When I was a little girl in the dark ages of the 20th Century the Memorial Day Weekend was when my family went to cemeteries to tend the graves of our ancestors, including my great-uncle who had served in World War I, and pay respects to those who had gone on before us. The phrase, Decoration Day, was still in common use back then though the Federal Government finally and officially changed the name of the day of observance to Memorial Day in 1967.
The Indy 500, the other Memorial Day tradition, broadcast on the radio, would provide a cyclic humming of “Vrrooom and Whoosh” in the background later in the day. Then and now, radio coverage of a car race seemed rather, well, stupid. Seeing things. That is what made something real in my small country girl world. I saw my brother on the evening news in Hue when he was in Viet Nam. He was walking across the street.
My perception of military service changed for me when I watched a car with the Marine Corps emblem drive into our driveway and heard a sound unlike anything I’d ever heard before escape from my mom’s lips.
This was a time when the family of a wounded soldier was also notified in person. The first time they came to notify my parents, my brother had been shot in the leg, was patched up, and sent back into the field within a few days. The second time he was wounded, he was in Khe Sanh, and my parents were notified via a personal visit was when shrapnel blasted through my brother’s body under his flack jacket as he bent over while lifting another soldier up into a medical evacuation helicopter. The medicw on the flight crew reached out and pulled him in too. Without the sort of instant medical attention he received in the first minutes in that helicopter, he would have died.
My brother survived, he is alive, but we are estranged – there has just been too much hurt in both of our lives from friends, family and strangers. We both developed into survivalists in that we are tough, tenacious, and know that our lives are our own business and responsibility. I worked to change that in myself. That sort of mindset does not engender closeness and protective feelings, not even toward family. He doubled down.
So I spend this past Memorial Day Weekend thinking about what Vietnam did to my brother and to me. I do not usually share this practice with anyone. I cannot get into a charitable enough mood to forgive him for playing games with me when he was the executor of my mother’s estate, but neither am I going to call him on a day that would remind him of the Hell he lived through in Vietnam. People in my family are fucked up, but we are not socio- or psychopaths, at least I am not. I do not want to hurt anyone.
But there is a part of me that remembers my first time at the Vietnam War Memorial in DC when I went to the part of the wall where my brother’s name would have been if he had died that day. I touched the names of boys who did die that day. Somehow, I had to make sure his name was not there. In many ways the brother I knew before he went to Vietnam seemed to have been killed in that war… he did disappear into that war. The pale, frail, almost skeletal, brother I hugged when he came home six months later after a long. long set of surgeries and recovery in Japan and then at Great Lakes Naval Base after did not seem like my brother. The brother I knew as a little girl was gone.
My brothers who were all much older than me seemed more like uncles than brothers. This brother, the brother who went to Vietnam, the one closest in age to me, became more uncle than brother because the nine years that separated our births became only one of the many dimensions that separated the worlds within which we lived.
So on days of remembrance, I hunt for mention of him, search images of Marines in Vietnam in the Summer of ’68. I tend his memory, even though he still lives, as carefully as my mother tended the grave of her uncle who “was never the same” after WWI on Memorial Days past. This year I found some information I will have to dig into:
“Roger was defending a top-secret installation to intercept radio traffic along the Ho Chi Min Trail at Hill 950,” he says. “And when the outpost was overrun by the communists, we did what had to be done and medevac’d Roger out.”
I had never been able to put together my brother’s horrific injury, on August 4, 1969 – his birthday by the way – and his wounding at Khe Sahn, because Khe Sahn was surrendered, essentially, a month or so before this date. I have not wanted to confront my brother about this seeming discrepeancy. The last time I saw my brother, two years ago, he was in a VA hospital in Indiana in the “dementia” ward.
But today I found some information in government records in addition to the above linked reference to someone with my brother’s name whose story fits. My brother told me, a few years ago, maybe 7 or so years ago, that he was put on a “recovery” detail in Vietnam that most people just could not do, and he did not know why he could do it, but that he could, so he did it. He said it was digging up bodies, and body parts, of soldiers that had been killed in battle. He said it was for body count. For numbers. He did not say why these soldiers had been buried or by whom. Today I read that after the long, grueling and ghastly battle of Khe Sanh ended, and the VC were in control of the area, there were Marines who went back in to recover the bodies of our fallen, missing soldiers. I cannot image the horrific images those soldiers must carry with them to this day, that my brother, must still carry with him.
During my search I also ran across some official declassified records that suggest that isolated hills in that area were defended long after the battle ended so as to monitor VC movements along the Ho Chi Min Trail.. I don’t know if this was the “Hamburger Hill “my brother has spoken of, or not. (If anyone reading this knows if Hill 950 was also known as Hamburger Hill, I’d like to know.)
During the search of the internet and government files I ran across self-published book about Vietnam That Powerless Feeling in which one of the “characters” is a “Bear” whose real name in Roger Hill. This cannot be my brother, as the author was in Viet Nam in 1969 a year after my brother was injured. But this reminded me that brother had a worn, snapshot of “Sugar Bear,” a buddy, on his dresser after the war. I asked him once, in my childish way, “Who is that guy?” He said, “Oh, that is Sugar Bear. He didn’t make it.” I know nicknames were used in his unit.
Reading excerpts from the book, it sounded exactly like the stories my brother told. Dank, visceral jungle and swamp war stories.
I wanted to find out more about hatred some Marines under Charles Robb’s command held for him, but all I can find is this PDF of a press release from Jack Anderson about Robb’s company and atrocities. My brother, a Marine, had little use for the university trained officers that would be sent in, green, to command units from a safe distance and carry out the repeated surge and withdraw tactics that made our soldiers into little pawns on a map that were supposed to draw out the North Vietnamese, en masse, onto the flatter land of the Khe Sanh air fields. Of course LBJ’s son-in-law got a Bronze Star. My brother got two purple hearts. Life is not fair. I understand why there was “fragging.” My brother was no “fortunate son” and the expendable troops who were used as bait and then had to clean out the traps hated the whole thing. They were not fighting for their country after the first few weeks in country. They were just fighting to protect their brothers in arms. If this still seems foreign and difficult to fathom, watch Platoon.
Oliver Stone, a Marine, was in Vietnam at exactly the same time in exactly the same places as my brother. Watch Stone’s Platoon if you want to know what it was like. That is how I eventually began to understand how war shaped my brother, me, and my family. It was the first film about the Viet Nam War directed by a Viet Nam War veteran.