It’s been more than 30 years since Nam. It’s been about 20 years since the Wall went up, but this is my first time visiting it. Right now, my nephew, Robin, is headed to Kuwait, and probably soon, Iraq, for another war. Ever since he joined the military instead of going to college, just like I did, I’ve felt a need to come here. When I called Peewee to tell him where I was headed, he said I was crazy. We’ve both avoided any invitation from any of the guys from Alpha Company to go. He didn’t try to talk me out of going. He knew it was useless. Before he hung up, though, he asked me a question.
“Hey, Perry, you’ll say hey to the guys for me, right? I just, I mean, I don’t think I can...”
“You know I will, man. You know I will,” I had replied.
The clouds above me are dark, heavy grays and blacks. It’s around 1:00 in the afternoon, but it looks like nighttime.
Before I head to the Wall, I stop by the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which depicts three female nurses, or Faith, Hope, and Charity, helping an injured solider. I already live with Nam everyday; the sound of the gunfire all around me, the burning hell of napalm, the hours of fear when our patrol sat in the darkness, waiting. Just waiting.
But I wasn’t prepared for this trip, for all the memories rushing back at once, many of which I’ve tried in vain to forget. And I definitely wasn’t prepared for the statue of Hope, the female nurse with her eyes lifted toward the sky in trust and belief, to look just like Judy Duncan. Judy, who’d told me she liked that I knew the good stuff in life. Judy, who’d barely known me, but checked up on me in the hospital when she recognized me from the flight to Nam. Judy, who kissed me goodbye. When Peewee and I were headed back to the World after our injuries, I discovered she’d died when the field hospital she was transferred to was hit. It was like a punch in the gut, knocking all the breath from my body. Standing in front of that statue, I remember that she was from Texas. I remember the tired look in her eyes at the hospital.
I feel like I’m being pulled apart, and I haven’t even made it to my final destination yet. I take a deep breath, salute the statue, and head to the Wall.
The American flag whips in the wind high above, its colors contrasting the darkness of the sky. Suddenly, the red stripes become blood to me. I smell the blood on Jenkins where he’s been hit, his wound bubbling as he draws his final breath. I feel my own warm blood leaving my body as everything around me spins. I see the bloodiness of the destroyed face of the VC I shoot, and keep shooting, the one who almost kills me. Click! Click! Click! Click! Click! I hear each time I escape death by his hands, see his fear as he tries to force his gun to work before I turn his face into a twisted mass of bone and blood.
Thunder booms, bringing me back to the present, where I stand frozen on the sidewalk.
As I make my feet move, more voices and thoughts flash through my head. I hear people tell me in the World and in Nam that my knee will keep me from combat, or that the war will be over in a few days. I feel Brew’s hand in mine as we lay sideby- side in the chopper before the medics cover him. I smell the bodies we burn in a hut, the ones whose tags burn along with them as we hurriedly do the only thing we can to keep them safe in death from the enemy.
The Wall is right in front of me now. They have directories that tell you how to find who you’re looking for, but I just head toward 1967 and 1968. I feel a need to discover the names myself. I pass a middle-aged woman crying, her hand resting on the Wall in desperation. I walk by a man with the straight-backed posture of a veteran as he stares steadily at the names. Two young children sit on the ground next to the flowers their parents have rested in front of the Wall, somehow understanding the need for silence. There aren’t too many people here; most are probably indoors, away from the thunder and lightning that are occurring closer together with every passing minute. The air is thick and charged as the anomalous February storm draws near.
Something makes me stop walking even before I look up to check the years, knowing I am in the right spot. Pacing a stretch of the Wall, I find them all. Sergeant Dongan. Turner. Lewis. Jenkins. Brew. Seeing their names etched into the black granite is painful. Each letter is like a bullet tearing through my body. Just as the heavens open up, I find Lieutenant Carroll’s name. My hand feels the etched letters as I press my fingers to the smooth, black Wall that’s already slick. Slowly, I bend over, ignoring the rain and lightning as I rest a sunflower on the ground. The Lieutenant was from Kansas. I’d thought he’d like that.
