I never met the man I’ll refer to as Robert, but I feel like I know him. Tragically, his story is true.
Robert was only 20 years old when he was killed in Vietnam. It can be persuasively argued that he died an unnecessary death. Today he is just another heartbreaking statistic like the tens of thousands of other soldiers who died in the national tragedy that was referred to as merely a conflict even though our involvement spanned 15 plus years and 5 Presidencies. His death occurred in the early 1970’s as a result of “small arms fire” – an innocuous phrase which doesn’t begin to relate the horror of dying alone, thousands of miles from home. Unfortunately, his story is not much different from that of so many other soldiers who served in Southeast Asia, which is what makes it so infuriating. Sadly, as history has proved, there was no need for his life to be snuffed out at such a tender age.
I discovered Robert by accident while looking online at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. I did some research and discovered that there were many things about us that were similar – including the fact that we were born in the same month within a few days of each other – however – he was 4 years older than me, and that simple fact cost him his life and saved mine. 48 months made all the difference in which of us had to go to hell and die and who got to stay home, get married, have a child, run a successful business and have a long, rewarding life. The unfairness of one person dying while another gets to live is an issue that humanity has always struggled with, but the inequity is even more pronounced when death occurs without sufficient cause.
I do not know whether Robert was drafted or if he enlisted. Perhaps he believed in the moral claim that we should fight communism wherever we might find it, on the other hand, he may have had strong feelings that the war was immoral and that we had no right to be there. Whatever the case, he lost his life due to the poor decisions that were made by politicians who were far too willing to escalate the fighting as long as they didn’t have to witness first hand the effects of their decisions. It has always been the case that the price of war is paid by the brave soldiers who are wounded and killed while political leaders sit back in safety and comfort pondering their next military move without considering the appalling death and destruction that result from their actions.
If Robert had lived he would be nearing retirement age, but he would still have many years of life ahead of him to enjoy. If he had not been cut down in Vietnam he probably would have gotten married and had children who, in turn, could have given him grandchildren to spoil. He could have chosen a meaningful career and spent his free time engaged in pursuits that he found fulfilling. He could’ve used his life to make a positive difference for others. It is impossible to know how many lives he could have affected, the influence he could have had or the change he could have made in the world – but it was not to be. Robert’s life was taken by another human being who knew that shooting him was absolutely necessary to avoid being shot himself…kill or be killed…that is the insanity of war.
Each tragic death that occurs during a military action produces countless questions. Did Robert look into the eyes of the person who shot him or did the bullet seem to come from nowhere? Did Robert die instantly? Was he allowed to escape agonizing pain or did he linger and suffer while waiting for a helicopter to come to his aid? Did he slip quietly into shock or did he cry out over and over again for his loved ones? Were his buddies able to get to him immediately or did it take hours to recover his body? What about the individual who shot him? Was Robert the first person he had ever killed or had he been exposed to the horror of war for so long that it was no longer shocking to take a human life? Perhaps his enemy is still alive today or maybe they eventually shared the same fate.
When I think I’m having a bad day, I try to remember Robert. The sacrifice of his life certainly puts my insignificant problems into perspective. I have now been blessed with an additional 38 years that was denied to him. I hope that I have not wasted those decades foolishly. I do know that as I grow older I have a more heightened sense of time. The realization of just how brief a human life span really is begins to settle in when you reach your mid-fifties. You look back and consider the choices you made, you think about the things you did or didn’t do. You wonder if you were unkind or selfish. You worry that you might have taken advantage of other people. You are concerned that you might have hurt others by being careless. But worst of all you are afraid that you neglected the ones you love. In the end you wonder whether you contributed in any meaningful way to making life better in this world. Upon reflection it is quite easy to feel regret about not appreciating the value of every single day.
But at least I was allowed to experience those days. By being born 4 years after Robert I did not have to experience the terror or degradation of war. I was spared the stench of seared flesh and the sight of mangled corpses. I was spared from seeing the small graves dug for children. I was spared from the brutal reality of having to pull a trigger and end another human being’s life. I certainly did nothing to deserve my good fortune, anymore than Robert deserved the fate that was handed to him. It is simply the way it happened all those years ago.
The legacy of Vietnam can be found in the horrific numbers; 58,227 killed. 150,000 plus wounded. 21,000 permanently disabled. Each individual statistic represents a human being who had hopes and dreams just like you and me. Each one of these people had family and friends who loved them deeply and whose lives were changed forever by their death. Robert was simply one person who, along with more than 200,000 others, had their lives shattered by political considerations that were given more weight than the value of human lives.
I know for a fact that both of Robert’s parents lived many more years without him. How deep was their pain each time they endured another Christmas without their son? How much sorrow did they have to withstand when his birthday came each year? How many times did his mother wish she could give him one more hug? How often did his father grieve because he knew that Robert would have been a wonderful dad if he’d been given the chance to have children of his own? How many years did the anniversary of his death haunt their lives? While it is true that the pain of losing a loved one diminishes over time, the fact remains that a parent never expects to outlive their child. It does not seem right. It is not the natural order of things. But, of course, there is nothing natural about war.
Each year on the last Monday in May we remember those who have tragically fallen in the line of duty – but the true tragedy is that there has to be a Memorial Day at all.