Magazine article USA TODAY

Memorial Day Memories

Magazine article USA TODAY

Memorial Day Memories

Article excerpt

My mother and father were World War II veterans. He was a tank commander in Europe and she served in the Coast Guard. They are buried at the Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, Ore. They rest high on a grass hill, not far from the shade of an oak tree. Their headstones lay flat in rows, along with more than 150,000 other veterans, dating back to the Spanish American War. I have imagined these markers as part of a long winding path, leading to somewhere.

When I was an 18-year-old Marine in the jungles of Vietnam, I never considered Memorial Day. I thought about staying alive, and worried I would get shot in the face. I dreamed of my pregnant girlfriend back home--the softness of her skin, her touch, and where we parked at night, with other young lovers. I never imagined the meaning of Memorial Day. Now, I think of blue-eyed Gumy, catching a round in the throat and how it felt carrying him on a pole like an animal, swinging dead--or Jack, the dog handler, being cut down in the rice paddies and Jimmy as he died, shot again as we loaded him onto the chopper. I never thought of any of them on Memorial Day in 1969, when making it until tomorrow was all consuming.

However, as the years advance, the meaning of Memorial Day becomes more important. Those boys, who perished, are back with me again. I can see them climbing through the vines and tangles when I walk alone along a wooded trail. I can remember them alive, especially around Memorial Day. I am a beat up old vet with bad knees and a puny back who still has post traumatic stress disorder--just like my dad, only he did not know it. Oh, it is better now, this PTSD stuff---or at least it is different. It is easier now than in my younger years, when I was wild and strong and used to knock guys out in bars and punch out picture windows. I was full of rage. My college was the jungle and firefights were part of my fraternity. When I came home, I missed my rifle and wanted to shoot somebody.

My wife helped save me. She listened to me with compassion and understanding and forced me to repair. I have done years of therapy, take medication, and have been on many silent, meditation retreats for veterans.

I had lunch the other day with LT, my lieutenant from Vietnam, and my best therapist, Dr. Barry Jones. The first day I met LT was when I was choppered into the bush in the summer of 1968. By then Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were dead and antiwar demonstrations were raging. Strapped with a .45, he seemed bigger back then. His uniform was worn and his face had a look of wisdom and fatigue that only soldiers know. …

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