I step back from the looming Wall and let my eyes rove over all the names that are carved into the long, black slate. I can’t help but realize that the people they represent are free from pain and hard memories, the kind that wake you up in a cold sweat at 3:00 a.m., or that you can’t explain to your family no matter how much they try to understand.
I remember Lieutenant Carroll calling Jenkins an angel warrior, and how Monaco recited his prayer after the Lieutenant died. The cold rain beats down on me, and my clothes are thoroughly soaked. Lightning flashes, and thunder echoes all around me, shaking my surroundings, but I stand stock still, and do my best to keep my voice steady as I say it for all of them, and for every name on that Wall.
“Lord, let us feel pity for Lieutenant Carroll, and sorrow for ourselves, and all the angel warriors that fall. Let us fear death, but let it not live within us. Protect us, O Lord, and be merciful unto us. Amen.”
My words are swallowed up by the howling wind, but I feel lighter for having said them. As I stand there in the pounding rain, more memories hit. The thunder becomes artillery. The flashes of lightning are flares and shells, rising into the sky as light or a signal, or speeding down to bring destruction. I feel the grip of death as Peewee and I sit in that Cong’s spider hole, alone and scared.
Mostly, I think of how I became less and less sure during my tour of why we were in Nam. Why were we trying to take one small hill, and then watching our fellow soldiers be cut down around us by hidden VCs? Why were we fighting a war where the Vietnamese boy a woman handed to a GI exploded in his arms, blowing him apart and forcing other men to shoot down the woman and her other child? Many long years and sleepless nights later, I still don’t know The Why.
When Peewee and I made it back to the world, everything had changed. Many people hated me for fighting for our country, for following orders. They spat on me when they found out where I’d spent my late teens. Called me “baby killer.” I never said a damn thing in response, because how can you describe Hell to someone?
Kenny thought I was a hero back then. He wanted to know how many bad guys I had killed, what the guys in my unit were like, what it was like to go on patrol. I could never find the words to explain Nam to him, either. Maybe it’s better that he didn’t know.
And maybe they were right to spit on me back then. I was certainly no hero. I was just a poor kid from Harlem who had the brains for college, but not the money. I was the guy who helped shoot our own men once in moment of fear and confusion. I was a man who made it home when so many others who deserved to did not. I turn from the Wall.
My boots squelch as I walk away, each step taking all my energy. I hope to God that if Robin faces combat in Iraq, he makes it back in one piece. A lot has happened since my war, but any soldier understands the fear and uncertainty that come with combat. Friends die all around you; you fear you’ll never see your family again. I never wanted that for my nephew. He sometimes looked disappointed in me because I wouldn’t tell him about Nam. He tried to hide it, but I could see it in his eyes. The truth is, I couldn’t tell him, just like I could never tell Kenny everything that had happened to me, how it had changed me. Maybe if I had talked to Robin, he wouldn’t have joined, even if he did feel a need to take a stand after the horror of that Tuesday in September a year and a half ago.
If he dies, Kenny will blame me. Kenny had wanted me to talk his son out of it, convince him to go to college instead. He’d seen the ways I was broken when I came back, even if I mostly seemed to be the same big brother as before. But this was a decision Robin needed to make for himself.
I need Robin to make it home safely, not just so he can live out the rest of his life, but for his mother’s and Kenny’s sake, and for mine. If there’s any chance that my words could’ve kept him home safe – no matter how small a chance – I’d never forgive myself for being too tired and aching to share them.
The rain is still falling. I turn one last time, touching my hand to the dead metal of my dog tags. I throw one final salute at the Wall, the statues, and the flag in the distance.
The last thing I see before I turn around again is the white of stars waving in the wind, mixed up in a swirl of blood, white, and blue. “Amen,” I say to myself.