On an august Sunday morning in 2003, I came down to the lobby of the Red Lion Hotel on Fifth Avenue in Seattle, exhausted in spite of a sound sleep. A reunion I had planned was over, and I was filled with a sense of anticlimactic sadness. Nearby, I could see some of the 28 men who attended the reunion of Alpha Company, 2nd battalion, 3rd Infantry. We had all served in the company at one time or another between November 1966 and October 1970, when the company and battalion were part of the 199th Infantry Brigade (Light) in charge of the defense of Saigon. Old comrades, we were middle-aged now, some of us even old. We would not be immediately recognized as the same men whose nearly teenage faces peered out of the Vietnam War photos we had passed around during the weekend.
A month earlier, for three weeks I had watched Lance Armstrong compete in the Tour de France and win for a fifth time. Standing in the lobby of the hotel on that mid-summer morning, watching my friends, I sensed an ironic contrast between them and that cyclist. Armstrong was an athlete revered and applauded for overcoming extreme physical challenges, both in his sport and in his battle with cancer. My old friends had once been young soldiers in a distant, and in the end, unpopular war. They had overcome extreme, sometimes unimaginable adversity and generally returned home with little notice. Armstrong was a self-made winner, known throughout the world. My friends were men one could pass—even in their own community—with no reason to know about the combat, disease and other dangers they had endured in Vietnam. And unlike Armstrong, most of my friends— even those who have earned pensions, or VA benefits related to physical or psychological injury resulting from the war— worry about their financial futures.
Several people over the years have asked me why I still feel so connected to individuals I knew only briefly almost four decades ago in my combat infantry company—many of whom are and will remain very different from me. What is that attachment? How can I explain it to people who weren’t with us in Vietnam, when it remains so difficult for us even to explain it to each other?
I wonder if words can really explain to anyone else the feelings that have grown in all of us out of that experience. Can a mother explain in words the range of emotions she feels for a child she conceived and gave birth to? Simple words cannot convey all her feelings any more than they can convey to others the incredible generosity and sacrifices my friends were capable of during the months I spent with them at war. Words certainly can’t convey what the names of the 33 dead and hundreds of wounded will always represent to us emotionally.
Maybe an avenue to understanding the bond lies in portraying in part the mutual experience. Considering what we went through and the sheer luck of survival, I have wondered from time to time why all of us didn’t die there. Can we be sure our lives are real? Is it possible we unknowingly became ghosts, living out lives we would have lived had we not died? Most of us at the reunion wondered aloud to each other, “How could we have survived that damn war?”
Those of us at our reunion will likely always know sadness for our dead and for those whose wounds incapacitated them. It is likely we will always harbor, as was often expressed at the Seattle reunion, a deep-seated guilt, however unfounded, that we were not able to make things turn out differently for those others. Many of us will always also feel sadness for ourselves, for what we might have been but will never know—that being a road not taken.
Most who came to the reunion had learned, as a result of the war, a lesson traumatically taught: Death comes when it will and isn’t fair. While we were in the field, war surrounded us every second of every day with the threat of death or maiming. For some, that constant confrontation led to a confirmation of old faiths. Others were rudely shaken from unexamined or poorly constructed beliefs about the nature of the world, belief structures that shelter many people and allow them to lead more traditional, even normal lives.
Those who go to our reunions may also serve as an affirmation for each other. Without seeing each other, we might have even more doubt about our war experience. Maintaining our friendships may keep the war from being an even greater tragedy. My continuing friendships with these men seem to me redemptive.
Conversations with others instruct me that what I feel is widely true and that our continuing relationships validate our lives and, in a certain important way, validate our involvement in Vietnam. By gathering, or even just knowing about one another, we are able to refute as not fully true such statements as “They were crippled needlessly,” “The war was a mistake” or “They died in vain.”
