Delmar told us he was only 17 years old and had lied about his age to get into the Marine Corps. I wasn't sure whether he was telling the truth, but he certainly looked and seemed too young to be in Vietnam.
He had a fair complexion, light brown hair, a slight build, not one whisker, and usually wore a frown on his slightly pudgy, innocent face. He was assigned to my squad and at first we didn't get along.
Perhaps it was because I had been in-country for nine months at the time, with a Marine infantry unit south of Danang, and took what was going on pretty seriously. He seemed unconcerned. He joked around a lot, and usually answered an order with a cynical remark. I felt it my responsibility as squad leader, and because I felt he was vulnerable, to watch over him, to straighten him out. Yet no matter how much grief I gave him, he still seemed unimpressed with the war.
He wouldn't change, but as I got to know him better I admired him. He was simple and honest, and -- although he showed it more through actions than words -- a very caring person. When helicopters landed to pick up women and children from villages in heavy combat areas, Delmar carried the children in his arms so they wouldn't have to run through the mud. He held on to his kind of humaness.
After two months in my squad, Delmar wanted a transfer to a squad seeing more action. I told him that he should stay, but he could go if he wanted. He went.
When I had about two weeks left in Vietnam we heard that a squad on patrol had walked into a heavily booby-trapped area. Delmar's squad had been ordered out to help. I remember him jumping onto the back of a truck. It was the first time I had seen him in quite a while. It was also the last: Delmar was on one end of a stretcher carrying one of the wounded when somebody stepped on a land-mine, killing all three instantly.
At first I was overcome with anger, then with sadness. But at the same time I wanted to get away from feelings like that. I tried to push Delmar out of my mind, and thought about going home.
When I returned home most of my thoughts of Vietnam were set aside by the overwhelming happiness of seeing my family again. The war was over for me -- I had survived.
But weeks later, my experiences started to come back, one by one, like still frames of a movie film. Delmar often appeared.
Another recurring scene was of a blond-haired Marine, lying face up on the ground, his blue eyes open and looking up at the sky, his hair moving slightly with the wind. There was a small, neat hole in his left arm where the AK-47 round entered, went through his arm, into the side of his chest and hit his heart. There were only small trickles of blood coming out of the wounds, but the left side of his shirtless chest was swollen.
The memories were clear and vivid, and played over and over in my mind. After a while I began to dwell on them and looked for some kind of meaning or explanation. I felt that these experiences had to be resolved in some way, yet there seemed to be none.
I started to feel responsible for Delmar's death because I had not prevented him from transferring out of my squad. I felt guilty because I was alive and healthy while he and others had been killed or seriously wounded.
I also began to notice changes in how I felt toward my family and friends, people I had been close to. The strongest was a sense of isolation from others, as though a wall had come between us. Relationships with women followed the same pattern; as they became more serious I wanted to get further and further away.
And there was a sense of bitterness; most of what I heard about the war was negative. I felt blamed for going.
I kept these feelings to myself. I wanted to talk, but I didn't think anyone would understand. Like many veterans, I was silent, isolated not only from others, but from myself.
In December, 1979, about 10 years after I returned home, I read a newspaper announcement of a Vietnam veterans counseling program called "Back In The World." A small group of veterans would meet once weekly for 12 weeks to discuss their experiences and problems returning home.
Although I was apprehensive, I felt I could talk with a group who had similar experiences -- who could identify instead of judge or criticize. After being interviewed by the two founders of the program, Washington psychologist Jeffrey Jay and Vietnam veteran Ken Harbert, I decided to join.
During the first session, I recognized some of myself in the five other veterans. Feelings of isolation -- "walls" between us and girlfriends and wives, parents and children -- seemed to have affected us all.
One veteran said he couldn't maintain relationships with women and had been engaged three times since returning home.
Another said he felt like a stranger to his family and friends when he returned. "No one hugged me, they really didn't want to be near me." He said he couldn't feel anything for his mother who had died when he had one month left in Vietnam. "At the wake I couldn't mourn . . . I couldn't cry."
Guilt was a recurring subject. One veteran described how he felt after killing a 14-year-old North Vietnamese. "I felt real bad . . . I went through his things and found some photographs. I realized he had a family just like me."
That same veteran, now a medical student, said he felt little sense of purpose in going on with his life because nothing could match the intensity of Vietnam. "I'll never see as much excitement as Vietnam for the rest of my life."
