For myself, having many questions about the war and life in general, when first entering the Army haunted me day and night. Like many servicemen, I could see the numerous challanges that young men around me were facing everyday. For me though, my questions and struggles were very small in comparison to many others. For instance, one man in my unit had broken fingers that were not set. He struggled to perform elementary functions each day. Not only did he have this handicap against him, he was married and had a child back home. The money the service was paying him was not enough for his wife and child to live on. He could have gotten a “Hardship Discharge”, but he chose to stick it out and hope for the best. On top of this, I found him sleep walking one night while I was pulling fire watch duty. This handicap alone would have allowed him to get a discharge. When offered to him, he chose instead to forgo a discharge because he wanted to do his duty. The sergeant followed through with his wishes and said nothing. This young man wanted to do his part in serving his country. I imagine that if given the chance, perhaps some might have wanted to get back home with a medical discharge, that is, back to a “sane world” as a few put it.
Another man was Hispanic; he spoke little English and struggled to fit in with the group. On top of the language barrier, he was overweight, and he found it hard to complete the arduous physical tasks each day. Since he spoke little English, it was difficult for him to make friends and get the needed moral support. In time we became good friends, his English improved over time, and I helped him (and myself) by reading the Bible to him by flashlight each night. We were both searching for God in this place of challenges and trials. I am reminded of the old adage, “There are no atheists in foxholes!” Many of the men like myself were searching for the meaning of life, especially now that the end of our young existence might be soon over, and eternity seeming closer than ever.
We were all very frightened about the prospects of an uncertain future. One day while shooting in a foxhole, one man next to me said that he left his earplugs back at the barracks. He asked me if I had extras, and I told him that I hadn’t any. I knew that if he continued to shoot his rifle that day, he would be deaf by the end of our training in the evening. We were all too afraid to let our Drill Instructor know of such an unforgivable offense. This might seem silly to any person who had not been in this position, but at the time, our personal freedoms did not exist. Each drill instructor had cart blanch over our lives. He could do to us anything he deemed necessary to get the job done. Most D.I.s were very good, while a select few enjoyed the misery they could inflict on some unfortunate guy. Not seeing anything else to do, I loaned him one of my earplugs that day, now we both bare the marks of hearing loss. Was it necessary, it is hard to say. Was it foolish to do what I did, perhaps, perhaps not. One thing we knew as soldiers though, we took care of each other, no matter what the cost. These friendships, though short were bonded in the crucible of fire, and would leave marks on our souls that would shape us for the rest of our lives. What was done that day was repeated many times over by others, and sometimes with a much greater degree, and they were done all for the sake of love and respect for the other soldier.
In the midst of these trials, a faith was forming within myself, and that of others in my unit as well. We began to realize that life was short, and not permanent as many our age and in our generation thought. I found no answers to Vietnam being a just war, or least while being in the service. What I did find though was that I was becoming a man that I could respect, and most of all, like.
My orders did eventually come, they told me that I must go to Vietnam. In the interim, I was given 10 days leave time. I headed home and I found that I had changed far more than I had realized. My old friends did not recognize me as before, and I too saw life somehow differently. I struggled with the idea that I might never see my home again, and so I found myself walking the streets of my hometown, absorbing every site and sound that I could gather. One night while sitting in my childhood woods overlooking Jackson, I prayed that if God wanted me to go to Vietnam, I would go. If He gave me the choice though, I wanted to go elsewhere. But, if Vietnam was where he desired for me to be, then I asked that if death was to be my end, it would arrive while helping others, and not trying to kill to do so. A little time later I realized that God did give me a choice. It came about by a mix up in my orders. Just as my jet was boarding personnel, a sergeant asked me if I wanted to go to Vietnam, or head to another base overseas in Europe. Later, I remembered that God gave me this choice I had asked for, and I chose Europe. Did I escape danger? For the most part, I had to say yes. But one day it did visit our base of location. During my tour of duty, Soviet supplied terrorists were shooting and bombing American installations all over Germany. My unit was not untouched by their reign of terror.
I found myself in full combat gear one day, hopping on to a public trolley car in which I shared the space with many German civilians, all who were staring at me with fear. When hearing the explosions going off, I along with several other soldiers, volunteered to head to the site of the bombings across town and help in whatever way we could. Others soldiers were driving, catching rides on passing military trucks in whatever means to get to the bombsites. When arriving, I realized one of the buildings in which I worked during the day, was hit by a bomb. The other bomb blew up the officer’s club behind my work building. These buildings were previously Eisenhower’s headquarters shortly after World War II. Now it was the headquarters to several central commands, including the one I worked for, Fifth Corps. When arriving at the site, I was sent to guard the area of the officer’s club, and to keep people safe and away from the area of destruction. As I stood there, behind me was where an American officer was killed, he was heading home to the States, and his family was standing nearby. Crowds were quickly gathering, and I wondered if another blast would go off taking more people with it. The loss of life that day was limited to several Army personnel, but horrible in the toll of suffering for the families missing their fathers, husbands and sons. The job I did was just one small part during that night, and much less dangerous than those in my unit who volunteered in helping with the devastation.
The suffering and toll of war in Vietnam was multiplied many times over for the men and women there, that is in what they had to endure and live through. I realized Vietnam was fought in a time when many back home saw little purpose to the amount of sacrifice given towards its end. Soldiers returning home did not receive the praise and respect that their fathers had gotten when coming home from World War II. But one thing I realized was that it is not a soldier’s place to question the righteousness of war; it is to do his duty and to protect life, even at the expense of his own. Few of us will understand the actual cost placed on a soldier who fought in war such as those who went to Vietnam. I have seen a man eaten up inside while sharing what he did in the war there. Within a short time, he had passed away leaving behind two children, a wonderful wife, and a budding business. He passed away at 38, way before his time. The toll of war and the life of a soldier does not leave with his discharge papers, it follows him all his life. The cost of freedom is known no less than by those that have offered the ultimate sacrifice, themselves.