently. Like everything else in this life, it was all about compromises.
Yes, I've lost a few Vietnam buddies who did make it home after all that. My own brother John whose life was cut far too short because of drug abuse. And Mike S. who died of cancer at 62. God bless you Johnny and Michael. You both stood tall when it counted and you will always be remembered. Just as I remember all who served and sacrificed. Right now another buddy is struggling mightily with dementia, cancer, and heart problems. But those of us who did make it home were the lucky ones. We still had our lives and most of us made good with that precious gift. We'd been through far too much to just throw our lives away for no good cause. I always believed that I owed a good and productive life to all those who never got that opportunity. I've taken some shit for that belief at times but I stay firm on it regardless. I had to make good on my promise to all my buddies, living and dead.
So go out there this weekend and enjoy yourselves. Have your family get-togethers and your barbecues. Enjoy a few beers and party down. Hell, if the spirit moves you go buy some item at one of those Memorial Day sales.
All I ask is that you take a moment to remember those who made that possible for you...
(c) Jim Rocha 2018
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