I had a friend here [at home]. His name was Dennis. He wrote me a few times. Before the war, his house was like a second home to me, because I was always over there. He lived at home with his mom, dad, and sister. His father was a sheet metal worker. I just had to see them, so the next day, I went to Dennis’s house. Well, we all had a homecoming and Dennis and I planned a hunting trip to Walnut Mountain. When he and I were kids – sixth, seventh, and eighth grades – we squirrel hunted. But, this hunt would be my last squirrel hunt for a long time.
We went into the woods before daylight. It was cold and the sun was about thirty minutes from rising. As daylight broke, I heard shots – Booommm! Boom! And there it was. The chill in the air seemed to turn warm, and I heard in my mind, “G.I. You die tonight.”
Adrenaline rushed through my body as I began to stalk two people with guns. I’d found them in seconds, as quick as a cat. As the first [man] rounded a big white oak, I said,
“Dung Lai!”1)Dung lai English translation: “halt” or “stop.”
The man had a rifle under his arm. Mine was pointing straight at his head. Then a blessing from God – I saw a flip of silver-grey fur hanging from his belt on a metal clip that looked like a big diaper pin. It was a squirrel. I lowered my gun and said,
“My God, man. I’m sorry.”
I turned and ran back to the truck, unloaded my gun, hunched down, and waited for Dennis. We cut the trip short and went home. I remember saying to myself: Surely in time I’ll change. I was very careful after that. I never told anyone about what happened, not even Dennis.
Back home that day, I bedded down in my bottom bunk, and, boy it was like heaven. For the first time, I allowed myself to realize I’d really come home. I settled into my bed and slipped away for the first real sleep I’d had in months. I dreamt of my fiancé, Pam. We were later married in a church out on Victory Ridge. We went to our honeymoon, then back to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where we rented a small trailer off base in Clarksville, Tennessee.
It’s a shame a man can’t see through his eyes at nineteen or twenty years old like he can at forty or fifty. Pam endured years of torturous jealousy and abuse and hell. I don’t know if it was in my genes or just me, but that’s one sin I know I’ll pay for. If I could, I’d call it back. But, like taking a life, once it’s gone, you can’t give it back. God gave me a taste of heaven in her and a second chance at life itself. I know now she has forgiven me for those years, but I guess it’s like Vietnam: She will never forget. Pam and I became parents – a daughter and son – and grandparents, our reward for both our sufferings.
As I sit here and watch the embers in the fireplace fade, I think of all the good times and how very fortunate I am, and life don’t seem so bad. In the mornings, I gaze in the mirror, look deep into my eyes, and see how much time passes ever so quickly. Flashbacks are prevalent for me. I hope I can recall enough to just briefly let someone who might read this feel firsthand how a veteran of a foreign war feels about his country, the people dear to him, and the grief his partner must feel.
After Vietnam, the only job I could find was as a bag boy at Piggly Wiggly, a grocery story at East Gate Shopping Center in LaFollette, Tennessee. After that, I worked several jobs here and there. But I was so very unsettled and disturbed, I couldn’t hold a job. I worked all kinds of construction jobs. I was a breadman. I worked at a tent factory. I made dynamite powder. I worked a jackhammer. I was a steel laborer. I worked in forays of all kinds, but I’d only work for three years and find some reason to quit. I was suffering from post-traumatic stress and never knew it.
One day, it dawned on me. The first time I ever held a gun, I had a sense of security. So, I became a police officer and felt better with a gun in my hand again. Little did I know that my career would be as a public servant to the people. Whether I was defending freedom or law and order, I could carry a gun and felt like I was someone worthwhile, a trusted person and, in turn, helped to enforce the laws our great country created. Wages for an officer wasn’t too bad. I worked in the town of Caryville as a patrolman, then became a dispatcher and jailer for the Campbell County Sheriff’s Department. Later, my military and police experience helped me qualify for a job as a security inspector for a key weapons factory owned by a major contractor of the U.S. government.
Situations and happenings occur that bring a veteran of war back there. One recalls the blazing, hot weather and sweat pops from the skin, even in winter. Those chilling smells of death and napalm, the sounds of bombs and strafing and screams, are rekindled from a past hidden deep inside the human brain. The time in 1967 burns a bright memory of a far away place in Southeast Asia and a people split by a DMZ at the 29th parallel near a city called Huế. Yes, things occur that bring a man back. I love my country. But today is December 15th, 1996, and our great country has once again turned her back on people like me – and others braver than I am who died as a price for freedom. Our country has re-elected a president for the second term who dodged the draft. People have chosen immorality and scandalous ways. I often ask myself, why?
Huế was a place torn apart and riddled by war. I saw bodies lying on roads, children crying and shaking like animals left to starve and die. Mothers, even in death, still clutched their babies, as the North Vietnamese had slaughtered their own communities. Today, we would have been called heroes for trying to help these poor people, but, when I came home, we were called Baby Killers, Gestapo, and Immoral. All we wanted – the grunts, the pilots, the soldiers, the sailors – was freedom for these people.
September 11, 2001
I’m off work for the day. All goes well until the unspeakable happens. Our great nation was struck by a terrorist attack. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were hit with two passenger planes loaded with passengers and hijackers. A brief moment later, the pentagon, the very heart of our military, was hit with a third passenger plane. Another plane from Boston en route to the White House was forced down in Pennsylvania by the hijacked crew. No survivors. Thousands dead and thousands wounded. The real, cold, hard fact of WAR flashed me back to Vietnam in an instant – all the screams for mercy from people from all walks of life, little children, women, men, old and young alike. It’s an awful sight – one I thought I’d never see on our U. S. soil. Now America looks like a war zone. Our world and everything came to a sudden stop. No planes flew. No mail moved. Jet fighters stormed the air and our great nation became a hornet’s nest buzzing with anger. The mighty, sleeping giant had once again been awakened from a peaceful sleep.
September 18th, 2001
It’s been a few weeks now. War ships, marines, and aircraft move towards the Middle East. I am 54 years old now, and time just seems more precious as the years pass, and people in your life pass along with them. Everyone talks about or speculates on what the USA will do. It seems like people are tired of talk and surgical air strikes. They seem to want total destruction. I, myself, feel a need for a strong strike, barring nothing in our arsenal.
Friday, September 21, 2001
The last few nights have been quiet here on the job. President G. W. Bush has addressed the nation before Congress and all the generals and U.S. leaders. He has affirmed to our wounded nation the fact that justice will be done, as more war ships and troops begin to move towards the Middle East. We are armed with a nation of honest, hardworking, God-fearing people to smite an evil that signed its own fate by inflicting a wound to this great country and the world. May God speed their victory and grant their safe return home.
**Featured image of Benny F. Shown, Sr. in Vietnam, ca 1967-68 from Delonda Anderson’s collection.
For me (Delonda Anderson), this image of my father is haunting. The photograph is blurry. He is gaunt and disheveled. His hair, while swept to the side, seems unwashed and somewhat long for the military. His expression is tired and resigned.
|Dung lai English translation: “halt” or “stop.”