Today, Veterans Day, a bronze statue of three serviceman will be dedicated at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall. The weekend also marks the second anniversary of the granite memorial, etched with the names of nearly 60,00 American dead.
Thomas L. Hagel and Charles E. Hagel served in Vietnam; they were among the hundreds interviewed by Washington Post reporter Myra MacPherson for her book about the generation affected by the war. The following is excerpted from the book "Long Time Passing: Vietnam & the Haunted Generation" by Myra MacPherson. Copyright (c) 1984 by Myra MacPherson. Published by Doubleday & Co. Inc.
The patrol picked its way through jungle so thick that by noon it was dark. A dead, midnight kind of darkness. Fifty men threaded their way. The first ten began to cross a river. The soldier walking point touched something with his boot. It was not a twig, not a root, not a rock. It was a trip wire to oblivion. In an instant the wire triggered a huge, fifty-pound Chinese mine. There was an enormous roar, like the afterburner of a jet, as it exploded, instantly ripping the point man apart.
Tom, six feet tall and slim, at nineteen already developing a characteristic slouch, froze, hunched his shoulders, and, in a flash, caught the scene forever in his mind: the face of one buddy disintegrating from the explosion; others walking their last steps and falling, bones sticking white out of flesh sheared off at the hips. Tom always remembers the river, running red "like Campbell's tomato soup." Those that weren't hit screamed in panic. Those that were screamed in pain.
Tom's first thought, as always, was of Chuck. He whipped around and saw Chuck lying immobile, staring, with the most startled look Tom had ever seen on his face.
Tom wasn't sure what was causing it -- Chuck's breathing or his heartbeat -- but something was causing it. Every few seconds, a fountain of blood gushed from a wound in Chuck's chest. Tom knelt and, with trembling fingers, grabbed a compression bandage, a thick cotton square with the bandage tied to it like a scarf. He wrapped one, two, three around Chuck's chest, pulling tight. The pressure held back the gush, even though blood seeped out around the borders -- a brilliant red Pop Art pattern.
There was no time for anything but frantic, adrenaline-charged action. The jungle growth was so thick that they had to hack fiercely at the bamboo, its sharp ridges ripping their skin, before the medevac helicopters could come in. The choppers took the seriously wounded -- the ones with no legs, the ones with gaping chests. And the dead. More than fifteen of the men were dead or seriously wounded.
The rest would simply have to walk out of there.
Only later would Tom and Chuck have time to think that magic was with them once again.
"Every twenty feet you would run into another booby trap," recalls Chuck. "The options were either to go around a grenade, once you spotted it, or try to disarm it, stick the pin back in if you could. There were some guys that shouldn't have messed with them and did. They got their arms blown off."
Tom's voice shakes. "We just prayed we'd get the hell out of there." Some men would get very, very quiet. Some would cry. Everyone could feel the gut panic. "All you could do was to hold to the back strap of the one in front when it gets that dark. You couldn't keep spirits up, couldn't talk loud for fear the VC were around."
Tom's eyes grow distant. "It was one of the most terrible times."
Chuck is thirty-seven now, Tom thirty-five. In 1980 they came together for a singularly compelling reunion. There were disagreements and raised voices as they sifted through the endless maze that was Vietnam, but through it all there was a palpable, protective, and unshakable love. For Chuck and Tom have known each other a long time.
Tom and Chuck are brothers.
Thomas L. and Charles E. Hagel, sons of Nebraska, volunteered to go to Vietnam and requested to serve with each other. The closest they ever hoped for was to be in the same division, about 35,000 men. For reasons still unclear to them, they were placed together in the same twelve-man squad. For ten months they ate and drank and slept and watched friends die together. They saved each other twice and sent five Purple Hearts and two valorous unit citations home to their mother.
