Memorial Day: My Turn To Say “Thank You”

Several 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 the 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 flying in as if to mimic a rushing funeral motorcade. 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 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 for any veteran, 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 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 the movie, Saving Private Ryan, my mother put 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 never prepared to receive.

I don’t know nor can I assess 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.

For the recognition you give us on this special day, on behalf of veterans everywhere, thank you.

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3 Responses to “Memorial Day: My Turn To Say “Thank You””

  1. Marilyn Akikie Says:

    Let me be one of millions who, not only on this special day but on many other days, too, want to thank you for your service, your bravery, your contribution to our country, and for all you have given back to us. You are a most unusual man who it has been my great pleasure to know. I lost friends and classmates in VietNam. It was a difficult time for our country but all the soldiers who survived are my heroes. None of us will ever know your profound, life-altering experience in that war but you served your country with honor. Thank you from this family.

  2. paulhemphill Says:

    You’re a class act Paul. Thanks for your service, for your commitment to freedom, and for reminding us that all veterans, living or dead, are our heroes.

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