Said Jay: "When there are no avenues in civilian life to integrate that intense a human experience, veterans tend to cut it off, or act as though what happened, didn't."
From the first session on, it became apparent that many of us were still carrying some of the fears we experienced in Vietnam. Don, now a free-lance photographer, said he always saw his profile silhouetted alone and unprotected -- as through the sights of an enemy rifle -- in the cab of the truck he drove on convoys.
"I don't know how much longer I can take it," he said. "Don't you," he asked, "want to cry?"
He did, at a later session, with the help of Phil, another veteran. Jay had suggested that Don talk just with the person sitting closest to him. Don shuffled around to face Phil, laying his arms on his shoulders. Phil, awkwardly at first, rested his hands on each side of Don's neck.
"Don't you feel it . . . it's just like it was before," whispered Don. "Don't you see . . . "
As tears started to fall down Don's face, Phil rubbed his shoulders and asked, "Tell me what I can do to help you." Don said he just wanted Phil to be there. Finally, both weeping, they embraced like two little boys.
The objective of Back In The World is twofold: to release feelings and thoughts, and to relate them to our experiences in Vietnam. Jay calls it "validating the experience."
During one session -- as we discussed the walls between us and others -- former corpsman Harbert said: "In 'Nam,' daily routines were orderly . . . our relationships with people different. Although there was a great deal of dependence on other people, there was a sense of independent survival. You avoided getting too close to people because if they got blown away, you didn't want to deal with that on an emotional level."
I realized that I had tried to keep my distance from Delmar and others in Vietnam as a precaution for what could happen. Yet underneath, I needed their friendship and support to survive. Harbert suggested that our putting up barriers was more subconscious or instinctive than intentional, but they were walls we may have carried back home with us.
The despair of the medical student, who felt "zero self-esteem" and who was considering quitting medical school, was turned around to a degree by the group. We all shared his deep sense that nothing could replace the intensity experienced in Vietnam, and perhaps that in itself was a help.
Through the group we clarified some of the distinctions between our lives in a war and at home -- distinctions we had experienced but had not clearly seen. In combat there was always anticipation. When experiences arrived they were intense, instantaneous and we had little control over them. It was a world of reaction.
At home we often are still waiting, but now we have more control over our experiences. That seems to be the overriding message: Life is no longer a matter of waiting for surprises; we must take the initiative to determine the intensity of our lives. Reaching down inside for the motivation would not be easy, but recognizing the differences between Vietnam and home is a first step.
Releasing our feelings about experiences was difficult. We often tried to avoid certain experiences, and it was usually only through the prodding and concern of others that we were able to bring them out.
Through Back In The World I was able to talk about Delmar for the first time since coming home. I told the group my experience much the way it appears in this story. I wanted to stop several times but other members of the group encouraged me to go on. When I finally let myself feel the pain of his loss, I fought to hold it in. They helped it all come out.
Afterward, I felt as if a heavy burden had been lifted from my shoulders. Other members of the group came over, patted me on the back, put a hand on my shoulder. Part of the wall was being knocked down.
"The capacity to make contact with another person can't be worked out solely in terms of what goes on inside a person's head," says Jay. "It needs to be played out . . . Then a person can have an idea of what it's like to share, to be honest, to be intimate again."
Some of the concerns we touched on may never be completely resolved. How does one, for example, find peace with the memory of taking another human life? How do you deal with the senseless, violent killing of a person you knew as the antithesis of that?
But through releasing our feelings about these experiences we were left with some kind of understanding, something we did not have before. We learned to believe that we had acted and reacted in ways demanded by the situation, by ways in which we were trained for war. We did good things, we made mistakes. We were strong and we were weak and we were vulnerable . . .
It's difficult to understand why this government did not establish some sort of psychological readjustment program for returning veterans during the war, or why it waited until 1979 to finally give the veteran an outlet through 100 VA (Veterans Administration) Centers. And it is ironic that the current administration, led by a man who calls the Vietnam war an "honorable war," proposed to eliminate funds for the centers.
Subtle as it may sometimes be inside silent veterans, the damage is real. The memories will not go away. They will be our legacy.
As Jay said, "None of this stuff is going to disappear as though it didn't happen. It's history. The question is, what do you do with it today . . . to give it its just place.
"What more can you do than remember?"