On Memorial Day we remember members of the military who never made it back home. On Veterans Day we recognize those who did. Every combat veteran I know has a story that lives in their minds for the rest of their lives. When I meet other veterans they often tell their story. Like them, I know if they didn’t have a story they wouldn’t be here.
My story takes place on a rural road in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. It was harvest time and local farmers would pile their annual crop of rice by the side of the road so it could be loaded onto buses and carried to Saigon for sale. Viet Cong, North Vietnamese Army and old-fashioned crooks would block the roads and impose a tax on the farmers or confiscate their rice. We were sent to clear out the bad guys.
We took off in a string of jeeps with four men in each. The lead jeep had a .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the back with a tall, bronzed, naked-to-the-waist soldier ominously swinging the gun from side to side. After an hour on the road, the lead jeep disappeared around a bend and we suddenly heard the unmistakable sound of small arms fire. I was in the third Jeep, my driver floored the accelerator and we sped to the sound of gunfire.
As soon as we rounded the corner we jumped out of our jeeps, formed a perimeter and laid down fields of fire. When the word came down to cease fire, I looked behind me and saw the Jeep, with the once-powerful young soldier lying limply on its hood. Blood was oozing from his body, a Medic was holding a bag of plasma high in the air and the company commander was frantically trying to call in a Dustoff medical evacuation helicopter. It never came. The young soldier died.
I was in many firefights after that one. I saw several other limp or wounded soldiers, but when memories of Vietnam flood into my mind, that young soldier, dying on the hood of a Jeep, is the image I see to this day. That is my story.
A couple of years ago I met a Military Academy graduate who had done his obligatory active duty tour and resigned from the Army. During Operation Iraqi Freedom he was in a Humvee convoy when an improvised explosive device, made from a 155 millimeter artillery round, exploded next to his vehicle. The insurgents had oriented shell so that the blast went parallel to the road rather than across it. The young officer escaped that near-miss and came home with his story.
I met a sergeant from the 101 Airmobile Division. He and his team were clearing a building in Afghanistan. He burst into a room to see an insurgent crouched in the corner, pointing an AK-47 rifle at him. The insurgent clicked his trigger twice before the sergeant could shoot. If the insurgent had chambered a round in his weapon, the sergeant would not have made it home. That is his story.
I met a woman who was a perimeter guard at an Airbase. From her guard tower, she would throw candy bars to the kids outside of the perimeter wire, not realizing that they were there to spy on the base and report on its security. A few months into her tour there was a mortar attack and everyone ran to their bunkers. Inside, it was dark, dusty and the sound of mortars landing all around them was frightening. Some of the Airmen and women were hysterical, not knowing when a round would land on their heads. She made her way from one person to another to calm them until the firing stopped. That is her story.
I was at a Veterans Day event at the Madison Masonic Hall on Wednesday night. A World War II veteran who helped liberate the death camp at Dachau told about his experiences. He said the images and smells of dead and dying people remains with him today, 66 years later. That is his story.
Someone asked the old vet how long it took him to become normal after his experience. The truth for him and all combat veterans is that we never become “normal.” Our “normal” reaction to horror makes us “abnormal” in one way or another. Some of us have flashes of anger for the remainder of our lives. Some of us self-medicate with drugs, alcohol or work. Some of us have nightmares, can’t hold a job, can’t stand being in a traffic jam, or live isolated lives in the woods because that is the only place we feel safe.
Most of us strive for only one thing for the rest of our lives – to live “normal” lives, to have good jobs, to live in a nice home, to have a spouse and children, to savor the rest of our lives, proud that we did what all citizens are supposed to do; we put our lives on the line for a system and a country in which we believe.
Henry Bassman writes the Uncommon Sense column for The Alternative Press. He was a Captain in the U.S. Army and served a tour in Vietnam. Henry has lived in Summit, NJ for 37 years, has been married for more than 40 years and has three daughters who graduated from Summit High School. Henry retired from AT&T where he wrote about high-technology science and engineering. He now is affiliated with a small investment bank that specializes in biotechnology, medical devices and healthcare issues, about which he often writes. Articles by Henry can be seen on ABCNews.com and other business Web sites.