Author’s Note: I had doubts about publishing this personal essay given the political divide over the Vietnam war that still exists today. The costly wars in the Middle East make it even more prescient. But even as this site is about “hauntings” — not necessarily of the paranormal kind — it’s something I’ve wanted — needed, perhaps — to get off my chest for some time.
As it had been with many teenage boys of my generation I was born five years too late to be called up for the military draft.
Even with the 1973 termination of the draft, Vietnam — that bloody, ruinous, unpopular “war of containment” — managed to drag on another two years. The war ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975 followed by a hasty and ignominious evacuation of US forces and refugees.
When it was all over the war had taken its toll with more than 58,000 American lives lost with many more lives doomed in the years and decades ahead.
The fortuitous timing of my biological conception had spared me the same fate.
I can’t speak for others of my generation but for me there is a certain pang of conscience that goes with that knowledge -- a survivor’s guilt that asks, “Why all of those men, why not me?”
As surely as American foot soldiers were being cut to pieces by AK-47 rifle fire in the sweltering jungles of Southeast Asia, my teenage cohorts and I lived sheltered lives at home watching episodes of “All In The Family” and “The Waltons” on the television safe with our families — far away from the reality of modern guerrilla warfare. Rarely did we worry that the day would come when we would go marching down that path of sorrow to Vietnam.
Although the war had always been “with us,” we knew from the nightly newscasts that the war was winding down and would be over soon.
But something haunted me this Veterans Day past. Something I can best describe as a need to connect on some obscure personal level with those soldiers who went off to fight in Vietnam and never came home or, if they did, were never the same again.
I got out my tablet computer and searched the Internet for old combat photos of Vietnam.
One black-and-white glossy caught my eye. It was a snapshot of a young infantryman, field combat helmet band fringed with playing cards, eyes barely alive.
In those eyes dwelled an unspeakable sadness.
I looked at the photo for a very long time. There was something in the soldier’s eyes that held me transfixed in that ancient Kodachrome moment.
Too much — the poor kid had seen too much, I thought.
It then occurred to me that death comes in many forms, the worst being psychological death. The kind of death where the flesh is willing but the spirit is gone.
Each year dozens of unsung combat veterans of the war in Southeast Asia die by their own hand after years of drug abuse, alcoholism and lives ripped apart by PTSD. It’s a staggering number — an unheroic destiny none of these men bargained for.
Every day I see Vietnam veterans, old men now in their 60s and 70s — men not as lucky as I to have been born preordained-saved by the grace of time from the horrors of Vietnam.
Steve was one of those unfortunate soldiers. I met him one day at my favorite corner pub when I lived in Boston, calmly nursing his beer at the bar. He was in his late 50s and had short gray hair and a shallow beard and handlebar mustache. He wore a blue cap with an embroidered Vietnam veterans insignia on the front.
He kept staring into his beer glass as though it were a mirror or crystal ball.
Finally, he noticed me in the seat next to his, smiled, and introduced himself.
Steve was a nice guy. Approachable. Thoughtful. Easy to engage and talk to when it came to his personal life.
He told me that he had been a combat infantryman in Vietnam.
Most veterans don’t like to talk about war, but Steve sensed in me someone who would listen.
He bought me a beer.
Steve, as it turned out, had seen a lot of heavy ground action in Vietnam. But even in war there are light moments: he mentioned the time he shot a rat the size of a cat clean off the chest of his sleeping buddy with his M16 rifle. His buddy had quite an explosive awakening, to be sure, but the rat had it coming, Steve said and laughed.
Then I learned that Steve was being treated at the VA hospital for Agent Orange — the highly toxic herbicide the military used to make vast swaths of jungle in Vietnam disappear. Many soldiers were exposed to the chemical and were suffering with the symptoms in their later years.
Steve’s left forearm was wrapped up in a sterile gauze bandage that covered a mass of chronic skin sores. Small patches of dried blood and yellow discharge showed through the porous fabric.
It was an awful looking sight.
It was the first time in weeks Steve felt strong enough to venture out of the house. He lived alone; his elderly mother was in a Boston hospital stricken with terminal cancer.
Steve prayed she would die soon. Then she would be at peace, and he as well.
“Don’t talk like that,” I said.
Steve changed the subject back to Vietnam — or rather, to why he enlisted in the army so that he could go to Vietnam.
Steve joined the infantry a few days after his 18th birthday. He couldn’t join up fast enough, he said, considering his father always beat him whenever he was around.
Vietnam was Steve’s ticket out of his father’s house in South Boston, and a lifetime of physical abuse. The choice was simple: go to war — or commit suicide.
The sympathy I felt at that moment filled me with a sudden need to confess my chronological “sin” to this tragic war veteran.
"Steve,” I said, “I wish I could have been there with you guys in Vietnam. But I was too young to enlist or be drafted into the service in time. When I was 15 the war was almost over. I don’t feel right about that. I surely would have gone, scared as s—t.”
For a fleeting moment I almost felt absolved by my own words.
Steve put down his glass and just looked at me with tired eyes full of compassion.
”You have no idea what it was like over there,” he said. ”You can’t imagine it. You should be thankful you weren’t a part of it.”
Steve saw no point to lingering any further in the graveyard of his soul, and there was no more talk of Vietnam.
My absolution would have to wait.