Column: On Memorial Day, remembering those who answer our nation’s call

Detail of a marker at Arlington National Cemetery. [John-Henry Doucette]

VIRGINIA BEACH — grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. You might say that I was a child of the Depression. I learned about war like many women did back in those days – through husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.

I would learn about the Korean and Vietnam wars when I married my military husband. He was some years older than I was, and it was a unique situation in that he was in the Army then the Navy for a total of 27 years. I only heard a few stories about his Army days, but we were married during his Vietnam years and through his retirement in 1983. 

Even then, he didn’t talk much about things. He had joined to serve his country, and he was just doing what he was supposed to do. After retiring, he avoided wartime buddies and military reunions. And, even when he had his bladder removed, diabetes, breathing and other problems related to Agent Orange and asbestos, he refused to apply for benefits. He always figured there were those who deserved the compensation more. 

He would go on to suffer the same illnesses that other veterans did until his death at 66 years of age. As a military wife, I sat through a lot of silent dinners, and, as a widow, I have and will sit through a lot more.

I do feel that I am luckier than most because I was able to care for my husband myself during his illness. Some didn’t come home alive.

A lot has been said about the Vietnam War in the 13 years since his passing and I try to attend everything pertaining to that war. I want to understand and comfort others. 

One thing that comes to mind is the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War that was held at the Virginia Beach Convention Center in 2014. More than 500 vets, family members, supporters and I gathered a half-century later. I got the chance to talk to a few people.

One spoke of hanging out of a helicopter on a strap holding a machine gun. He fought in the Tet Offensive of 1968, sometimes for 40 hours straight, firing many rounds a minute. He said that he never gave any thought to catching a bullet himself. I guess at 21 you feel like you are bulletproof.

Another spoke of taking out the seats of his helicopters as blood ran down the sides so that he could get more wounded or dead soldiers inside. He just couldn’t leave them behind.

I’ve heard stories of some family members taking the ashes of their loved ones and leaving them or scattering them at the Wall – the Vietnam Memorial  in Washington – to fulfill their wishes.

I have watched a lot of movies about the Vietnam War, and I remember a song by George Jones and the imagines at the end always show the dead military person rising as a young man in military uniform with gun in hand going into the jungles. I guess some feel that they left the better part of themselves there.

This year the USS Carl Vinson made a port call in Vietnam, the first by an American aircraft carrier since the Vietnam War. Most of the crew weren’t even born yet when the war was going on. Vietnam was its own kind of war – bitterly unpopular at home, 58,000 Americans killed.

As we celebrate Memorial Day we can rest assured that in our next wars the same young men – and now young women – will come forward to do their patriotic duty to keep us safe at home.

Russell lives in Cardinal Estates.

© 2018 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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