The story really starts in 1971, when I was 18. At that time, United States male citizens were required to register for the draft within five days of their 18th birthday. The reality of my life still had not hit me. I was a senior in high school and life was comfortable.
The next year (my 19th) I received a “random sequence number”. This placed your order of call for induction. The process was fair. There were two large baskets, each with 365 ping pong balls. The first basket of balls contained every calendar day of the year. The second basket of balls was individually numbered 1-365. A ball would be drawn out of basket one (the date) and then a ball out of basket two (your number). The first date drawn was November 5 and the matching number was 245. That meant all those males, in this registration, born on November 5 would be the 245 group to be drafted. My birthdate (January 3) was matched with the sequence number of 42. Reality started to set in—but not much.
I was attending Towson State College then, my freshman year. I had a tee shirt that had T.S.C. on the chest. I gloatingly joked that it stood for “Tough Shit Charlie”. Several weeks after that lottery drawing, I received a letter from the Selective Service System requiring me to report to Fort Halberd, MD for a draft physical. There was no chance of getting a deferral for the draft. The South East Asia conflict was going strong and sentiment was strong on both sides of the fence regarding support.
I passed the physical without any issues and then received my new draft card with the classification of “1-A”. I remember sitting on the back porch that night and asking myself: “Is this real?”
Resigned to the fact I was to be drafted, I went to the local selective service board to see what options I had. I came home as an enlisted in The United States Marine Corps. Mom was upset and crying and Dad said nothing.
I arrived at Parris Island two weeks later as a brash, cocky 19 year old kid on the outside but scared shitless on the inside. It was 4:30 AM when the bus pulled up and the Drill Instructor came on the bus and in a “not so happy demeanor” to us to get off “his” bus. I shut up, got on the yellow footprints painted on the sidewalk and grew up in maturity within the space of 10 minutes.
Basic Training was difficult but manageable. Six weeks later, I came home and Mom was all crying and Dad said little. I was proud to show off my new uniform. I was something. I was a Marine.
I received my orders (Viet-Nam of course). I remember saying little on the long flight to anyone. Getting off the plane, the first thing my sense picked up was the smell of explosives in the air. That was the norm. I then turned to my left and saw racks of black plastic on a cart. “Get a good look at it gentlemen. Those body bags are how most of you will be going home”. Okay—this is real—welcome to Southeast Asia.
Things were quiet the first few days. We mostly got settled. Then—our first patrol. I remember walking through mud and forest area. Then, out of nowhere, artillery fire rang out and something chipped off the tree next to me. It was pieces of bark from the tree fortunately but it scared me. All of us on patrol reacted as trained by falling to the ground, returning fire in the “spray and pray” method. Fighting last only a few minutes and I remember walking through on patrol doing “body count”. We came across several dead VC and then it hit me. “Did I kill this person?” I asked myself. I did not want to know. I stared—very hard at his face and I can still see it clearly to this day (38 years later). We walked a little further and came across a young solider that had his arm torn off. It was lying about two feet away. It was obvious that this arm belonged to that soldier. Still, it was listed as “two kills”. Another dose of reality hit. American news every evening reported “number of kills and number of wounded”. The counts were very much skewed. It made the people back home think we were winning this crappy war.
Every few days it would be the same routine, day in and day out. There would be patrolling, searching and destroying, and just walking. I stopped looking at a calendar. Days all meshed in the same. We did have breaks at time where we would get some R&R and spend time in Saigon where another type of war was going on. Downtime Saigon was alive with night clubs, girls looking to take advantage of anyone with money, and thieves. One learned quickly to just drink, say little to anyone you did not know and just observe.
Then it would be back to reality. I remember one patrol where we were pinned down by heavy artillery fire. Alan, my buddy, was next to me. We were talking back and forth trying to get “lower than the dirt would allow us” in order to be safe. Alan was talking about going home soon and driving his car he had just purchased. I laughed and then realized Alan was not talking anymore. I looked at him and he was staring back at me. There was also blood running down the side of his face. He said nothing but still had that same goofy smile. His eyes though, did a lot of screaming. I pulled him close to me and saw his wound. I knew he would not make it. I held Alan, almost like a mother holding her son. The Corporal saw me and said nothing out loud but spoke volumes with a simple nod of the head. Alan left this world as I held him. I wanted to cry but for some reason couldn’t. What was wrong with me that I could not cry? I did not realize then but I had become hardened and grown up.
I remember several days later going to Saigon again for an R&R. I did not want to lose my money and just wanted to be alone. I walked and came across kids playing some game with a deflated basketball. I watched and listened. I heard the most beautiful music in the world: children laughing. Children—simple kids—were the real victims in this stupid war. They were innocent but had to endure what we adults (on both sides) were inflicting upon them. Listening to the kids that day was the best medicine anyone could have gotten.
Christmas came and being alone at that time of the year hit me. It hit all of us in our platoon. We had a tree and it looked like a real “Charlie Brown” tree. It had mare bare branches than it did needles. But it was ours. We decorated it with scraps of metal and then things got quiet when one soldier started to sing Silent Night. There were a lot of tears shed that day.
