The writer, of Omaha, is the Douglas County assessor. He wrote this for Veterans Day.
When I was days from leaving the jungles of Vietnam, I remember telling a fellow soldier, “When I get home it'll only take one cold beer for me to forget this place and get on with my life.”
Oh, the naiveté of youth.
I wasn't prepared for the insults, the anger, the indifference — and it would take many more beers than one to try to forget. We didn't know about PTSD — posttraumatic stress disorder — back then. We just knew we needed to adjust to the “real world.”
As I look back, the one emotion that still surprises me is the guilt. The guilt of coming home in one piece and the guilt of even coming home at all. Why did I get through the war unscathed while others were killed or wounded?
After I returned home, I often drank with two Vietnam veterans from the 101st Airborne — both wounded warriors. One had a plate in his head; the other had a chunk taken out of his shoulder and later lost a leg from his wounds.
It was around this time I learned that a Creighton classmate had been killed on Hamburger Hill after he had extended his tour past the one-year commitment. Another classmate was killed by friendly fire halfway through his tour. A lifelong friend spent much of his tour on a hill at Khe Sanh. He was one of six Marines from his platoon who was not killed or wounded.
Years later I shared my guilt with a friend and fellow veteran. He was badly wounded after only one month in country and was evacuated back to the United States for treatment and surgery. Shrapnel left a scar that starts behind his right ear and travels down to his throat. The wound left his vocal cords frozen for months. He said he felt the guilt, too.
I raised my eyebrows in surprise and asked why he felt guilty since he was wounded. He replied, “My friends were still back in 'Nam, and I wasn't there to make sure they came home alive.”
Last month I finished the new novel, “War Without End, Amen: A Vietnam Story.” It was written by a high school and college friend of mine, Tim Coder. Tim was drafted when he was halfway through Creighton law school, and he left for Vietnam three weeks after I returned to the States from my tour. He became a squad leader with the 101st Airborne.
In his novel, Tim relives the war through the eyes of his main character, Sgt. Paul Murphy. Forty years after the war, Murphy travels to see his former platoon leader who is on his death bed. The visit brings back the memories of firefights, friendships, folly, phantoms and screw-ups. For me, the story brought back the sounds, the smells, the fears, the terror, the valor — and, yes, the guilt.
But I found peace in Sgt. Murphy's reconciliation toward the end of the book. He declares: “What I don't know is why I live and all my Vietnam friends died. That fact has haunted me ... until now, when I realize, for the first time, that a force far bigger than I is at work. The fact is that none of us has anything to say about that. We just do the best we can. All in the Lord's good time. And I want to emphasize live. That's what I will do from now on for as long as I'm allowed. I will live to honor the memory of all my fallen friends. And I know all of them are in a good place, wherever it is the good ones go.”
The Vietnam Wall was dedicated 30 years ago this Veterans Day. Some facts about the Wall:
>> There are 58,282 names engraved on it.
>> There are three sets of fathers and sons on the wall, and 31 sets of brothers.
>> The largest age group (33,103) is 18; the youngest soldier is a 15-year-old Marine.
>> There were 997 soldiers killed on their first day in Vietnam and 1,448 killed on their last day.
>> Fifty-four soldiers attended Thomas Edison High School in Philadelphia. Beallsville, Ohio (population 475), lost six of its sons.
>> The highest casualty count for a single month was 2,415 during May 1968.
>> There were 244 who were awarded the Medal of Honor in Vietnam, and 153 of those names are on the Wall.
>> Nine graduates of Morenci High School (Arizona) joined the Marines as a group — only three returned.
Today, we celebrate the anniversary of the Wall. We remember our fallen heroes. Today, Coder, Sgt. Murphy and I know that “all of them are in a good place, wherever it is the good ones go.”