When I think of Memorial Day as a holiday now, from the attenuated viewpoint of a Veterans Advocate, my memories drift back to my first few months in country in Thailand. Some one lied and said I spoke French and the jig was up. Off to Saigon I went, TDY for the Great Big Interview. I reported as ordered to the 7th TACC ( Tactical Air Combat Control) Center. This was the nerve center for anything having to do with dropping ordnance or marking the drop zone.
After the dog and pony show TACC briefing and the $2 dollar tour, I sat down with a Major and began discussion on why I was there. Every question was followed by “Just sign here and I’ll brief you in”. When you’re volunteering for something, it’s always nice to know where your new APO address is going to be. Regardless of what I asked, I was met with the “I can’t tell you until you volunteer”. My last question was the kicker. “So what are the odds? What’s the casualty rate?” Major Whatshisbutt’s rejoinder will always echo in my head to this day. “Well, to be truthful, 40% so far but we’re hoping to improve on that. Don’t let that figure fool you. That includes being wounded too.”
To this day, I will always think of those 40%, some of whom remain nameless because they departed for the next plane of existence before I arrived and some after I left. Back in 1970, I focused on the rather narrow obverse equation-that 60% survived and went home more or less intact. Testosterone is a powerful aphrodisiac in war and causes you to do many things that, in retrospect, you would never contemplate ordinarily. No 19 year-old, including me could resist that secretive kind of Terry and the Pirates briefing. To this day, I will never regret exclaiming “Where do I sign?” regardless of the ensuing medical and financial travails in the last 20 years.
This Memorial Day keep those 40% close to you in your memories. One of them might have been a parent or relative. They may have been a brief acquaintance who failed to complete their tour. Vietnam was a study in anonymity. We did not arrive together as a trained, cohesive unit nor did we depart en masse when our tour was completed. We were assigned on an as-needed basis and we rarely knew the folks we were assigned to work with. Some of the guys I served with up north also had pseudo-names like Benjamin Franklin or Jack Smith. Knowing we might lose this tenuous bond abruptly, very few of us were outgoing enough to make lasting friendships. This saved us from the hurt and anguish of that inevitable loss just over the horizon. Now, in retrospect, I regret that. The anguish might have been unbearable and painful then but the remembered friendship would be welcome in my waning years.
Perhaps that is the reason I tear up at the sight of a flag-draped coffin being unloaded from aircraft at Dover AFB in times of war. The anonymity is still there but the camaraderie and the tightly knit bond of a fellow serviceman’s passing-one of those legendary 40%- is still omnipresent.
And that’s all I’m going to say about that. Happy Memorial Day and enjoy the freedom others gladly bought and paid for you this weekend.