I was asked to speak at a Memorial Day celebration in the small town near our ranch. I guess they had gotten the word that I was an easy mark when there was a podium and a microphone involved. For reasons unclear to me at the time, I had a hard time deciding whether or not to accept. I’m sure they weren’t looking for much. A few words in memory of those members of America’s military who had sacrificed in our behalf and in celebration of those who still served. No jokes, no pithy stories. Just a few words to make people feel a little better.
Before making my decision, I spent more than a little time trying to figure out what I would say and how I would say it. It isn’t the kind of occasion that one would want to just wing it. It shouldn’t have been tough in that it’s a rich field, sad to say. It’s a sad commentary on the nature of human kind when there is so much material so close at hand about America’s wars and those who have served and suffered.
I tried to recollect the names of America’s wars, and did a pretty good job only omitting (of all things) our war with Mexico in 1846. In all I recounted twelve “official” wars, and this I verified with the knower of all knowledge, the internet. I was momentarily deflected from my deliberations by trying to determine some standard by which one could determine a war to be “official”, because my list of twelve left out such bloody altercations as the Philippine Insurrection (1898-1902) and the Barbary Wars (1800-1815), and the French-Indian War 1775-1783. As it turns out, there is no official standard for official wars. They are only official if we think they are and history agrees.
No, I’m not going to make you look them up. They are: RevolutionaryWar, War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Civil War ( or War Between the States, if you prefer) Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Desert Storm (Kuwait), Operation Enduring Freedom (Afganistan), and finally, but probably not last, Iraqi Freedom. I’m not kidding about the last three names. That is how they are “officially referred to. In numerical terms that is on average one war every 19.3 years. Otherwise said, if one lives to a reasonable four score, one should have the opportunity to participate in or observe four wars. To complete the tale of the tape, we’ve suffered 1,007,831 deaths and 1,456,093 wounded in these wars not to mention the pain and suffering of untold millions otherwise affected.
When I processed these data in the context of formulating some remarks for the citizens of our town, I found that the numbers were both too large and too impersonal to have an impact on me or those assembled to receive my clever remarks. So I thought of Wendy.
Charles, “Wendy” Grizzle was my cube mate at the Infantry School, Ft. Benning, Georgia. We were thrown together in the random manner that the military has perfected. We were soldiers of the 1st Platoon, C Company, 3rd Battalion preparing for our gold bars and war in Vietnam. I was a most reluctant soldier, and perhaps Wendy was as well, but he never showed it or never said it. It was as if he had been born to do this. The facts were that Wendy was from a small town in Indiana, had had a lackluster academic career, graduating from high school with a slightly better than C average. But Wendy was the go to guy for everyone that knew him. When there was a problem, Wendy solved it. When there was a dispute, Wendy resolved it. When a decision had to be made, Wendy guided the group to the right decision. In short, Wendy was a natural born leader.
Upon graduation from high school, Wendy went to work on the assembly line at the nearby GM plant, and within three years had been selected by his fellow workers as their union representative, verifying once again that Wendy was an acknowledged leader. And along the way, he married his high school sweetheart. Life looked good to Wendy, and he and his wife had resolved to start a family the next year when they thought they could afford it. Secretary of Defense, McNamara, thought otherwise. Wendy’s draft notice was followed by his decision to volunteer for Infantry Officer Candidate School even though it meant another year of service and almost certain assignment to Vietnam. Wendy thought, “it was the right thing to do.” They also decided to wait on starting a family.
1st Platoon was the “honor” platoon for our company, meaning that we screwed up less than the others. For that, we got space on the 1st floor. I was platoon leader and Wendy was platoon 1st sergeant, which meant we got the cubicle just inside the door and that we had to keep our floor spit shinned to a high gloss at all times with all our gear in perfect order. Spit shinning floors was not my gig, I didn’t even like to shine my belt buckle, but Wendy did. And he drug me along with him. He got me to do things that I would not have otherwise done, and do them at a level of quality that seemed senseless to me but made Wendy and the tactical officers very happy. As a result, Wendy and I had it about as good as one could have it with four hours of sleep per night, and crawling through mud and over concertina wire by day.
We talked about our wives and about the future. We talked about our chances of getting assignments in Germany rather than Vietnam. We talked about the burden of being responsible for other people’s lives, and we wondered if we would be really prepared for what was surely to come. We didn’t talk about the possibility of death, because we were young and we were soldiers. It wasn’t in our frame of reference, although every one of our instructors at the Benning School for Boys told us in no uncertain terms in every class segment, “learn this well, or you will die in Viet Nam. How little did we know how right they were.
The night we pinned on our gold 2nd Lt’s bars, we celebrated with our wives. Wendy was looking forward to his assignment with the 5th Mechanized Infantry in Ft. Carson, Colorado, and I was reveling in my transfer out of the Infantry and into the more civilized and safer environs of the Adjutant General Corps. We promised to stay in touch and to get together after we got out two years hence.
Three months later I was at Ft. Hood, and Wendy was dead. Wendy’s unit of the 5th had shipped to Vietnam almost exactly ninety days after he arrived for more unit training. He stepped on an anti-personnel mine after a short time in country. I’m sure he was leading his platoon they way he had been taught.
I was living in Washington, DC when the political acrimony finally burned itself out and work was begun on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, but I didn’t have the courage to visit it for several more years after its dedication in 1992. When I finally walked down the Mall to the sleek black granite walls etched with 58,159 names and ran my fingers across the letters of Wendy’s name, an overwhelming grief almost suffocated me. I thought of Wendy and the life he did not live, the children unborn, a loving wife left to find her way alone, his parents knowing that a part of them could never be repaired, his friends missing the solace of his company, his community not receiving the benefit of his contribution, and his colleagues in arms who would not have his leadership. A Memorial volunteer approached me and put his arm around my shoulder, saying nothing, but sharing my grief.
Of course there are many who suffered more loss than I. And off course, there have been many more like Wendy through the ages. If my numbers are right, 1,007,831, to be exact. I’m not big enough nor do I know how to grieve them all this Memorial Day, but I can grieve Wendy, and I can honor abstractly the memory of the others.
So I won’t be speaking at the park in Honey Grove tomorrow. I just don’t think I could do it. I will remember and honor in my own way. I will enjoy the presence and the love of my family and our time together. Time that Wendy did not have.