So life continued, day in and day out. It was the same thing each time. One day, I was told to report to command and handed some papers. I was going home. Home—what a sweet sound. I had twenty minutes to grab my gear and head home for the States. I had made it. I was still alive. I was lucky.
I flew home and was, as per SOP, in full dress uniform. I had survived. I had several lay-overs to get back to my family. I was proud of my service. I was not a rah-rah flag waver but I was someone that had done something important in his life. I walked through the airport in Chicago, my last stop before arriving back home. Crowds were everywhere. It was just before Thanksgiving. A large, dirty, unshaven, smelly individual (I want to call him something else) came up to me. He had a voice that was so loud that people turned to see what the disruption was. He looked straight into my eyes and put his face about five inches from mine, called me a baby killer, and spat in my face. God, I wanted to swing. I wanted to pulverize. I wanted revenge. But I could not move. I stood there, in this busy airport terminal, and people stared in silence at this idiot’s actions and how I would respond.
There I was; the returning war veteran, A United States Marine. What did the brave Marine do? I stood and cried. To be accused of taking another’s life is degrading. Did I do that overseas? Did I kill someone? I had just done my job, what I was trained to do. That’s all. The tears continued to roll. They were not sobs, just rivers down my face. I turned and walked into the Men’s Room. I changed into civilian clothes for the remaining journey home. This was totally against SOP but I did not care.
I continued my flight home and had mixed emotions. I wanted to see my family but I did not want questions. Mom hugged me and cried. Dad just shook my hand and said welcome home. Nothing more? I wanted a hug from my father. I wanted to hear him say “I love you to me”. Didn’t get it.
There was a big family dinner that night and afterwards I sat out on the porch listening to a Baltimore Colts football game. The stars were bright that night. It was cold and I didn’t care. I was enjoying the chill after many months of hot, humid and shitty weather.
The next few days went by without much fanfare and I started to job search. There was not much out there. Once people heard I was a Viet-Nam veteran, they distanced themselves from me. It was almost as if they were avoiding the war by avoiding me. I felt like an outcast. I wanted to feel home.
I learned quickly that it was better to not bring up my military service if at all possible. It was more socially acceptable. People could not understand. I still don’t think they do.
Life continued for me and I finally started to face some of my inner demons regarding my service. My later life was confusing. I married, had a daughter and then divorced. However, there was a twist. I was a single dad who had custody of his kid. Not too many people were in my situation and I was going to be the best I decided. My daughter and I were a great team. I was proud of the young woman she became growing up. It was best displayed when in the late 1980’s; I was dating a woman that I had been seeing for some time. We took a day trip over to see The Wall. I had not been there yet. I had avoided it.
We arrived on a crisp spring morning. I walked along the path, seeing the slabbed timeline get larger with names. I had written down Alan’s name and looked into a book that was there for people to research. I found his name and I could see his face very clearly in my mind back then. I walked to the specific slab and started to count down the lines to his name. I saw it right away when I got to his name—this granite wall is so highly polished that acts almost like a mirror. I felt an electric shock go through me and I stepped back saying nothing. Again, tears started to roll down my face. This woman I had been dating started to ask what was wrong. My daughter, displaying wisdom that a 14 year old does normally not have, pulled her arm back sharply and said “Leave him alone”. Two men came and stood next to me, at attention and in total silence. They had veteran’s hats on. I composed myself and turned to say hello. Before I could open my mouth, each shook my hand and said only “Welcome Home” and walked away. I felt like a burden was off my shoulders. Someone knew and someone understood. Those two men said very little but in actuality, they spoke volumes. I silently thank them to this day.
Life goes on and I am able to discuss some things but it is still hard. I still cannot attend fireworks. The explosive shell leaves an essence in the air than reminds me of Saigon. The school where I teach recently had a Memorial Day presentation they had written and I was asked to say a few words. My students knew I had been in the Marine Corps but they had not heard any of my experiences. I stood and could not say much. I told them only of my love for this country and the flag. I showed them a video clip of the late comedian Red Skelton’s pledge to the flag (find it on You Tube if you have not seen it). One student read a story he had written about Flanders Field and the Poppies. The school band played TAPS and tears flowed. Afterwards, we had a small social gathering and some students asked: “Mr. T., we saw you crying at the end of the presentation. Were you sad?? I looked very clearly at their innocent faces (remembering the faces of the kids in Viet-Nam) and I responded to their question with “No, anything but” and turned away quickly. I knew I had made an impression as these kids asked their home room teacher how someone could cry (looking sad) but be happy at the same time. The teacher (who knew of my service experiences) told me she scrapped her lesson plan that day and they all had an open discussion. She said the kids participated openly. She also commented that they were very quiet (unusual for middle schoolers) as they left the room. She also told me they seemed to leave the room walking a little taller. I smiled. The future will be okay.