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.
This sense of loss is greatest every year when we attend Memorial Day services and pay tribute to those who have sacrificed their lives for our freedoms. Of course, I think of a couple of buddies I knew who died in Vietnam, but my closest comrades during that strange year with the 519th MI Battalion remain in fond memories. That’s the mournful part of it. I don’t know what happened in their lives over a span of almost five decades.
They were as close as anyone could be for a small but meaningful slice of my life, and they disappeared from my existence. Most of them are captured in my memory as young men who hadn’t yet experienced things like marriage or 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
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 in 1968 after I returned to the states and young men (almost always men) continued to die, with the final tally climbing 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.
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. Unfortunately, while in Vietnam 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 in Vietnam. You did get financial incentive for extending, but I think Doug decided it would be too painful to return home 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, you wonder if too many years have passed and whether you’ll encounter the same person. Sadly, I don’t know where he is or even if he is still alive.
Then there was Dennis “Woody” Woodcock, an Army brat who planned to be a “lifer” himself. He was in my wedding. We had a great few days together, and then he went back to the Army. That was the last I saw of him.
So here’s to Doug and Woody and to others of my brothers— our old man, William “Ski” Malinoski, Earl Miller and Rick Ohler. I only know the fates of two of them. Ski, I recently learned, died peacefully in his West Virginia home in March of 2016 at the age of 73. As for Ohler, he died from injuries sustained by friendly fire in April of 1968 during the Tet Offensive.
So here’s to my band of brothers. I’m sorry our paths never crossed again, but I’ll always remember you, frozen in time and fueled by dreams of the future.
Maybe it’s better that way.