In Seattle, as at previous reunions, I had to answer for myself as honestly as possible a question a friend once asked me: “Isn’t it a little funny that after three decades, that experience and those men are so important to you?” In response I have asked myself: Has my life then possessed my life since, just as death possesses the dead or ghosts haunt houses? Are my thoughts about Vietnam symptoms of obsession? Are they something that others with similar experiences know is irrelevant and an unhealthy obstruction to just getting on with life? Has my consideration of that past given it the power to limit my success in the present?
I know that the war does possess me in some respects, because for me it was so horrible. My experiences in it irrevocably changed how I understand the world, social organizations and fellow human beings. But I don’t believe the war possesses me more than serious trauma possesses anyone—and surely less than many people I have encountered who have been affected by more (or even less) significant trauma. Yet in Vietnam I began a process that a paraphrase of lines from a Jefferson Airplane song from that period best describes: “When the truth is found to be lies / and all the joy within you dies.”
As we said our goodbyes in Seattle, we hugged each other mightily and held handshakes for a long time, as if each of us harbored a fear that it might be the last time. After three days and evenings during which tears were sometimes shed, there were now outbursts of raucous laughter among some men, while others stood off in groups in quiet conversation. We said goodbyes that our wives listening may have found refreshingly simple and emotional in comparison to our usual incapacity to express our feelings.
I wondered: Will the farmer from Iowa beat his heart disease and be around for our next gathering? What of my good friend from Boston, wounded in 1969, who laughed again this year when I—for the umpteenth, worn-out time—reminded him as I did 34 years ago that “it’s not ‘caw,’ there’s an ‘r’in car”? Can I count on seeing again my close friend from Florida who contracted a form of diabetes associated with exposure to Agent Orange? I worried about them all. I wondered if I would be alive to greet them at our next reunion.
I’ve witnessed and admired the triumphs of many people since I returned home from Vietnam on June 7, 1970. Because I love bicycling, Lance Armstrong’s story is certainly among my favorites. But I can’t say that I admire anyone’s achievements more than I do those of the uncommon men with whom I had the privilege to serve in Vietnam. I simply admire them differently.
Regardless of how others explain Vietnam, I believe that most of us found that brotherly love was a great part of the foundation on which each others’ character was constructed.
That wasn’t a simple love. In scripture it is said that “…no greater love has any man than that he lay down his life for a friend.” But those of us who served together in combat came to understand that the implicit meaning of that phrase in war is “…that one is willing to die for another….” We knew that willingness in regard to those we lived with day in and day out. It was long ago explained to me that people like one another “because,” but love one another “despite.” Many of us present at the reunion, and not present, had then and still have that kind of love for one another despite all that may have been—and may always be—very different between us. It was a love that for too many friends came at the cost of quality of life or life itself.
Among the dreams I had for years after returning from Vietnam was this one: I would wake up dressed for combat as the infantryman I was in Vietnam, in a deuce-and-a-half truck whose bed was loaded with other soldiers. They weren’t only Americans but also Thais, Vietnamese and Australians with whom we worked at times. But also present among us were North Vietnamese and Viet Cong against whom we had fought. The truck was but one in a long, long column of trucks. All of us rode together crowded and huddled in silence, grim and resigned, but with a common understanding of each other as if we all shared the same language, until finally the column ground to a halt on a ridge. Below us in all directions stretched an interminable jungle on plains, in valleys, and over hills and other ridges and as far as I could see. We all dismounted, handing down our packs and weapons. I knew without it being said that we were going into that jungle to fight war itself, that that war would never end, and that we wouldn’t be coming back. As Plato once observed, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Waking up was always an enormous relief, but also invariably left me full of sadness.
What I also felt in the dream, with absolute assurance, was that because I was with men with whom I had served, I could trust in whatever was going to happen.
Before I die I’m not likely to find answers to all the questions I have about the war in Vietnam. I know that most of the many arguments over the war’s political, military and civilian personalities, its convoluted and even still-secret politics and other issues, will never be settled. But overarching it all when I remember the war, even in the dark moments with which it still can fill me, is my understanding of the love demonstrated by my friends then and confirmed at our reunion in Seattle. I believe that will always be sufficient for me.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.