I am a Vietnam veteran, and every year around Memorial Day I start to get depressed. I fade out. My wife notices it first. She says I am going numb, looking sad and distant. She knows I am thinking about the war.
At work, I find myself drifting, remembering when my friends' lives spilled into my hands. In between phone calls and memos, I see flatbed trucks stacked with dead boys from small towns that I can no longer name. In boot camp, they never told me I would see someone shot in the head and then carry him to bed for 20 years. Yes. The dead are my springtime disability. My red-white-and-blue Memorial Day reality. Every year it is the same.
I was 17 the year I met my first wife, Marcia. She worked at a hamburger joint not far from our high school. During those long, hot, summer days she would stand at the milkshake machine and look back over her shoulder at me. Just seeing her walk made me crazy. We graduated the following June, 1967. Before Christmas, Marcia was pregnant.
In February, with no job and no apparent future, I joined the Marine Corps. That spring, Marcia and I were married.
By the summer of '68, I was toting a machine gun in the mountains near Khe Sanh while Marcia carried our unborn child to work every day.
Jenine was born at the end of August, as I sat in a night ambush somewhere in the jungle, on the side of a mountain, near a placed called Mothers' Ridge. I remember the night she was born because it was so dark and a kid named Flowers sat on a land mine.
Throughout the year, Marcia sent me letters. When I had malaria, she wrote; when I was wounded, she wrote. And then on Easter in 1969, just after Big Jimmy was shot in the throat, Marcia met me for R&R; in Hawaii. I held my 9-month-old baby for the first time. A week later, I was back in the war.
When I came home, I was barely 20 and I had changed. Marcia cried all the time,it seemed, and I missed holding my rifle. Sometimes when I was angry I would imagine shooting people or dream again about how Gerny died, shot just below the face.
Shortly before Memorial Day, Marcia left me. She took Jenine and the few things we owned from our small apartment and we were never together again.
Over the years, I drifted to the other side of right sometimes, punching holes in walls or unfortunate drunks, before finally settling down. But the images never entirely left me. Especially around Memorial Day, I would see head wounds and sucking chest wounds and the split-open bellies of bloated enemies floating in rain-filled bomb craters.
I have exorcised the war through acceptable and unacceptable means, and I have found that being with other veterans is the best. On Veterans Day two years ago, I flew to Washington to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I walked through the park where the black granite wall rests, etched with names of all those fine young minds that seem to have been wasted. In the park, near the statue of the three soldiers on patrol, I spoke with vets who'd lost arms and legs and drank beer with a guy who had been shot through the jaw. I felt good being there.
On the morning of the Veterans Day parade, thousands of us gathered under gray skies in front of the Smithsonian Institution. A small band played as we huddled in the cool morning air. The aged warriors stood tall, pumped up for their hurrah, some carrying banners--101st Airborne, 3rd Marines, Screaming Eagles. . . . Out front sat the wheelchairs with one-legged and no-legged reminders of what war really costs.
The parade headed down Seventh Street. From the middle of the pack I could see the front ranks turn into Constitution Avenue. I envisioned crowds and deafening cheers. As we reached the turn, I could see the peak of the Washington Monument, but there were no crowds. There were no banners or bands or fresh-faced kids running up to shake our hands. An elderly couple stood by the reflection ponds near the monument, waving little paper U.S. flags; two boys and their dad held a sign that said "We love you Uncle Jim." But the sidewalks were empty. Veterans on both sides of me wiped at their eyes or said obscenities.
I was embarrassed as we shuffled past the White House and worked our way back to the park. I felt sad as some marchers dropped out. In the park, there was cheering and clapping and music playing, but it was the veterans from the front of the parade, who had fallen back to greet their brothers.
Back at the wall, veterans and their families gathered quietly, feet shuffling, not speaking, eyes glistening, stunned by their failed parade.
To those folks, and to all the guys who died, whose names are etched on the black granite wall or in the minds of their brothers. . . . Semper Fi.