THEY NEVER HAD A CHANCE TO BECOME VETERANS
My prior posts have been of a light-hearted nature, but this one will have a more serious tone. Back in 2016, I wrote the following article for publication in our local newspaper. At that time, I had no social media accounts. Now that I have the ability to disseminate information to a wider audience, Veterans Day seems a logical time to send my thoughts out to the world. As a disclaimer, this is the only time I have ever written or will ever write about the Vietnam War. All of my thoughts and feelings, along with some personal experiences while serving as a sergeant in the 521st Military Police Company, will be buried with me. I do have one suggestion going forward. Instead of telling a veteran “Thank you for your service,” say something that just might bring a tear to his or her eye, such as “Thank you for everything you sacrificed for our country.” You will both feel better. Now for my one and only observation on the Vietnam War.
Since the occasion of our fiftieth anniversary of graduation from North Side High School nearly coincides with Memorial Day this year, it seems appropriate that I should write a few words about my friend Tom. Like many young men of our generation, soon after graduation Tom was drafted into the army and sent off to serve in South Vietnam. There Tom found himself escorting truck convoys in conditions beyond imagination, a world of unrelenting heat, stifling humidity, drenching rain, rats, snakes, and more kinds of crawling and flying insects than he could have ever imagined. As a soldier, Tom could only dream of the life that he had left behind, a life that everyone back home took for granted ― air conditioning ― home-cooked meals ― a cold drink ― sleep. Like many others in that war, Tom wrote poetry while he dreamed and planned for the future, when his tour of duty would be over and he could return home.
Tom had been a cross-country runner when his team placed second in the state championship, but, unlike the fictional Forrest Gump, his running ability could not help him when a rocket propelled grenade crashed into his escort vehicle and fragments inflicted grievous wounds to his back, right arm, and right leg. Evacuated and sent to an army hospital in Japan, Tom succumbed to his wounds despite heroic efforts by the best trauma specialists in the world to save his life. He then made his long-anticipated journey home, part of a torrent of flag-draped coffins flowing back to the United States.
Sadly, Tom was just one of numerous friends who died in that war. A few of them come easily to mind. Steve, a big athletic kid from home room, dropped out of school to enlist. Desperately wounded by a mine that blew off both his legs, Steve managed to recalibrate his radio so he could call in medical aid, an act that led to a posthumous award of the Distinguished Service Cross. I worked with Chet the summer before he received his draft notice. Chet was convinced that his wife would cheat on him and that he would be killed in Vietnam. She did and he was. Steve was a neighborhood kid who lived with his grandparents two houses south of ours. He was generally part of the baseball and football games in the park across the street, but we were always one short after he went off to Vietnam where he died in the explosion of a land mine.
I had gone to school with Brad from grade school through high school. He enlisted and won his Airborne Wings before heading for Vietnam where he was killed instantly when a mortar round scored a direct hit on his position. Brad’s parents and my parents had known one another since they were children. One day when all of them were in their upper eighties, Brad’s parents drove up from their retirement home in Florida. An afternoon of laughter and reminiscing was dampened by the admission from Brad’s parents that they were getting too old to travel and they had come home to visit his grave one last time.
Brad’s parents are gone now. So are Tom’s. I cannot conceive of the grief they must have felt to have exchanged a son for a coffin, a folded flag, and a handful of medals. But the greater sadness is what our country had lost in the war that gutted and maimed a generation of its young men. The collective hopes and dreams of Tom and tens of thousands of his fallen comrades evaporated and would remain unfulfilled forever. Tom would never know the soothing touch of a loving spouse; never hear the squeals of delight from his children on Christmas morning; never know the pure joy of holding his first granddaughter. So much that should have been would never be.
Tom was buried under a government-issued marker in Greenlawn Memorial Park. I thought he needed more, so I composed my own memorial in one of my first books, Brave Men’s Tears, which told of another war in another century but with the same tragic ending:
“This book is dedicated to the memory of my friend, Specialist Thomas L. Eichenauer, C Troop, First Squadron, Fourth Cavalry, who died August 14, 1968 of wounds received July 20, 1968 in the Republic of Vietnam. Some of us will never forget.”