I was going to save this Catch for a military holiday, but the subject matter has been weighing too much on my heart and mind to wait for Veteran’s Day, next November. Besides, it has more weight on January 6, when no one is thinking about the Vietnam War except the thousands of people alive now who were a part of it — especially the fighting ones. They probably don’t live a day without thinking about it. You probably live near, or maybe work next to someone who carries memories of war, completely incongruous to the life they are leading now. Does this ever bother you?
It is a different environment now. Soldiers get credit from civilians today for serving their country especially since 9/11/2001. In 1968, you were not serving your country as much as the fact that your draft number was called, and you were not clever, influential, or rich enough to come up with some way around it. As my friend, Tim wrote: “It seems like yesterday that I was graduating from the Infantry Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia. Just a year earlier my friend Don and I were checking out girls and cars like we did every day after junior college classes. A little over a year later, I was a 21-year-old infantry platoon leader, part of the famous 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles, and Don was back home dying from the effects of the war I was fighting.”
I know Tim from my church group in high school, and pretty much lost contact with him after I went away from college. Last year I met him at a reunion and found out he had fought in Vietnam. So later, when I found out there was a book out that included a story of Tim on one of his missions, I had to order it. I had to somehow get in touch with this disparity that has been in my life all along. That there are guys who grew up no different than me, who trudged through jungles, pulled a trigger on the enemy, and watched friends get blown out of helicopters. “Mostly we did what we had to and hoping to get home someday.”
Tim didn’t stand out in my church youth group as one of the more popular kids. Even he describes himself as “not a very impressive Officer Candidate having the command appearance of a Boy Scout and the command voice of a Girl Scout.” But in Dustoff & Medevac Vietnam: True Stories of unarmed Medevac Missions as Told by the Men Who Flew Them, I found a defining story of Tim’s courage and commitment that took him way beyond our high school youth group. I found out that on April 3, 1968, Tim was on the ground with his platoon under heavy fire when a medical rescue helicopter was shot down near them. Marking the sound of the copter crash on his compass, Tim led a team of seven men through impossible jungle terrain to rescue, in a period of five days, three injured crew members to safety. One didn’t make it. It was what he labeled as “something … that you sense would change you forever.”
Of the 58,286 names on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, almost all of them are my peers — some names I would probably recognize as high school classmates. I’ve always been bothered by this — how my road and theirs began at the same place and ended so far apart. Somehow, I want to make peace with that. Maybe in this small way, by telling Tim’s story, I can help pull together these loose ends of our bizarre existence and touch you and me with some redemption and recognition. Some point to what seemed so pointless.
As Tim wrote in conclusion: “It is now difficult to explain those five days. They were not the most remarkable of my Vietnam tour. That mission won’t be mentioned when great books of the era are written. Few will know the lousy food, lack of sleep, being scared or being brave. Most of the world will never know what happened on that mountain. The one thing that cannot be changed is that three brave men were saved because a band of mostly teenage soldiers persisted in a dangerous jungle search just to find them.”