In the back of his mind, Tom always thought that if he went to Vietnam, the Army would send Chuck home. It was a promise, he claims, that the Army made to him. "Chuck was the hope of our family," says Tom, looking at his brother. "Also, I knew Chuck. He's gung-ho stuff, the type of guy who would screw around -- Mr. All-American Kid -- and get himself killed."
Chuck smiles softly at his younger brother. "You should have known I would never have gone home no matter what they said." Tom agrees. "I realize now that neither one of us would do it. The one who got out would end up with an ungodly feeling of guilt if something happened to the other."
The thought of something ungodly happening was beyond their understanding. Nothing is as invincible as youth. That is how, from time immemorial, countries have gotten youths to do the fighting. "We were the 'Fighting Hagel Brothers.' No harm could come to us."
There is no way to capsulize Vietnam; it was America's most unpopular, most divisive and longest war. There were as many Vietnams as there are veterans -- a war of many confused policies that spans several administrations has no monolithic character. And so, the Hagel brothers take on a certain fascinating significance. They breathed Vietnam together.
And how do they see it? Chuck thought it a noble cause. Tom thought it a rotten waste. Chuck returned a conservative Republican, comfortable with a top Veterans Administration job in Reagan's administration until he quit in dissent over VA Administrator Robert Nimmo, who later resigned under pressure. Tom calls himself a socialist, teaches law at a university, and is deeply cynical about politicians. Chuck believes you have to put the emotional troubles of Vietnam behind you. Tom does too, but finds it a great deal harder to do so. Chuck believes we were saving peasants from communism and has no guilt. Tom believes we slaughtered and maimed for nothing and the guilts are many.
The brothers look as different as they are. Chuck is fair, blue-eyed, with wavy hair billowing into blow-dried perfection. Although a half inch shorter than Tom, he is bigger, barrel-chested. Neat, ordered, controlled Chuck Hagel: the small monogram crisp on the shirt, the house immaculate, the smile charming yet slightly studied. Tom is dark, with straight hair and a slightly drooping mustache. He slouches comfortably in corduroys and turtleneck and tweed jacket. He talks with emotion and candor as his brother, protective of his own political turf, shoots wary looks. Tom's smile, which is less frequent, reveals dimples and some of the carefree spirit he knew in the long ago before Vietnam.
Vietnam, of course, did not shape them entirely; there were other forces, other family dynamics. But Vietnam solidified their beliefs. They were brought closer together by Vietnam -- and yet remained ever-distanced by it.
Chuck and Tom were children of the Nebraska sandhills, rolling grassland too arid for farming which was used for ranching. For years they knew only the life of small towns, a thousand people or less.
The Hagels were like many of the men who went to Vietnam from Middle America. While they were not among those who automatically assumed they would go to college, they also grew up in a land of superpatriots. Dodging the draft was unthinkable. Tom speaks of the dodge used by many upper-class youths -- getting a psychiatrist to write an exempting letter. "That kind of maneuver illustrates the class difference. In my environment that would have never crossed anyone's mind. In my town we didn't even have a psychiatrist."
Their father took enormous pride in his own military service. From their earliest days the boys remember the meetings in their home of the backslapping VFW and American Legionnaires and their old men's service caps, with patches and medallions commemorating past units and campaigns, hanging on the hallway rack.
Both sons see in their father a bitter version of the idealistic believer in the American Dream, for whom the dream was but a mirage. "Dad was naive enough to believe in the 'American ethic' -- if you worked hard and kept your nose clean, that alone got you ahead," says Tom, a caustic edge to his voice. The Hagel brothers look amazingly untouched by the war, although shrapnel still floats in Chuck's chest and Tom's back is dotted with little scars and darker, pitted spots. Years later, little metal reminders of Vietnam have their way of working their way out of the system. One night recently, Tom woke to find one side of his neck, near his ear, severely swollen. Doctors found a chunk of metal covered with calcium.
Chuck tends to minimize any adjustment problems. "People in our town welcomed you with open arms." Then, on reflection, Chuck says, "The more I think back on it -- the more I question how minimal my readjustment was."
