I was caught completely off guard. One minute I was my old self. The next thing I knew, my insides were hit so hard, I hardly knew what to do. I realize Mrs. Day didn’t know what she did. She didn’t mean to bring up the past, yet her remark couldn’t help but do just that. It was in regard to her son, Charlie, who was headed for the Middle East. He was to face Saddam and his boogeymen. She was worried, distressed, yet grateful. Grateful for what, I wondered. Her son was just about knee-deep in the unpleasantness of Operation Desert Storm and yet she was thankful. She had my attention.
"The support," she said. She was grateful for the support the nation was giving to her loved one. Sure, she was worried. Sure, she was concerned. But so was everyone else. When she drove, she saw American flags flying amidst snowstorms. Ribbons of yellow, orange and just about every other color of the rainbow fluttered in the mid-winter winds. The media was filled with stories showing support for our troops. Sure, her loving son was headed for hell, but she felt something that helped her through the whole ordeal.
And there was me, standing there after Sunday Mass. Standing there asking how things were. More support, I guess, though I didn’t see it that way. Not then anyway. Me, what’d I know. It had been over 20 years since I faced the same fate. Charlie was a Marine, just like I had been. Just 19 years old with his whole future in front of him. Just like me, back then. Confused, innocent yet committed. Committed to what? Just this. An ideal he had only an inkling of. An inkling that said people had a right to do certain things regardless of anything else. Like food, love, freedom of movement and family. A freedom to express themselves as human beings. Not much in the scope of things we have. Not much, till they’re taken away. Then it’s a whole new ball game. When you stop and look at it, there is really nothing else. Never was. People throughout history have fought and died for the same thing. So much for history and its unlearned lessons.
So there I stood as she explained where he was and when he was expected to be shipped overseas. I couldn’t help but be transported back to a time I’d rather not remember. Yet the memories were unleashed, like the flood waters through a flood-gate. Lord they hurt! I listened to her talk amidst the flashbacks that exploded in my memory. Lord, I wanted them to stop! Though I was surrounded by people, I felt so alone. I wanted to scream. I wanted those terrible memories to cease. Begone! Yet they persisted; just as that mid-winter morning did. The sunshine shone through the stained-glass lobby of the church vestibule. Wispy snowflakes fluttered down, mixing with the sun rays to give a surrealistic impression of unreality to our Sunday morning gathering. I held together.
I held together like I had done for the better part of 20 years. I held in my shame, my guilt, my uncertainty. The uncertainty that I hadn’t done my duty as I should have. Yet I know I had. I had been silently told. Told by over 58,000 hushed voices. How?
It was an extremely hot day in Washington, D.C. It was in early July, during the drought of ’87. Lord was it hot. And humid! We were coming back from our vacation at Jekyll Island. Something called to me. We were passing through D.C. anyway, so I stopped. We toured the grounds on foot. Anyone who’s been there knows there’s no other way. Anyway, we toured the Smithsonian and headed toward Washington’s monument. We viewed it, then walked past the reflecting pool to Lincoln’s memorial. The heat and humidity slowed us up a lot. The kids were tired and thirsty, yet were well-behaved. We proceeded on. Up the many steps we trudged and there we were, in front of Lincoln’s statue; in the background was the carving of the Gettysburg Address. After viewing it, I knew what I had to do. After our descent down the steps, we were met by various concessions before the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
I passed by without paying too much attention. A "Frag Jane Fonda" bumper sticker caught my eye. I shook my head and walked on. My wife seemed to hold the kids back as I made my way toward the sculpted figures that stood before the path down. I approached very slowly, apprehensively. Suddenly I was chilled! Ninety-five degrees plus, and the humidity up over 90 percent and I was cold. I had heard the stories. Guys freaking out or going to pieces in front of the monument. Stunned as I was, something coaxed me on. I rounded the figurines, then proceeded down the path to "The Slab."
I was awed. I began reading the names. It was then I realized the silence. D.C. is such a noisy place, as are the sites around the city. Yet, the monument was devoid of sounds, save a few soft voices of those seeking assistance.
Slowly I walked, taking in the names. I recognized a few. As I proceeded, a strange calm came over me. It was as if 58,000 voices called out to me. They told me they were glad I made it. And to live for them. Live the life that was denied them. And as I walked on, I lost some of my guilt, my ineptitude. I knew. I knew I did OK. I did my best. I did my best within the limits I was placed in.
And as Mrs. Day thanked me in the vestibule of St. Barnabas, for the first time in over 20 years my perceptions were verbalized. She thanked me for going to Vietnam. Not for my service, but for the lessons that were learned from that ungodly conflict. The lessons that prompted people to support her son. Her loved one. Though people might be against the war, they supported the people over there. And that was the difference. They were looked upon as people. As human beings. Not as the garbage we were looked on when we stepped off the planes when we got home.
And as I glanced into the church, a sunbeam shone through the stained-glass portion of the roof, alighting upon the altar. And as I viewed that beam of light, I said a silent prayer. I thanked God for the lessons learned. I thanked God for the Memorial in D.C. And I thanked God for Mrs. Day.
Editor’s note: Northfield Center resident Greg Bogus wrote this essay in 1992. He served in Vietnam with India Co., 3rd Bn., 26th Marines from 1969 to 1970. He returned home as a corporal with a Purple Heart and a good combat record. He belongs to the Disabled American Veterans association and Northfield VFW Post 6768 and participated on the ground level of The Forgotten Warrior Project at Cleveland State University in the mid 1970s. This study went nationwide and was the groundbreaking impetus toward recognizing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a reality.