Tomorrow, with many of my comrades, I will stand guard at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. We will stand there quietly, conducting ourselves with the dignity and honor that the memorial deserves, for all the friends we left behind in Vietnam. We come there to guard the wall against demonstrators who come to protest the Iraq War and who reportedly want to deface the wall as some of them painted the steps of the U.S. Capitol in another demonstration this year. We will peacefully stand guard between them and the memorial on which the names of so many of our friends and relatives are etched. Let me tell you why.
After a savage battle one day in the Mekong Delta, I had to crawl over a mound of dying and dead Viet Cong to get back to my landing craft. The crawl over bloody bodies didn’t have an impact on my feelings. But, when I reached the landing craft and saw six body bags with young soldiers inside, I couldn’t help myself. I broke down and cried, unashamedly.
That fateful day I promised those young men in those black plastic bags I would tell their story to the world, the story of their sacrifice. Since then, as a journalist, I have tried to relate to the world what Vietnam was like, but have failed miserably because you cannot put into words the emotions — the fear, the loneliness, the disgust, the horror — all the emotions you gather in combat.
It was 40 years before I could visit the Vietnam Wall. I worked in the Pentagon, traveled through D.C. many times, but couldn’t bring myself to visit the shrine where all my dead comrades are named. You see, I promised to tell their stories, but it’s difficult. I try, but few listen. I write, but few read. I couldn’t bear to visit them and have them ask why I haven’t told their story to the world.
So, I continue to write.
A few years ago, I became a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH), an organization of 40,000 combat wounded veterans. One must have received a Purple Heart to become a member. It is the only veterans service organization comprised totally of combat wounded.
After a few months, I was asked if I would serve as their national public relations director. Having been a television reporter, editor of three newspapers and two magazines — including Infantry — I accepted.
My life is now more fulfilling because I have the opportunity to tell the stories of our brave warriors who fought in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. I work seven days a week telling those stories to the public in print, radio and television.
Recently, I was appointed to the board of directors of the newly created Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor, N.Y. I am excited about that opportunity because we will be able to tell the individual stories of our combat warriors through video interviews accomplished by those who fought on foreign shores.
We, who shed our blood on the world’s battlefields, are brothers all. When we came back from Vietnam, we were dishonored. Now, with the Gathering of Eagles and the proud display of patriotism being shown by so many wonderful veterans, perhaps we can finally say, “Welcome home, brother.”
I look at those names on the wall and think of the men and boys that went to war and returned in a box. I touch each name and tell them I’m sorry they had to die. And, as I touch each name carved on that black stone, I cry inside.
They didn’t want to die, they wanted to come home and have life, a family. They had plans, loved ones, friends, dogs, a garden, an old car to fix up.
In Vietnam three decades ago, he looked in my eyes as he was dying. I was holding him close, his body ripped open, his blood staining my fatigues. His blue eyes were beginning to glaze over as he whispered, blood trickling from the corner of his lips.
“Please, sir, tell my why I have to die? I don’t want to die, but I need to know why?” his voice a rasp as he took his last breath.
My throat was constricted, tight, too tight to reply. Tears welled up in my eyes as he faded away, his blue eyes remaining open, never to see home again.
He was placed in a black, plastic body bag. A youngster from Kansas, Ohio, Louisiana, New York, California, Nebraska — from somewhere.
I made a vow that day, that fateful day, when I gently put him down. I vowed I would tell his story and every boy’s story, the story of what they did, how they died and try to reason why.
I cannot find an answer. As I walk along the sidewalk littered with flowers and photos, reading the names, I still cannot answer and tell them what I promised I would tell the world. Maybe one day when I become one of those names I will meet them again and we can talk about why we had to die. Meanwhile, I will guard the wall that honors his name.