Collateral Damage

The names engraved on the Vietnam Veterans National Memorial in Washington, DC represent those who died in Vietnam. It does not tell us about those who died later because of Vietnam.

58, 260 is the official number of US soldiers, sailors and airmen who died or who are still listed as missing and presumed dead as a result of hostilities in Vietnam. There are an additional 303, 644 who were wounded including over 74,000 quadriplegics or multiple amputees. Surely, some of these wounded warriors have died as a result of these wounds over the last forty years, but are not counted in the “official” totals. In addition, what we don’t know, at least with certainty, is how many of the estimated 1.5 million who returned with post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) have succumbed to problems arising from this misunderstood psychological disorder. We do know that Viet vets are at substantially at greater risk to take their own lives. Various studies have pegged the incidence of suicide from 1.7 times to 7 times to that of the non-veteran population. Although our use of Agent Orange to defoliate the jungles of south east Asia is well documented, and we know that there is a direct relationship to at least three types of cancer, and indirect evidence or a causal relationship with many other life threatening diseases, we cannot say with accuracy how many of our veterans were doomed to a subsequent death by our use of this now-banned toxic defoliant.

There is even a far murkier picture when we consider those of our sons and daughters who returned from service in Vietnam, wounded or not, with alcohol or drug dependencies or addictions. This, too, has been the subject of much study and comment, but there is little fact documented about how these addictions affected later life and death. One bit of data that has been reported from multiple sources is that approximately fifteen percent of the three million veterans of Vietnam service used heroin at some point in their service there. I can do the math. That would be 450,000 soldiers sniffing, snorting, shooting up, or otherwise ingesting one of the hardest of hard drugs trying to get through their days in the jungle. I believe it’s safe to say that some did not leave this behavior behind when they came home. I believe it’s also safe to say that more than a few have died…..not from the bullets or mortar shells that killed so many, but from dope and booze and other directly related maladies. My brother, Craig, was one of those.

Craig was a little over five years younger than me. The age gap insured that we had little to do with one another growing up. Whenever he was allowed into my sphere of influence, it was either because I wanted him to do something for me or I wanted to get some pleasure from tormenting him. As the years passed, we grew even further apart; often not communicating for long periods. I went to college and married and went into the Army. He struggled at school, married as an obligation of an unwanted pregnancy, and joined the Marines to avoid the responsibilities he was unprepared to deal with. His child was born and his divorce papers served while he was with the 3rd Marine division “in country”.

In an uncharacteristic moment of guilt (he was a radioman with a Marine infantry unit and I was an AG officer and systems analyst in the Army) I considered volunteering for Vietnam which would have precluded his service there. At the time, two brothers did not have to be in country at the same time. With a severe upbraiding from my darling wife, I returned to my senses and stayed at Ft. Hood while Craig went to Da Nang and on to Khe Sahn. I don’t know for sure what Craig did in Vietnam other than dope and booze, but I know he did plenty of that. I know that he humped a radio and an M16 for thirteen months. And somehow, he survived. He returned home and entered a long, uneven, downward spiral that included two other marriages and divorces, three other children, more booze and more drugs. It was as if his small bit in the war had defeated him and robbed him of any motivation to live a life “in the world”. Ultimately cirrhosis of the liver and Hepatitus C became dominating factors in his life. He had, I think, brief periods of happiness, but the dope and the booze were his constant companions.

Oddly, the only closeness I ever had with Craig occurred as he neared death. Perhaps it was because we had in common the death of our parents and his struggle, and partial success, in finding sobriety and a measure of normality in what had been a turbulent and largely unfulfilling life. In fact, he had become a counselor for others with the same dependencies that had plagued his own life. When word came that his name had been approved for a liver transplant, he showed a spark of hope that was soon to be painfully dashed when it became apparent that his weakened body would not recover from the surgery.

I visited him several times in the two months that he was in hospital and we were able to talk about our past lives, our parents and our children. I asked him, on one occasion, if he thought he would have still been an alcoholic and drug dependent if he hadn’t gone to Vietnam. He said that he honestly didn’t know, but that he was fairly sure that he would not have been able to survive Vietnam without the booze and the dope. He said on another occasion that it might have been better if he had been shot and killed while he was there.

Yes, I know that many others served and returned to live productive lives while he did not. Perhaps he didn’t have the strength or intelligence to do so, but I can’t escape the feeling that he, as well as many others, was a latent, unreported casualty of the war. He, and those like him, may not have been killed by a bullet, bomb or artillery shell, but they were killed just as certainly by the war. They are not included in the casualty totals except by their loved ones, and their names will not be found on The Wall. The effects of this war, all wars, do not end when the soldiers leave the battlefield. For some, another, more private, battle has only begun.

In Memoriam

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.