Remembering Viet Nam

by John R. Stiles

Remember? Hell, I can never seem to forget. It’s been 35 years now since I was in Viet Nam (the two-word name of the country when I was there) and I’d venture a guess that there hasn’t been a day in those three and a half decades since that I haven’t remembered that 12 months plus of my life.

They say, whoever ”they” are, that there are periods in your life that will be indelibly marked in your memory until the day you die. And ‘Nam is that period in mine and probably a couple of million other people from my generation.

This time of year is real good for those kinds of memories. I can’t help thinking back to a troop ship — the USS Leroy Eltinge — sitting in Cam Ranh Bay along the central coast of Vietnam on what still seems like the longest night of my life.

It was late June 1965 and we (First Brigade, 101st Airborne Division) had just arrived on the Eltinge from the States. A bunch of us sat out on the deck most of the night because it was far too hot to sleep down in the hold. But actually we were far too excited to sleep anyway, so we sat and talked about the grand adventure awaiting us. It’s easy to see why war is a young man’s game. When we’re 18 and 19 years old we are almost exclusively in possession of the two most important commodities crucial for such endeavors; we’re all 10-feet tall and bulletproof.

Funny how the young are always so cock sure of first their unwavering fervor and second their own immortality.

Before the year had ended, some in that group on the deck of the Eltinge would go home minus limbs; others would spend the rest of their lives, what little there was of it at that point, in dire fear for their own mortality and the rest of us would someday find ourselves looking at gray haired old men in the mirror and asking ”Why?”

Those are some of the things I think about when Memorial Day rolls around each and every year.

That, and a few hundred other things.

Like a group of young men on a night patrol someplace west of Tuy Hoa (Too-ee Wa) Republic of Viet Nam, stumbling across a half-asleep Viet Cong guerrilla in the dark.

The enemy trooper, in justifiable fear for his life, breaks into uncontrollable hysterics, screaming at the top of his lungs. A few quick hands take him to the ground and somebody decides that for the good of the half-dozen paratroopers still miles from their own outfit, that the prisoner must be silenced.

The same ”somebody” makes a decision, sort of a half order, half suggestion kind of thing that more often than the movies would have you believe usually accompanies spur of the moment military encounters, that the VC has to die. While a couple of members of the patrol tried desperately to shut the terror-stricken prisoner up with a hand and even a rock, somebody else comes up with the brilliant solution that his throat will have to be cut.

For the record, the Viet Cong POW’s throat wasn’t slit that night. Somebody finally managed to knock the guy senseless and by the time he came around he was thankful enough and had calmed down enough that he was willing to see the advantages of a quiet acceptance of his captivity. And for all I know he is happily farming rice to this day somewhere in the reunified Vietnam of the new millennium.

I know that because the members of that patrol, well at least the majority of them, were telling war stories about that 1965-to-’66 tour of duty a few months back at a unit reunion at Fort Benning, Ga. ”Ya’ know Stiles, I sure am glad we didn’t cut that guy’s throat that night near Tuy Hoa,” remembered the sergeant whose knife was nominated to do the deed. ”I can still almost smell the guy’s breath.” So am I, Sarge!

That’s another thing young men, no matter the color or cut of uniform, in combat circumstances share; white knuckle fear. Whether you’re the hysterical prisoner or the unlucky G.I. asked to extinguish his life, there are few if any ”stare death in the face and laugh John Waynes” around when you need ’em.

And thank God. Because what most of us should really remember on days like this, is that young men, hell, men and women of any age or political persuasion, shouldn’t be placed in such circumstances in this world. So, if remembering is what Memorial Day is all about, you better pull another stool up to the bar. Because it’s not remembering that’s my problem, it’s forgetting.

Or is it?