Another Memorial Day is here and tradition tells us the day is set aside in remembrance of those who have died in the line of duty while serving in our Armed Forces. Every generation of folks who have served have a different story to tell, my generation marked the end of an era in the military where the business of killing efficiently was the order of the day and cultural diversity was simply assumed. Along the way, I lost uniformed friends to accidents, hostile action and homicide. I am offering a glimpse into the preparation that you go through to serve in a war zone. Every grave stone of a member of our Armed Forces is backed by a story. The living speak for the dead. Technology is changing the way we fight and I have little insight into the battlefield of today, but I understood the rules in my war, Vietnam. Let’s have a look at what happens before the Lord calls you home in the defense of America.
You began military life under the tutelage of a Drill Sergeant whose decided motivation was to toughen, strengthen, teach you to shoot, follow orders and think under pressure. When this sixteen weeks of basic and advanced training was over, depending on your specialty, you were off to a duty station. In my case it was Vietnam where my specialty was computing data for the delivery of accurate artillery fire. On the way to Vietnam, we were housed in a giant warehouse in Oakland, Ca., where the lights were left on 24/7 to discourage suicide and mischief. The PA system droned on incessantly, calling names for a manifest, assigning you a seat on a charter flight to the war. The mattress stank from the sweat of thousands of folks who waited their turn to go ahead of you. Your jungle fatigues smelled of new, your boots were stiff and uncomfortable and the tension ran high. You were exhausted and sleep did not come easily. Missing a manifest was a very bad thing…so you formed a relationship with another soldier to listen while you dozed. As you boarded the airplane, you walked past returning warriors, tanned, grizzled and avoiding your eyes. Some crossed themselves, contributing to your fear. Across the tarmac, aluminum shipping containers, coming off the aircraft, opened your eyes to the reality of what you were facing.
Soon you were on the ground in Vietnam. The doors to the airplane were opened and a blast of peculiar smelling humid air slammed you in the face. You were briefed on what to do in case of a mortar attack and you were bussed to in country reception. You found another sweat stained mattress and began waiting for your assignment. You were anxious to learn your role and get this experience over with. Time crawled. While I was waiting, a young West Point Lieutenant was fragged and killed as he slept in the First Sergeant’s rack, mistakenly killed by a soldier who hated the Top Sergeant. They called it fragging, the use of a grenade to kill a superior. That was first blood for me and marked the casual indifference that accompanies death in a combat zone. As they say today, “stuff” was getting real.
Soon enough I settled into my job in a Division FDC, or Fire Direction Control center. Not bad, except for assignment on an as needed basis to Fire Bases that needed a slide rule toting guy with a rifle. This is the part where you get shot at, mortared or subjected to ground probes. The guys before me did all the heavy lifting leaving me to bat clean up. Still, I was alive. Our body counts, the only way to assess success in this war, were trending down and we continued to inflate our kill numbers. There is always a political beast to be fed when you are a pawn in the deadly chess game of war.
In my war, the two most devastating elements of combat were well trained, seasoned rifle companies and crack field artillery batteries. The damage to human beings that can be done with these components is forever seared in my mind. I was never prouder of an association with the military than I was then. Still, I was a small cog in a big machine. With God’s province, I also was not shrouded in a poncho, tossed into a helicopter and flown out to Graves Registration to be prepared for shipment back home, in a reusable aluminum shipping box, to join the 57,000 other patriots who’s work on earth was done. The smell of burned flesh, old death, and cordite is forever imprinted in my mind. You grow up a lot in a combat zone, if you have the chance. So many did not. In Vietnam, if you survived a year, you flew home sitting in a seat, or in a specially equipped Air Force airplane where your wounds could be attended. I was in a seat.
My point is this. Every veteran, in every era, has a story to tell of sacrifice, fear, and service to America. Some are incredible, some are the opposite and most fall in the middle. I would suggest that when you see a veteran’s grave, there is a story of sacrifice to be told. There is a back story, adapted to the era they served in.When you encounter the smooth white grave stone, it is more than a name, it represents a saga that is sadly untold. A man or woman with a rifle, a slide rule or a kitchen spoon underwrote your family picnic and whatever festivities you engage in. Every man and every woman who died in the service of this country mattered. Today, through our shared experiences, I speak for them. It is their day. May God richly bless those who reside under that smooth white stone….
Have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend……