It is a Saturday morning just before Christmas day. I am walking slowly through a huge, crowded shopping Mall in West Palm Beach. So many stores, so much dazzle and sparkling lights of all colors, happy families everywhere--all of this overwhelms us. It is another Christmas time and this is the main avenue of the mall. Up in front I can see the entrance to the Santa Claus Exhibit where families are taking their children to visit the red suited, white bearded one and tell him their hopes for what presents will be under the trees in their living rooms.
Straight ahead a little ways, I see a drowsy elderly man. Old age fat circles his body. He is sitting uncomfortably, looking toward two small children standing near him. They must be his grandchildren. A husky male, probably the children's father, is holding their tiny hands. I bet this man is the son of the older man. They are waiting patiently in the long line leading to jovial Santa seated in his royal chair.
I sense this is a Viet Nam veteran sitting on the bench. So I sit down next to the elderly man and wait a few minutes before saying anything. He has a black walker standing next to him and there is some kind of military decoration hanging down from the bars. Then finally I say to the young man whom I presume is the son: "Pardon me, I am a retired soldier. I assume this is your Father. Was he ever in the service?"
"Oh yes," says the young man. "He was a Marine." (I think to myself, not "was," but "is." Once a Marine, always a Marine is my view.)
"Semper fi," I intone softly. ("Always faithful" is the Marine motto.)
The young man taps the shoulder of his sleepy father and repeats: "He just said the Marine slogan, 'Semper fi.'"
The old man straightens up, now alert; "Were you in the Marines?" he asks.
"No, I was not that fortunate," I apologize.
"Did you get to Viet Nam?" the old man asks.
"Yes," I respond. "In 1968 and 1969; and I go back now every year to do some humanitarian work in Viet Nam."
"Well, I got to Vietnam before you then. I did my basic training in 1965, then three months advanced training. Next came unit training." He pauses, thinking back. "And next stop was Vietnam."
"Where were you in Viet Nam?" It is my turn to ask him some questions.
"In and around Da Nang," he recalls. "I was first with a tank. But there was not much use for tanks to be useful as tanks. We used them as mobile artillery. We just fired them at distant targets. They weren't much good in the jungles."
"Did you stay with the tanks your time there?"
"No, I got into a platoon and then to the field."
He stops. The next words are painful ones
"We had a pretty hard time of it. Out of my platoon [about thirty soldiers], we lost fifteen guys."
I wonder if he means these were all dead. They could have been wounded, or MIA's. I want to ask him if all fifteen lost their lives, but I do not. Maybe I do not want to hear the answer. It is better to think they suffered wounds, had to be evacuated, and eventually recovered to go home.
"Once I remember we had a really bad time," he relates. "We were out on patrol. I was the Lieutenant in charge. We walked into a village late at night. It was a typical village with chickens and pigs. We had almost got to the other end of the village Suddenly all hell breaks loose. In a minute we have five guys shot dead. We have to fight our way through that ambush and then get back to our base. I reported to our commander."
"'Somebody wants to see you,' he tells me."
"Who is it?" I want to know."
"'Somebody from the CIA.'"
"'I don't want to see him,' I bellowed to my Commander. I was angry, five guys gone, I'm just back from that and the CIA wants to talk with me?"
"'Just go into the tent and talk with him,' the commander urges."
I go inside the tent flaps. "Who are you?" I growled.
"I'm from the CIA."
"What do you want?"
"We want you to sign this," he hands me a paper.
"What is it?"
"It just states how many enemy died in the battle," he replies. The figure on the paper is quadruple our casualties. I can see where this is going. We lose five guys. Nobody wants to admit that result unless the enemy lost triple or more times than that. Nobody then up the chain will question that, nor criticize those in charge below. "I refused. He asks me three times to sign, each time getting a little louder.
"'I won't sign it unless my Commander orders me to sign.' I tell the guy.
"'What's the problem,' he demands from me. "'I don't know the answer of how many enemy,' I explained. 'What do you expect me to do at night? Do you think I am going to stand there on the middle of an enemy ambush and I am supposed to count dead bodies?'
"'Just sign it then and we will fill in the number.' He practically begs. He wanted a higher number whether or not that actually happened. "'I won't sign. I asked my Commander, 'Do I have to sign?'"
"'Nope,' he said it slowly. 'No, you don't have to.' "This CIA guy then threatens to have me court martialed."
"'Will that happen?' I turn to the Captain who's is my commander." "'No.'"
So I was there the rest of the year. I still had my head, two arms, and two legs. I hadn't been wounded, at least not yet."
"Toward the end when my tour was almost completed, my Commander came to me and said, 'Sign up for another tour. I guarantee you will make 'Captain.'" "I thought about it. Then I decided no. I still had everything in my body intact including my life. How lucky I have been, I thought, and how lucky I will be to go home." "I told him, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'"
"I came back home and eventually left the Marines and the service. I am sorry, however, I did not sign up again. I have always regretted that decision, all my life. I know that sounds strange. Maybe it is all the guys that did not return. They are like ghosts and you cannot run away from them. But I did get back in one piece. Later I got married, settled down, and we had a nice family. "For many years after, " he continues, "The thought would come back to me about staying in. I would have wanted to re-up again. But it was too late.
"After several years home, another thought began to bother me. "'Why,' I wondered, 'had I survived and the others did not.' That question gnaws at my stomach even right now."
We sit there in the stillness and quiet. His question is one I cannot answer. They call it "survivor guilt." When a group goes through some kind of deadly crisis, those who get through it, feel bad and wonder how they survived when others did not. But the words "survivor guilt" really do not convey the heaviness such a question causes inside those who live on. Over 58,000 of our soldiers including many Marines did not make it back alive. They came home in body bags, to a funeral home, and grieving parents and family. A few days of mourning, then a service of some kind, transported to a cemetery, and the people gather around a deep muddy rectangular hole.
There may be an honor guard, even a rifle salute. Some uniformed individual comes to the mother or a wife, and hands her an American flag, folded in tight triangles.
We two alive soldiers are sitting there, not saying anything more. Then a young smiling woman comes from inside where Santa Claus is waiting in his huge throne. Boxes surround him, gaily wrapped in so many colors and all tied with huge ribbons. Behind is a display of Christmas trees, probably fake wire and forever green plastic branches.
I surmise the young woman is the mother of the two little children, whose faces glow in holiday cheer. This must be the Daughter-in-Law of my ageing Marine. She reaches out and shakes hands with me, as my new friend stumbles through an introduction about me. "We both served in Viet Nam," he tells her, almost proudly.
Then my friend and his daughter-in-law disappear beyond the curtain with the two grandkids and their Dad. The elderly man turns back and smiles at me as he points out his family.
See, I think a consoling thought, this is the reason why you survived. A son, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren-not a bad set of God's blessings for a Viet Nam War Marine survivor who also passed his CIA test.
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