Memories, respect, sorrow, prayers and love.
Reflections of a combat veteran standing at the Wall
It was just after 6 o’clock in the morning when Frank walked through the hotel lobby and exited the door leading to 16th & K Street NW. It was miserable out – cold, windy and a slight drizzle. As he walked down the street, Frank buttoned his fleece-lined leather jacket up to cover his neck, pulled down the black knit watch cap over his ears, and set out into the morning’s darkness. Frank would be celebrating his seventy-first birthday in February, and his pace was steady but a little slow — unlike his early years when he was a conditioned, well-built strapping six-foot Marine grunt. After a few blocks, he turned right on Constitution Avenue, passed the Washington Monument and World War II Memorial, heading to his destination, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The old habit of marching at the Marine regulation 30-inch steps at 120 steps per minute was still there. Frank remembered drilling troops, barking out almost unintelligible singsong sounds of a Marine cadence he had mastered when he returned home from Vietnam. He made the growling, staccato noise under his breath that sounded like “Laoo-riii-lao! Step yo lao, riii, lao, rii, leff!” Frank smiled and strained just a little to pick-up his pace to mirror his cadence. He made his boots pound the wet sidewalk with an old Marine’s steady left-right-left marching cadence.
Every year, beginning January 19, 1969, Frank awoke before dawn to say his prayers, thanking God for sparing his life, honoring the sacrifices of his buddies, remembering his experiences, and meditating on his life since returning home from Vietnam. He always asked God why he had survived, and why God allowed him to live, when he should have been killed with his buddies during the firefight against the NVA on the DMZ that day in January, 1968. The events of that day haunted Frank – a sad mystery of his survival and a feeling of guilt for still being alive. God never answered Frank, so he kept praying and kept asking God why.
This year, business brought him to Washington, D.C. on January 19, and Frank was determined to go to the Vietnam Memorial Wall to visit his fallen buddies. The two-acre memorial was only about a 30 minute walk from his hotel, and the dark streets were mostly empty except for a few hard working cabbies looking for their first fare. Frank was enjoying the walk so he waved off the cabs. The old habit of scanning the dark around him and watching where he stepped was still with him.
As Frank approached the Vietnam Memorial, he saw a homeless man sitting on a bench at the entrance to the sidewalk that leads to the Wall. A grocery store shopping cart was parked at the end of the bench with paper bags of empty cans, dirty bedding and assorted ragged cloths. Two broomsticks were tied to the front of the cart, standing straight up, one with the American flag and the other with the Marine Corps colors at the top of the improvised flagpoles.
The streets of Washington, like most major cities, have a large and growing population of homeless veterans, most from Vietnam. But too many were young vets scarred by their experiences fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most suffered from post-traumatic stress and simply couldn’t manage to separate the horrors of close combat and a return home to a normal life. After surviving battle, life is never the same.
The light from a street lamp shone down on the bench, and Frank could see that the homeless man wore a faded Vietnam era jungle utility jacket with metal Marine Sergeant stripes pinned on his lapels. He sipped steaming coffee from a regulation military canteen cup and stared straight ahead into the dark. Frank stopped, the vet looked up and their eyes met. “How’s it going Sarge?” Frank asked.
“Couldn’t be better,” replied the old Marine. “Every day’s a holiday and every meal is a banquet.” They both laughed at the standard answer Marines have been giving for generations about living conditions in the Corps.
“What’s your name?” Frank asked as he sat down next to him on the bench.
“Sergeant,” said the Vet. Then he laughed and said, “Sam. Sam Johnson. From Houston.”
“Frank O’Brian. From next door in Louisiana.” They shook hands.
“I was with Charlie, 1/3, in 1967-68 on the DMZ,” Frank said. It is important to pass inspection and confirm to other veterans that you are also one of them. Frank identified his infantry unit as C Company and 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, a storied, highly decorated combat unit.
“Delta, 2/4,” Sam replied. “I got dinged during Starlight in 1965. Forgot to duck.” This meant that Sam was likely just a few years older than Frank. He had been in D Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment during Operation Starlight, the first major search and destroy operation in Vietnam where Marines engaged hardcore VC battalions. The 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines were nicknamed “the Magnificent Bastards.” Starlight was brutal. The operation cost the Marines over 50 dead and 200 wounded, while the VC lost over 600 dead and over 40 were taken prisoner.
They were quiet for a few moments. “Is there anything I can get you? Do you need anything?”
