Note: This is an updated version of a Memorial Day blog I wrote about five years ago, both celebrating and mourning personages of the past who can only be reached by memories today.

It’s funny how people in your life are there, flashing bright, briefly and with intensity, and then they are gone. This is especially true of military service in general and wartime duty in particular. You mourn the loss of guys you were close to— literally a “band of brothers,” as coined by Stephen Ambrose about members of the 101st Airborne in World War II.

Sometimes the loss is final as all lives ultimately end, and, as survivors, we keep them alive in our memories. When all the survivors are gone, most of us are barely detectable as wisps of human history with only our obituaries, yellowing clippings in scrapbooks and etched gravestones as proof we were here at all. My closest comrades during that strange year with the 519th MI Battalion in South Vietnam remained in fond memories for decades even as we all lived the rest of our lives apart and unaware of each other. That’s the mournful part of it. I don’t know what happened in their lives over a span of more than five decades..

Running Out of Time

Time is no friend to friendships forged in war.

They were as close as anyone could be for a small but meaningful slice of my life before disappearing from my existence. Most of them are captured in my memory as young men who hadn’t yet experienced milestones like marriage and fatherhood. I was 19 with a year of college behind me and a girlfriend back home who would become my wife some seven months after returning from Nam. The oldest among my band of brothers was 25, as I recall, and we’d call him Old Man, Grandpa and other terms reflecting his dotage.

I loved those guys, and then they were gone.

I know other Vietnam vets who did that. They just went back to their lives and tried not to think about that chapter in Southeast Asia. It was like a year’s hitch in a war zone, and if you made it back you got to go on and maybe collect a few bennies. Most of the people with whom we served lived in other cities, other states and there wasn’t much opportunity to get reacquainted. Speaking for myself, I should have tried harder.

We didn’t have the big unit reunions like the World War II guys did, so most of us had nobody to talk to about Vietnam and what that was like unless we belonged to a Legion or VFW Post. I must state that most of the American public was trying to forget about Vietnam too— even as it continued to rage when I returned to the states in the summer of 1968, the year the number of our troops there peaked at almost 550,000 when I returned to the states. More Americans died that year (28 percent) than any other in a war whose death toll climbed over 58,000.

I did collect on one of those bennies— the GI Bill— and I went on with my life by completing my college education with a better idea of what I really wanted to do. I had married Mary while still in the Army in February 1969 and was honorably discharged in August of that year so we could both earn our college degrees. She only had a year of credits left. I had closer to three. Our first child was born while I was a college student, and then it was right into finding a job and supporting a family.

At that point, the Vietnam experience seemed almost surreal, and there wasn’t a lot of support for Vietnam or Vietnam vets on college campuses— even in the rural setting of Mansfield University (then Mansfield State College). The tragic killings of four Kent State University students protesting our continued presence in Vietnam occurred in May of 1970. That was the end of my second semester as a full-time college student living off campus, working part-time and summers.

Here’s To My Band of Brothers No Longer Here

My closest friend in Vietnam was Doug Clark, a wise-cracking guy with a soft heart from Newton, MA, a suburb of Boston. We both returned to the states about the same time, and Mary and I spent a delightful weekend with him and his family while on leave. I remained in the states to finish my three-year enlistment. He returned to Vietnam. Some six months into his first tour in ‘Nam, he was stunned to receive a “Dear John” letter from the girl back home he was expecting to marry. I feel that was the reason he extended his tour there. You did get financial incentive for extending, but I think Doug decided it would be too painful to return home so soon and that more time in Vietnam would dull the pain.

I blame myself for not trying to connect with Doug in the ensuing years. Then again, he never tried to connect with me. At some point, it seemed too many years have passed, and I’d probably never see him again. Sadly, I didn’t know where he was or even if he was still alive. That was the other dread. I wanted to continue to remember him, young and still the loveable wiseass.

I recently learned that Douglas P. Clark, a lifelong resident of Newton, father of three sons and grandfather of four, died on the last day of April 2021. His obituary described him as “a proud veteran of the U.S. Army.”

Then there was Dennis “Woody” Woodcock, an Army brat who planned to be a “lifer” himself. He was in my wedding in February 1969. We had a few great days together until we drove into our lives as newlyweds, and he went back to the Army. That was the last I saw of him. Not only did Woody commit himself to serving his country for years beyond those last few days we spent together, but he earned the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service. I only know this because I Googled him. He died more than ten years ago near Columbus, Ohio, at the age of 66.

So here’s to Doug and Woody and to others among my band brothers, including our “old man” I referred to earlier, William “Ski” Malinoski. Ski, I learned not so long ago, died peacefully in his West Virginia home in March of 2016 at the age of 73. Then there was Rick Ohler, a gentle giant, who I only knew for a matter of weeks. I was nine months through my year in Vietnam in April of 1968 when he died of injuries sustained by friendly fire during the Tet Offensive.

So here’s to my band of brothers. I’m sorry our paths never crossed again. I belatedly take responsibility for that, but I’ll always remember you, frozen in time and fueled by dreams of the future in which I was never a part