It’s been thirty-seven years since the night Jerry and I shared guard duty in the 81mm gun pit. He was a radioman with the Command Post and I was in the mortar platoon.
Someone on the perimeter had called in a routine fire mission for illumination. I dropped a round down the tube, the shot was out, and we waited for the familiar pop and the subsequent intense light that the round provided as it drifted slowly back to the ground from several hundred feet in the air.
The descending illumination revealed a nearby hillside covered in jungle. Jerry and I laughed as the flare drifted towards the hillside, waking a multitude of chirping birds who mistook the glow from the flare for a sunrise. The din from the birds stopped suddenly – as if a switch had been flipped – when the flare burned out.
Vietnam was a lonely place. Amusement came easy.
Jerry asked if I could show him how to work the mortar some time – maybe let him drop a round or two.
I said, "Sure".
There’s an old saying about how tomorrow is not promised to anyone. I suppose that is why Jerry’s death the next day, and the hour or two we spent the night before, are committed to my memory.
Many years after returning from Vietnam, I bought a computer and got online. Some of the first "surfing" I did brought me to veteran locator sites. Occasionally there were messages posted from survivors of soldiers killed in Vietnam. They wanted to hear from anyone who may have known their loved ones.
It took me just a few minutes on "Yahoo People Search" to find the only person in the state of Missouri with the same last name as Jerry. Her first name was Irene.
A year would pass before I decided to contact Irene. There was extreme reluctance on my part. What right did I have to intrude in someone’s life? While some may want to hear from those who knew their loved ones, there are most likely others who don’t.
The letter to Irene explained who I was and what unit I was with in Vietnam. I asked if she was related to my friend.
Once the letter was in the envelope I decided not to send it.
No matter what we endure as soldiers nothing can compare with the burden of a mother losing a son. It was then that I realized my need to let this person know that someone else was sharing the burden of loss.
The next day I mailed the letter. Irene called a few days later.
"I received your letter. I’m Jerry’s mom."
I was speechless.
"I called my daughter and read your letter to her over the phone. Thank-you. We’ve never gotten used to Jerry not coming home."
She related how a couple of guys from our unit had been to see her over the years. They lived fairly close by in Missouri. I knew one of the men. The one I did not know told Irene that he had driven past her house several times before finding the courage to stop.
The next year we talked on holidays. In 1998 I visited her in her Ozark Mountain home.
During our visit Irene told of how she had lost a grandson in a farming accident and described the harrowing experience of her home being destroyed by a tornado in the early 1980s. She and her daughter huddled in the bathtub – miraculously surviving the total destruction of their home. She did not reveal even a small bit of melancholy.
I ended our visit by presenting her with a copy of a "Guest Opinion" I wrote about Jerry that our local newspaper published the previous Memorial Day. It was then that her eyes welled up with tears.
Why was my life spared? Why did Jerry step on that land mine instead of me? Why wasn’t the end result of Vietnam Jerry travelling to visit and console my parents about my death? All of the experiences of life he missed after being killed at age 19. This plagued me for years after returning from Vietnam. Of course there are no answers. It just took me a long time to figure that out.
There is nothing wrong with having family fun on Memorial Day. My son and daughter-in-law are bringing my grandson for a holiday visit. We’ll cook out and head up to Paint Creek with the dogs and laugh as we watch them swim and frolic. I have no doubt that Jerry and the 58,000 others, who did not make it home from Vietnam, would do likewise.
At the proper time, I will remind my family of those who sacrificed in far away lands all through our great nation’s history. I will even mention the privilege I had in serving with some of these men.
There are difficulties in life. None of the difficulties we face come close to the effort given by those who die on the battlefield. We honor them by remembering that.
We honor them, not only on Memorial Day, but every other day, by appreciating the life God has blessed us with and the liberty and freedom our fallen comrades have given their all to defend.
God Bless them and their families.