After the first six months, Chuck simply disappeared. He rented a little house in the wilderness and "just holed up there. I barely saw anybody for a year, except in my classes. I maybe had two, three dates in the whole year. It was the strangest thing, so out of character for someone like me. Then I woke up one morning and said, 'Okay, enough of this. It's time to get back into society.' It was my way to do it. I have tremendous sympathy and understanding for the veterans who seek help in the Vet Centers today. I just happened to be more disciplined."
Tom, on the other hand, flew into emotional, crying rages. He slid into deep depressions, heavy drinking, and debilitating guilts "about all those people we slaughtered." The drinking was, in part, to stop the nightmares, but they came anyway. Some were recurring -- in color. Even the smells, the burning fires, and the burning flesh returned in those dreams. And always, the eyes.
The collectible prizes of that war were the dead, stacked like torn dolls for the body count -- that Strangelovian measurement for "victory" in a war of "attrition" and "containment" that had no fixed goals for winning. Television footage in those days showed American soldiers heaving bodies into piles as officers marched by for review. What is striking, viewing those film clips today, is the very ordinariness of it all. Officers strut proudly, smile even, at a day's work well done. If you look closely, though, the young soldiers seem robotlike as they stack the pile.
"Everybody dies with their eyes open," says Tom quietly. "The eyes get bloodshot and dark circles form real fast." He repeats, almost in wonder, "It just takes a little time for the circles to come." Tom could never get over the feeling that all those staring, dead people were looking directly at him. "It was almost accusatory. That bothered me a lot then."
In Tom's dream -- which still comes at times -- he is standing in an open field, a little after sunrise. Everything is green. Nobody is holding him, yet he can't move. "All these people, with their Vietnamese eyes, walk past, just staring at me. They're walking past, dead."
Tom, talking in his sleep, tossing and turning, has awakened the women with whom he has slept. They repeat the next morning what he has said.
It is apologetic, repeated over and over, and he is talking to those rows and rows of walking dead people: "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. I'm sorry."
Tom gives a little shake of his head, as if trying to rid himself of his memories. "To this day, one of the reasons people don't have guilt feelings is that we were taught -- and taught well -- not to think of them as human beings. They were slopes -- gooks -- not people."
For Chuck there are no guilts. The important thing is to forget it all and get on with his life; not to wallow in Vietnam is his repeated message. Tom says, "I've seen him break down. I know we share the same nightmares. He has just suppressed them so deeply. But he's going to have to walk through the valley sometime."
Chuck denies any denials. Tom smiles, doubting still. "Denial is a wonderful psychological tool."
After Tom was wounded the second time, he was reassigned to a noncombat role as an information specialist. On one mission he was to take pictures of an assault. "Armed with a camera and a cheap little .45 with about seven rounds in it," he laughingly recalls.
It was the Fourth of July, 1968. He went in with an assault against hardcore NVA in a village. "They 'softened up' the area," he says, bitingly using the term for air attacks. Then the ground troops went in. "Shooting started immediately. One thing you never do is walk around a bunker of theirs without dropping a grenade in. You don't know if anyone's in there. Well, the squad I was with didn't do it and, once our back was to them, they just opened up. A rocket grenade went off. It burned my leg." There was shooting and pain and madness. When Tom looked around, he saw that "the entire platoon had thrown down their rifles and run. Someone regrouped and brought them up. Their platoon sergeant was killed. The next in rank happened to be me."
A sniper had shot down a helicopter and was killing GIs in the river "like ducks in a barrel." Tom snuck up and killed the sniper. Minutes later, the insanity of the war came together for Tom Hagel. "It was the only atrocity I ever witnessed and, since it was on dead bodies, I don't know if you can call it that. But it wasn't your grunts," he says, clenching his teeth, "it was officers.
"The officers went to the bodies and started taking off watches for souvenirs. These were ranking officers! Majors, colonels. I just couldn't believe it.
