I spent too much of this past weekend reflecting upon my stint in the Navy as a hospital corpsman during the Vietnam era. I returned to the insanity and chaos of the war years as I remembered and honored my brothers who died in those jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Tonight, my soul aches anew. I still sometimes feel guilt for not being one of them. I should have been there beside them. For many years I thanked the God of my understanding for keeping me safely out of harm’s way. Today it’s easier to simply say I was just one of the lucky ones. My number was not drawn, my reassignment orders did not say Marine Corps training for assignment to Vietnam. But, was I really one of the lucky ones? They paid the supreme price, the family received condolences, insurance money, a flag, and a medal, and another warrior found eternal peace having died a war-time hero.
My duty station was the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. Having completed training as a psychiatric tech, none of the schooling prepared me for the pain I saw of returning warriors broken in limb and mind. They shared their horror stories, stories of terror and fear in the rice paddies and the jungles where they stayed high on dope just to survive the craziness that filled their minds. Those who lost arms and legs were rehabilitating in the orthopedic wards on the other side of the hospital grounds. They visited my wards in their wheelchairs and together the broken ones tried to heal one another.
One of my special assignments was that of body escort for a returning corpsman killed in action. My military bearing was never up to snuff from my first days in boot camp and it did not improve with time, but I somehow stayed out of trouble and made rank. It was considered an honor to escort a fallen warrior. I had lots of time to think as I rode with the dead young man to his funeral site in Virginia. I met the grieving family at the funeral home and began doing what body escorts are supposed to do. After the body was lowered in the ground, after the volley of gun fire, and after final taps from a nearby hillside, I returned to my motel room, cried like a baby and got drunk as hell.
I friggin hated war, I hated Vietnam and most of all I hated the government which had sent thousands of courageous men to their graves for the enrichment of the privileged, white boys back home in the safety of the USA. From that day forward my life tail-spinned into the drunken story of a sorry-assed man who couldn’t forgive himself for still being alive while too many had died. My untimely discharge from the military gave me ever more reason to pursue a new found career in drinking. Espousing anti-government sentiments from my barstool pulpit, I spent many nights with Jack Daniels and Cutty Sark informing other barroom patrons of the inherent evils of ‘their’ government.
I have detailed my sobriety story many times on this blog. It is indeed a miracle which has led me to self-forgiveness and acceptance of things which I cannot change. My drinking was my way of leaving my personal jungles and rice paddies behind and I am OK with it. I titled this post before I started writing it and now I know it’s a lie. I must go back remembering those who died, those who came back broken in spirit and body, and those who never again had a chance to live normally. They are all a part of my story and I can never forsake them.
Duane, Bryan, Joe – I’ll see you when I get there. SEMPER FI