Memorial Day: A Tribute To Veterans, Even Here

Two to three times a week I would witness the aftermath of a massacre.

In what was commonly known as a “fire-fight,” helicopters would rush in to bring back the dead and wounded from a most recent battle. Those pilots were God’s better angels.

I could hear the horrible screaming before I entered the field hospital. Young men – my age – just had their legs blown off, or they lost an arm, a hand, or an eye, and choppers were still coming in like a tsunami wave. There were times I didn’t want to assist my chaplain in that awful place in Cu Chi, Vietnam.

Once inside, I could see a nurse walking up and down a row of the wounded, saying only two words, “Yes,” or “No.” YES meant the soldier was worth saving; NO meant that the young soldier was beyond repair, that the young “meatball” surgeons shouldn’t waste their time. My God! It had come to this: life-and-death decisions were being made on the spot.

Blood was everywhere. You couldn’t step around it because you were already in it. I had to rush out the door and vomit until I felt there was nothing left in me. But I knew my body parts were still intact, that for some inexplicable reason, I was supposed to thank God for being so lucky. That somehow I was spared, but why? “Why?” is the existential question for which a lifetime of searching for the answer is futile, at least not one that ever satisfies.

For us who returned from battle, there was the unexplainable burden of what is called “survivor’s guilt.” It took me 15 years to actually open up to my own wife who had the most loving respect for all my years of silence.

I don’t speak for me, but for those Vietnam veterans who can’t or won’t place their thoughts in full view. I thought these few words would at least give the reader a sense of who we vets are, not to feel sorry for us, but to understand that what we did meant something, that it was worth doing, and that we have few or no regrets. And that most importantly, we don’t feel the country owes us anything. Instead, and in concert with our forefathers, we still owe our country our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Lincoln said it best at Gettysburg when he was delivering his most famous words over the fresh grave of one of my ancestors, David Hemphill: “…the brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated [this ground] far above our poor power to add or detract.”

After my return home, and being with my mother for the first time in thirteen months, she took me to the window of the living room. In what could have been a scene right out of Saving Private Ryan, my mother thrusted me into the most tearful moment of my life: she revealed that every day while I was gone – every damn day –  she would look out that window to see if a car with military markings was approaching with news she was expecting to hear about “your brave son.”

I don’t know how brave we were; my fellow veterans and I don’t think about it. What we want – all we ever wanted – is to live according to a self-imposed requirement of keeping our lives simple and peaceful, enriched with that Jeffersonian wish to be left alone.  With perhaps a little more commitment than most.


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13 Responses to “Memorial Day: A Tribute To Veterans, Even Here”

  1. Clare Grenon Says:

    It is an honor to know you and a privilege to be able to thank you-THANK YOU!

  2. Bob Sacco Says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings. Most people will never experience what you have. It is important for veterans like you to convey the horror of your experience so as to remind us all of how fortunate we are. And hopefully avoid sending more young men and women off to the same sacrifice…
    Best regards,

    • Paul Hemphill Says:

      These sentiments have to be registered on the tablet of posterity, or else we’ll never know what the ordinary soldier knew. And many thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Donnarose Russian Says:

    Thank you for sharing this story with us, and for being the man you are.

    • Paul Hemphill Says:

      I tell it but few times, and I continue to be grateful for the expressions of gratitude. We Vietnam vets never had our “parade,” but comments such as yours ignite a gratitude that words cannot express. Thank you.

  4. Steve Zrike Says:

    Paul – You continue to show your bravery by your willingness to share these very personal memories. I know it was not easy. You remind all of us that Memorial Day is not simply s day to grill hotdogs and hamburgers. Many men and women paid the ultimate price in ensuring we have the freedom to enjoy weekends like this with our families.

    • Paul Hemphill Says:

      Hi Steve,
      I’m not one to wear my service on my sleeve, but there are times where a catharthic moment demands its expression. I am thankful for your generosity of kindness.

  5. Lisa Mooney Says:

    Thanks you Paul!

  6. Tim D'Emilio Says:

    Thanks for reminding us about the terror of combat and what the names on the Wall actually represent.

    • Paul Hemphill Says:

      The name of a college classmate is on that Wall. I was the last classmate he saw alive. Three days after I last saw him, I prepared his memorial service.

  7. Wemdy Juergens Says:

    I’ll never forget my grandmother crying many Christmas holidays over the loss of her son Eddie. His submarine was sunk off the coast of Australia in 1943. Her heart was broken forever.
    I remember how scared I was as friends of mine were being drafted and sent to Vietnam.
    As you know, I am the proud Mom of two servicemen.
    Thank you for sharing, Paul, and thank you for your service to our country.

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