Changing Planet

Memorial Day: A Vietnam Veteran’s Story

The Vietnam War Memorial, Veterans Day 2012. Photo by Lauren Ward.

WASHINGTON, D.C.- A holiday weekend for lounging by the lakeside, department store sales, and catching up on neglected errands, we approach Memorial Day with the same glee reserved for all 3-day weekends. Yet as we kick off the start of summer with friends and BBQ, we ought take a quick moment to remember the day’s sobering purpose.

Here’s why:

Last Veteran’s Day I met a Vietnam veteran who flew to Washington, D.C. to see the Vietnam War Memorial for the first time. David was a platoon leader during the bloodiest years of the war at the budding age of 18. He hadn’t enlisted, rather was drafted and was scared to death to go. He rose through the ranks for being quick-thinking, orderly, and tough as nails (I could see glimpses of this even now). However, it only took a few long and devastating days for most of his platoon to be killed in a nasty fire fight.

A month prior he met a stranger in a coffee shop who generously offered to fund a trip to D.C. after they’d got to talking about Vietnam, David’s platoon, and the horrible guilt he’d carried with him since their deaths.

Recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, David was desperate to get to D.C. fearing he might not get another chance. He brought the American flag he’d carried with him throughout Vietnam to place at the names of his platoon and say a final good-bye.

I had my camera on me that day so I accompanied him to the memorial to take his picture. I asked David what it was like in Vietnam, realizing I never had the chance to talk with a Vietnam War veteran like this before.

“It was hot and rained all the time,” he said. “We wanted to go home. When we landed back in the U.S. we kissed the dirt and thanked God we were alive. But when we got back everyone hated us. People even spit at us.”

It was difficult to find words to respond. There was nothing I could say that could comfort him of things that still seared decades later.

Now at the memorial, my mouth was dry and I felt like I had no place at David’s reunion with his old platoon. But David motioned for me to join.

He removed his gloves to reach out and touch the name of a fallen solider. He admitted he didn’t know the given names of his men. They used nicknames to keep from getting too attached. He looked left to right taking in all the names, almost as if he was trying to absorb each one as it might have been one of his friends.

At that moment, I became painfully aware of these war dead. What’s more, despite the existence of a memorial to gather the grieving, I felt the deep importance of personal reflection to honor the men and women who understand unfathomable things about living, dying, and the ugliest side of humanity. No one understands this better than our living veterans and no one bares this heavy burden quite like they do.

As time passes, the Vietnam War, WWII, and others will seem as distant to us then as the Civil War is now. There will be no one to act as living reminders or to honor in parades and ceremonies. As these firsthand memories fade, it is our responsibility to remember the past starting with a few minutes of silence for our honored dead on Memorial Day.

  • kafantaris

    Freedom ain’t free; it’s paid for with what can never be replaced.
    This fact alone should humble us all.
    “[But] from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

  • Hoa Minh Truong

    Hi everyone..
    I am ARVN member, Ex-Lieut, I am grateful the Vietnam veterans who came to my country to help for the democracy obtained and fought against the evil Vietcong and also confronted the global communist Bloc. Your heroic fighting has never forgotten for the Vietnamese love freedom. After Vietnam war ended, I was among 800,000 imprisoned into the reeducation camps, then 100,000 killed by the dry bloodshed revenge policy of Vietcong. I survived and wrote 3 books to tell what happens after Vietnam war…I spent more than 30 years to learn English ( including 5 years in reeducation camp) and hunted document from the both sides. My books are:
    -The dark journey: inside the reeducation camps of Vietcong, published 2010
    -Good evening Vietnam ( a love story of US soldier in Vietnam). released 2011
    -From laborer to author, released on October 31, 2012.
    These books published in US by global publisher, sell around the world. In US you can ask any book store of BARN & NOBLE or Amazon..Internet, you can type my name” hoa minh truong” in search, my books there..
    My books contain the untold stories in Vietnam war and the historic events.
    Once again, I wish the best to all, many thank for your help my country…we are always with you.
    Hoa Minh Truong.
    ( author)

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