by Tim Lickness
I attended a reunion recently. It was a military reunion with all the ceremonial pomp that goes with these occasions – the spit-shined shoes, the formal dress, everyone’s medals displayed. I had not worn my Dress Blue uniform with all my medals in nearly thirty years. I can’t remember standing that straight since I left the Army. Even after all these years my salute was crisp with military precision.
There were eight others attending this reunion. We had served together in Vietnam in 1968, part of the elite Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division. We were all paratroopers who were part of America’s most unpopular war. I was their platoon leader.
We had a ceremony where I approached each one of them and hung a Purple Heart and a medal for bravery on his chest. I looked at each with pride, and remembered what he had done to earn his medals. There were all heroes without a doubt, but most people would never know of their heroism. They were very young men at the time, some just teenagers, who were serving their country out of a sense of duty. They were scared, but served with bravery.
The one thing these eight had in common was that I saw each of them die. Hecter died from a bullet through his heart while setting up a perimeter defense. Mac was shot walking point. Gene, Les and Frank were killed during a fierce night firefight that lasted until sun up. Sarge, I can’t remember his name, our platoon sergeant, was killed by a 60 millimeter mortar round that just landed too close to where he was positioned. Jack and Kenny died as we attacked a fortified rocket-launching position.
They were from New York, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Texas, Puerto Rico, Mississippi and other places I now can’t remember. They returned my salute and graciously accepted their medals. Then they seemed to disappear, having left without speaking. I don’t know when I’ll see them again, but if there is place in heaven for soldiers killed in action that is where they will be.
My salutes turn out to be nothing more than me wiping my eyes and my audience are seatmates on a cross-country flight. This reunion takes place entirely in my mind. I come close to making a spectacle of myself and I’m saved from such a scene when a flight attendant asks if I’m okay. I excuse myself and seek the privacy of the airplane’s lavatory where I break down and cry. It is one of those uncontrollable cries where your whole body shakes.
I don’t know why it took me nearly three decades to cry for these guys, as hardly a week goes by that I don’t think of them. Maybe I’ve seen too much since we were last together. Maybe I wasn’t crying for them alone. Maybe I was crying for myself, or for what’s become of the America they gave their lives to defend. Thankfully, they would not return home to the taunts and glares that greeted so many of us.
Every Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day I will again salute them when I see the flag that they served.
The revisionists of that war would like to minimize or otherwise distort the contributions of those brave heroes to the freedoms we now enjoy. I will work hard to keep that from happening. When the time comes for history – and finally God Himself – to judge our actions, I will choose to stand with the courageous men in my dream. I am proud of them and I am proud of what we did and what we stood for.
1997 Tim Lickness