I WAS one of a handful of Bowie High School graduates in 1968 who hastily volunteered for the combat arms of the U.S. military. My conservative upbringing left little doubt in my mind about my responsibility as a citizen in time of war, whether a popular one or not. Yet my idealism wore thin with my first taste of "combat," as Army helicopters scurried away nine injured colleagues from a Viet Cong minefield.
Serving with an army infantry company from 1969 through 1970 was an experience one does not forget, especially on Veterans Day.
About 90 percent of my company was drafted. The massive protests against the war by then did little to help sagging morale. Yet if the war was unpopular at home, it was probably liked even less by those whose fate it was to serve in Vietnam.
It was a year-long nightmare. Half the men in my company were killed or wounded. Many regularly discarded malaria pills in hopes of contracting the disease to avoid spending a life confined to a wheelchair, as many men in my old unit are now doing.
A few months before leaving Vietnam I spent four hours of my life 50 feet from a North Vietnamese machine gun emplacement. A dozen American youths were pinned down; several were wounded. We were able to retreat as one fellow exposed himself to the enemy gunners and drew their fire. He held his own for the few crucial minutes needed to retreat with our wounded.
Then came his screams. He was finally rescued by a draftee from Chicago's ghettos who tied a rope to his feet and pulled him out of the clearing. Because of wounds in his abdomen and stomach, he could not have morphine. He writhed in pain with every movement as we carried him in an Army raincoat for a mile to a jungle clearing for evacuation.
We knew we were watching the man who had given his life for us die a horrible, excruciating death. We also knew he had a wife in Pennsylvania. He always complained about the war more than any of us. He seemed the least likely candidate to die a hero's death.
Upon returning from the war, I, like many others, found that being a Vietnam veteran was a dubious distinction. The true tale of the Vietnam amputee being told "It serves you right" after returning to college illustrates the psychological quagmire that the youngest-ever corps of U.S. veterans endured upon coming home. To many it was, and still is, an embarrassment to admit having served in Vietnam.
The media's portrayal of Viet vets has amounted to a collective character assassination as we became typecast as violence-prone, psychological basket cases. The treatment and indifference we received is far from compensated for by a little media splash during Vietnam Veterans Week.
In a sense, I have always felt it to be unfortunate that Americans suffered very little during the war. The U.S. economy was booming; unemployment was low: The commodity and gas rationing of previous wars was nonexistent. Vietnam was a war most people watched on television, now and then.
The bitterness I feel when I remember carrying the lifeless bodies of close friends through the mire of Vietnam will probably never subside. I still wonder if anything can be found to bring any purpose to all the suffering and death. I recently came across some lines from a poem by Archibald MacLeish, "The Young Dead Soldiers," which may give that sacrifice some meaning:
. . . They say: We were young. We have died. Remember us.
They say: Our deaths are not ours; they are yours, they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you who must say this.
We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us."