"Then one of the majors ordered an ARVN with him to cut off the fingers on a couple of these bodies so they could take their rings; after someone dies, they start swelling, especially in that heat. We were all hurt, exhausted, and they were joking . . . and cutting off fingers to take rings."
The assault was written up in a national news magazine. It was mentioned in the worn hometown paper that tells of Tom Hagel receiving his Bronze Star. There was, of course, no mention of the trophy taking.
That attack earned Tom his third Purple Heart.
A few days later, Tom wrote his brother, Mike, eleven months younger. On the bottom of that faded letter there is a large P.S.:
"You don't have to go into the Army to have my respect.
"To the day I die, I will be ashamed that I fought in this war."
Some stories have been so long buried that there are, astonishingly, mutual moments that the Hagel brothers had not ever shared over the years. Tom is hearing, for the first time, in his brother's home, exactly how Chuck saved him fourteen years before.
It was late in the afternoon and they were in the last of several APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers), lumbering steel-plated behemoths called "tracks." They were on their way back to an old Michelin rubber plantation after an unsuccessful search of a village. The enemy watched, and, when it looked as if they could get the last track, they opened up. A command-detonated mine went off underneath Chuck and Tom's track with a horrendous blast. Chuck was soon in flames, his left side burning, his face a mass of bubbles. Both eardrums were broken by the blast. Tom was concussed and unconscious.
"I thought he was dead," recalls Chuck. "I started throwing everybody off the track. With all the ammunition we had, it would just blow. I grabbed Tom and he was just dead weight."
"Is that how I got out of there?" Tom interrupts.
Chuck tugged and threw Tom off, then landed on top of him, just before the VC opened up on them with machine guns. They were shielded in part by the huge burning track. GIs in the tracks up front heard the explosion and returned fast enough. "If they hadn't, it would have been all over. They would have either killed us or taken us prisoner."
It seemed like hours to Chuck before they got back to the rubber plantation. His scorched face was bubbled and blistered; the pain was nearly unbearable. When Tom woke up in the plantation, he groped around and immediately hollered to the medic for Chuck. "He's right here," said the medic, "in the bunk next to you."
Letters home during wars take on a reality all their own. The Hagels were not the first to write letters to mother softened with a protective veil. Mrs. Hagel could have been reading her sons' version of "The Hardy Boys Go to Vietnam": "Dear Mom," writes Tom, "Don't have a heart attack. Yes, it's me again. Two letters in a row." The first paragraph is all aglow about the awards they received that morning for performance in combat. "There will be a National Defense Award coming along -- but they only had one, so the other we'll get one of these days."
Then, in a quick throwaway, he adds:
"Well, I guess that it's time to tell you that we'll be sending two more Purple Hearts home."
When Chuck left Vietnam, Tom had two months to go. They avoided an emotional farewell. What they remember most is that Chuck's empty jeep blew up the night he left, one of those good omen jokes to laugh about when they are old and gray. Chuck gave Tom a hug, then walked out of the base, not looking back. "I never had a moment's rest until Tom got out. He was an absolutely remarkable soldier, much better than I, almost too much for his own good. So brave. He never had any concern for his own safety. So I worried for him. I couldn't relax a second until he was safe."
Tom's last two months, spent out of combat, were blurred in a drunken haze.
"He was starting to worry about reentry. Here was this brilliant guy who barely got through high school coming back to a system and society he wasn't sure about," says Chuck.
The brothers have mellowed over the years. Disagreements over Vietnam used to end in shouts and near-blows. "We could never get away from it, sooner or later we'd be arguing it all over," recalls Chuck. One time Chuck chased Tom out of the house. "We'd walk right up to the line 'I'm never going to talk to you again.' But we were scared to death about what we would say to our mother."
Yes, they have mellowed, but today the arguments are just as endless -- and futile -- as they probably will always be. This is not just true at the Hagels; the war still rages in other living rooms and forums and in books and wherever Vietnam is relived and reargued.
