I recall visiting with three old friends, a few years back, at a park in the nation’s capital. It seems like only yesterday that we were all together, but actually, it has been 42 years. There was a crowd at the park that day, and it took us a while to connect, but with the aid of a book, we made it. I found Harry, Bruce, and Paul. In 1970-72 we were gung-ho young fighter pilots on the USS America and USS Constellation off the coast of Vietnam, the cream of the crop of the U.S. Navy, flying F-4J Phantoms.
Now their names are on that 500-foot-long Vietnam War Memorial. I am hesitant to visit the wall when I am in Washington DC because I do not trust myself to keep my composure. Standing in front of that somber wall, I tried to keep it light, reminiscing about how things were back then. We used to joke about our passionate love affair with an inanimate flying object-we flew. We marveled at the thought that someone actually paid us to do it. We were not draftees but college graduates in Vietnam by choice, opting for the cramped confines of a jet fighter cockpit over the comfort of corporate America. In all my life, I’ve not been so passionate about any other work. If that sounds like an exaggeration, then you’ve never danced the wild blue with a supersonic angel. To fight for your country is an honor.
I vividly remember leaving my family and friends in San Diego headed for Vietnam. I wondered if I would live to see them again. For reasons I still do not understand, I was fortunate to return while others did not.
Once in Vietnam, we passed the long, lonely hours in Alert 5, the ready room, our staterooms, or the Cubi Point O’Club. The complaint heard most often, in the standard gallows humor of a combat squadron, was, “It’s a lousy war, but it’s the only one we have.” There is a more ribald version of this, not suitable for mixed company. We sang mostly raunchy songs that never seemed to end; someone was always writing new verses-and, as an antidote to loneliness, fear in the night and the sadness over dead friends, we often drank too much.
At the wall, I told the guys only about the good parts of the years since we’ve been apart. I talked of those who went on to command squadrons. Those who made Captain and flag rank. I asked them if they have seen some other squadron mates who have joined them.
I did not tell them about how ostracized Vietnam vets still are. I did not relate how the media had implied we Vietnam vets were, to quote one syndicated columnist, “either suckers or psychos, victims or monsters.” I didn’t tell them that Hanoi Jane, who shot at us and helped torture our POWs, had married one of the richest guys in the United States. I didn’t tell them that the secretary of defense they fought for back then has now declared that he was not a believer in the cause for which he assigned them all to their destiny. I did not tell them that our commander-in-chief avoided serving while they were fighting and dying.
And I didn’t tell them we “lost” that lousy war. I gave them the same line I have used for years: We were winning when I left. I relived that final day as I stared at the black onyx wall. After 297 combat missions, we were leaving the South China Sea…heading east. The excitement of that day was only exceeded by coming into the break at Miramar, knowing that my wife, my two boys, my parents and other friends and family were waiting to welcome me home.
I was not the only one talking to the wall through tears. Folks in fatigues, leather vests, motorcycle jackets, flight jackets lined the wall talking to friends. I backed about 25 yards away from the wall and sat down on the grass under a clear blue sky and midday sun that perfectly matched the tropical weather of the war zone. The wall, with all 58,200 names, consumed my field of vision. I tried to wrap my mind around the violence, carnage, and ruined lives that it represented. Then I thought of how Vietnam was only one small war in the history of the human race. I was overwhelmed with a sense of mankind’s wickedness balanced against some men and women’s willingness to serve.
Before becoming a spectacle in the park, I got up, walked back the wall to say goodbye, and ran my fingers over the engraved names of my friends —as if I could communicate with them through some kind of spiritual touch.
I wanted them to know that God, duty, honor, and country will always remain the noblest calling. Revisionist histories from elite draft dodgers trying to justify and rationalize their own actions will never change that.
I believe I have been a productive member of society since the day I left Vietnam. I am honored to have served there, and I am especially proud of my friends-heroes who voluntarily, enthusiastically gave their all. They demonstrated no greater love to a nation whose highbrow opinion makers are still trying to disavow them. I hope to find their names also in the Book of Life.
Note: a retired Navy pilot wrote this piece
9 thoughts on “A Visit to the Wall”
Thank you, Colonel M and Koji-san.
On the contrary, sir, it is YOU and Mustang who chose to stand by our colors. I thank you.
What fine young men politicians expend.
The tragically wounded return to deal with life as best they can.
Politicians live on the rich milk of the government tit.
I was overwhelmed with a sense of mankind’s wickedness balanced against some men and women’s willingness to serve.
That’s surely where I’m at since 2008.
I’ve only visited the Wall once. I went with a friend who’d served with me in Vietnam. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, but the bitterness I feel towards the self-serving politicians of those days is still carried, so to speak, in my pack. Many good young men died and many more were wounded physically and mentally in what they thought was a worthy cause. And for those that do not know, we WERE winning, only to have it frittered away by careerists and politicians. We lied in telling the Vietnamese who were our allies that we’d never leave them in the lurch…and yet we did. We’ve now done the same in Iraq and will soon in Afghanistan. The country must decide when it needs to go to war and have clear reasons and goals…..and only then…go in full tilt and hammer our enemies and assure that our generals and admirals are of the very best quality and produce good results.
Well, here I am, going on and on again. We need quality military personnel and quality weaponry and equipment. The lessons of war are nearly boundless and we do not seriously study them enough.
I either hate or just feel contempt for most who “honor our troops” but really know little to nothing of what they do and never serve themselves or encourage their family members to serve.
I will stop now….as my heart is full and I still recall too much and too much that was wasted.
You are my favorite today, sir.
I can’t really respond. Talk about moving.
I had gone to D.C. three times. Three times I was unable to muster the strength to experience it. On the fourth time to D.C. – and with my two littlest kids with me for support – I finally made it… Touched it… Thought of my good friend’s first husband, Sgt. Hartsock, CMH, posthumously. And my friend who made it back and to this day is bitter about the wretched treatment he received upon his return.
I saw this lady at the wall; it was right before July 4th. She was bundled with patriotism and love for the country these men and women fought and died for. I hope she found what she was looking for… At the Wall.
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