Monday, May 28, 2007

THANKS, PRAIRIESON!: Memorial Day Is Personal

Memorial Day Is Personal

I had a best friend in high school. He had two initials for a first name because he hated his real name. We all called him A.L. He was tall and thin and wore glasses.

But I got to know the real A.L. I knew some of his family before I ever met him in high school and I am still friends with some of his relatives.

In the last year of high school, A.L. seemed to change. He felt that his life was going nowhere and he was unhappy with his shyness and lack of confidence. It came to a boil in the summer after we graduated and while so many of his classmates, including me, were preparing to go off to college, he decided to join the Marines. He specifically asked for Vietnam duty.

I got a few letters from him while he was over there. His idealism matured into a more sober appreciation of what was going on in the world.

Like so many Marines, he was a ground-pounder -- a foot soldier who spent weeks out in the jungles and rugged terrain of Vietnam. His unit often took small arms fire and many times they were never able to determine who had fired on them. The enemy only rarely engaged the US military in full-scale, face-to-face combat because they invariably lost.

A.L. was wounded three times but only one was life-threatening. He was cutting away at elephant grass with his machete while on patrol when he noticed an odd-shaped container on the ground. He realized what it was and turned to jump away but it was too late. It was a grenade some Viet Cong had rolled his way and it went off before he could get completely clear.

The explosion threw him several feet and knocked him unconscious for a few minutes. When he came to, he could barely hear his medic shouting at him but knew he had been hit. He was hit with tiny shrapnel over the part of his body facing the grenade when it went off. A helicopter medivac'ed him to a hospital and he recovered. He had a friend take a photo of him without a shirt to show the shrapnel wounds. I have that photo somewhere. He looks as though he got into an argument with a whole lot of bees and lost.

He did get the Purple Heart for that incident, though.

Soon, he was back "in the boonies", as he called it, and got nicked in the calf by an AK-47 round. He was lucky. It did not require stitches and the medic was able to treat him in the field. Then it was back to combat.

The last injury was self-inflicted and he blamed himself. "You know I'm a klutz," he explained. He was whacking at elephant grass with a machete and somehow lost his grip and it clipped his knee. Again, the medic simply bandaged the wound and he went back to work.

"The Marines should've told me I'd be mowing Vietnam's lawn," he whined to me years later.

I think the weather is what bothered him the most there. It was either raining so hard he couldn't see or it was so hot and humid that soldiers were dropping from heat exhaustion. It was rare to have a cooked meal because the platoon leaders were afraid open fires would draw enemy. The commies took advantage of everything they could and they seemed to know about American proclivities. Those Soviet advisors sure did their homework.

It was malaria and the rain that finally got him on a plane back home. The machete wound on his knee became infected because he could not keep it dry. The wound took on an ugly color -- gangrene was setting in. He was airlifted to a Saigon hospital that time and while there the doctors determined he had also come down with malaria. One thing A.L. and other soldiers in Vietnam complained about was the lack of things -- anti-malarial pills and trivial things like that.

But this time, after some recuperation, he was told he had too little time left on his reenlistment to be sent back so he was sent to Okinawa in preparation for seperation from the Marines. By this time, A.L. had decided a career in the military was not for him and was very glad to be going home.

My best friend was a changed man when he got back from Vietnam. I'm not sure why. I don't know if it was the war that changed him or if perhaps other things were troubling him.

He had constant health problems after returning home -- he came down with TB and spent a while in a TB facility because the malaria flared up again about the same time. TB was said to be rampant in Vietnam at the time he was there but I don't know if that is why he came down with it. Malaria is never completely cleared from one's system and it can flare up now and then in some individuals -- it can also sap one's immune system. But he also had skin problems after coming back and finally came down with melanoma. He put off going to a doctor about the oozing sore on his back, his mother later told me, and the doctors told him if he had come two weeks earlier they could've spared him chemotherapy.

I visited him at the veteran's hospital in Durham, not far from me. He had wasted away but he had lost none of his wry humor. I brought him some goodies he had requested. His mother was there and looking like warmed-over death herself. He died a few days later.
He was not yet 40.

I will never forget his mother collapsing in my arms after his funeral. I have never heard such heartbroken misery coming from anyone and all I could do was hold her and let her cry.

He's not buried in Arlington but in a grassy spot in a well-known cemetary in our hometown. Most soldiers are buried that way.

His father died not many years ago but his mother is still living. If she's able, she'll go on Memorial Day as she has always done and place a small bouquet of flowers on his grave.

There are many casualties in war; not all of them appear in the newspaper.


Blogger The Merry Widow said...

When I was in high school, an acquaintance of mine's brother had been MIA for 7 years. His Mom went to mass daily, praying for his return, I think she may still be waitting...


11:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for a very moving post prairieson, very well done. How have you been? J"Mac

12:39 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home