Chuck shakes his head. "We should have held out, supported the South longer. We could have maintained South Vietnam."
"Then why did the people hate us so much? You could see it in their eyes, you could smell it."
The brothers go at it, warming up to a decade-old struggle to force each other to think otherwise.
"They have no choices now," protests Chuck. Tom starts in, "And what were we doing? We weren't murdering any?" Chuck starts to anger. "What do you mean murder?"
"Remember the orphanage, Chuck? We got hit real bad that night. The sergeant was so drunk that he crawled up on that track and opened up on that orphanage with a fifty-caliber machine gun."
Chuck starts to protest and Tom waves him off. "Chuck, you were there! Down at the bottom of the sandhill."
Chuck says incredulously, "Are you saying that he slaughtered children in an orphanage?"
"I don't know if he did" -- Tom's voice is strangled -- "because none of us went in to check. But I know that he opened up on that orphanage. Just rained on it."
Chuck protests, "In any war, you can take any isolated incident . . ."
They move back to abstracts. If only the harbors and supply routes in the North had been bombed earlier, argues Chuck. Tom says it would have made no difference. The Vietnamese had been invaded for thousands of years and were in it for the long run . . .
And so it goes.
Unlike some veterans, Tom feels no animosity toward those who didn't go. "Why should you blame them for seeing that it was nothing but a goddamn slaughter at the end of the road?" Still, he raged at the antics of the less committed. Outspokenly antiwar when he returned to become a college student at Omaha, Tom felt such anger after attending a peace rally that he wrote a letter to the editor: "Probably -- or hopefully -- 10 percent were what might honestly be described as concerned. The rest, some dressed in their 'regulation' hippie uniform, were far too busy in the social-recreational activities. I was particularly impressed by the individuals who verbally attacked 'this filthy, capitalistic system' -- and then got into their Corvettes and drove off to rage in their fraternity houses."
Chuck doesn't think twice about those who didn't go, he says. However, his mouth clamps so tight that veins show on his neck when he thinks about those who went to Canada or got out through some ruse. "I'm not going to hunt them down. They've got to live with their decision. There was a noble way out -- if they believed. For example, I have three very good friends who wouldn't go -- and they were conscientious objectors. Two were over in Vietnam as medics."
The pain in his brother's eyes is unconcealed. Tom thinks about his deep rage for the system -- if not the individuals -- that deferred the privileged. But Tom cannot discuss the abstract. He is remembering men he once called friends. He looks away swallowing hard. "I saw some beautiful human beings over there. They were never going to be the heads of some corporation -- but they were good goddamn human beings. And they got slaughtered."
Chuck and Tom share a cherished understanding for the fleeting ways of life. They embrace it with every moment's breath. This is a legacy many veterans share.
Many veterans found strength and maturity the nongoers do not possess, but most feel this was gained at a frightful price. "I lost a certain part of my life -- my perception of what makes me me," says Tom. "And I don't know if I'll ever get it back. Sometimes I can be so goddamn cold about things. I just can't feel anymore."
It is a complaint of the soul, far older than the warriors of Vietnam, transcribed and recorded through the ages by those who went to battle as boys and returned old.
"I don't believe in blaming your whole life on that war -- but it had nothing to do with the survival of our country," says Tom. "When someone can give you a justification for something that bothers you, you feel all right again. Chuck bought the justification. He feels real comfortable -- I don't. I can live with myself now, but in earlier years I couldn't.
"The main thing I'd like to get across is that not everybody was hard-core and blind who was in Vietnam. There were people like me who felt we were on a conveyor belt and helpless to stop it.
"And we were deeply hurt."
Tom's voice becomes intense. "I have consciously stayed away from groups of veterans. I do not spend a lot of time talking to them. But the ones that I do stumble across are crying in their hearts. For them, for a long, long time, it will be there. There will be that crying in the night."