“Nah,” said Sergeant Johnson. “I’m home here with them,” gesturing toward the Wall. “Feels right to stand sentry. Me and the other homeless DC Marines take turns sitting on this bench, standing watch each month. Billy will take over in a few weeks.”
Frank fully understood wanting to be near their buddies, and he appreciated having Marines watch over the fallen. He stood and turned to go. “Semper Fi” he said to the sentry.
“Semper Fi” said Sergeant Sam Johnson, “Semper Fi.”
It was almost 7 o’clock when Frank walked down the sidewalk, past the stand holding the casualty book that contained the list of all 57,939 dead Americans. The index has their names, rank, branch of service, home of record, the date they died, and the panel where their names are etched in the wall. The book is protected from the weather in a plastic case with a light that allows evening visitors to look up the names of the fallen. Many vets prefer to visit the Wall after sundown when they have some privacy.
He turned and continued down the walk in front of the wall where night-lights shone up from the ground, illuminating the names of the fallen. He walked slowly, as the list of dead rose and grew from panel to panel starting with the first battlefield death in 1961. As the daily casualties grew through the 1960s the fallen peaked in May 1968 when 2,415 Americans died in a single month. The panels in the middle of the wall mark the highpoint in casualties.
On the other side of the peak, the wall angles off at 125 degrees and the list of names on each panel declines from May 1968 as casualties fell until the end of the war. The last American died in May 1975.
Frank stopped at Panel 34E where the names of his 2nd Platoon buddies were listed for January 1968. He found their names half way up the Wall. Seeing his reflection on the engraved panel, Frank whispered each of their names in reverence. He touched the cold stone, and could feel the letters of each name etched into the Wall. The tears flowed and his chest heaved. “Why,” he wept softly. “Why them, and not me?”
The sickening memories rushed back, the deafening sounds, the rancid smells, and the vile taste in his mouth returned. He felt the hot burst of adrenaline that rose from the base of his spine and burst into the base of his brain as AK-47 bullets cracked past his head. He could still hear the explosions of grenades and the screams of fury and pain. The battle had lasted for an eternity.
Frank stepped back from the Wall and looked into the sky. Dawn was beginning to break through the clouds and cast a soft glow on the names on the Wall. Frank softy murmured a prayer, thank you God for giving me all these years. I hope you have a good reason for saving my life.
The rain started to fall in a slow, steady drizzle. The drops collected on the shiny face of the Wall and began to flow together forming small streams that ran to the ground. Frank thought the drops looked like tears that flowed from the face of the black wall. He was alone at the Wall that morning.
A police siren suddenly broke the silence. The rise and fall of the wailing siren brought back a tragic night in Vietnam.
“AhhHHHHHhhh. AAAAHHHHhhhhHHHH.” The siren sounded like the rise and pitch of a scream that Frank remembered had brought his battalion perimeter to full alert.
Frank’s unit was providing perimeter security at Alpha-3, one of the strong points being built on the DMZ. The only thing that separated the Marines’ two man foxholes from the NVA was triple-strand concertina wire spread around their perimeter. The wailing in the middle of the night changed from “AhhhhHHHHHHaaaaa” to “NOOOOOOOOOO. NOOOOOOO!” And then it suddenly stopped.
Frank and Mike were best friends and foxhole buddies. They sat in the mud the following morning when “Frenchie”, the veteran 2nd Platoon Sergeant made his rounds, checking on his Marines.
“What the fuck was that?” Frank asked. No need to be specific. Frenchie knew what Frank was asking about.
“The sin of sins,” Frenchie spat. “Stupid shit in Delta Company fell asleep on watch while his buddy was asleep behind him in their foxhole. An NVA Sapper crawled through the wire and found that the guy on watch was asleep. So the Sapper crept by him, slipped into the foxhole and slit his buddy’s throat.”
“Damn. Damn,” said Mike. Everyone who stands watch at night in the bush has to fight to stay awake. Physical exhaustion and the continuous lack of sleep take an unimaginable toll on Marines in combat.
“Yea,” said Frenchie, with a weary sigh. “And his failure to stay awake and protect his buddy will haunt that poor bastard for the rest of his life.”
Frank was relieved and grateful when the police siren stopped. He returned the image of Alpha-3 to that lock-box of memories where he stored his Vietnam experiences. Frank stood staring at the wall for a long time. He liked being close to his buddies. Frank thought back about how he got to Vietnam, almost 50 years earlier, smiled and shook his head.