When I came home on leave in 1982, I popped in at Jefferson High, so that I could show my favorite teachers that I had amounted to something, and wore my field jacket with all the emblems and insignia.
Mr. Branson, the Choir Director, asked, “What unit are you with?”
“The 25th Infantry Division,” I answered.
“I can see that by your patch. But what unit are you in?”
“1st Battalion, 27th Infantry.”
“I’ll be damned – a Wolfhound!”
“Huh? You’ve heard of my unit?”
“Are you kidding? The Wolfhounds were the toughest unit in the Division: I was in the 25th. When I went to the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial, they separated the veterans by units. I’ll bet 80 percent of the guys who showed up from the 25th were Wolfhounds.”
I can’t tell you what that did for my self-esteem. Mr. Branson is a Vietnam Vet. That was the equivalent of a god to me: someone who had faced unimaginable hardship, yet kept “driving on.” To be acknowledged by a man whom I had revered as a role model was a profoundly fulfilling experience. Trying to be like my heroes was exactly why I was wearing a uniform.
Through the 1960’s, and half of the ‘70s, my Dad ran Devon Plaza, on Lafayette’s north end. From age 13 to 16, I washed dishes there alongside my brother. Many of my Dad’s favorite customers were ‘Nam Vets whose memories were still vivid. Many nights, we’d close the bar, and Dad would invite one of those men to the house for a B.S. session.
They’d open a bottle of whiskey at the kitchen table and start telling stories. I’d sit up on the sink and listen past dawn. I learned about claymore mines and punji sticks. I knew how to set up an ambush near a rice paddy by the time I was 15. I heard about torture, patrolling, booby traps and tunnel rats. These men were sharp, their wits were quick, and their nerves were shot. They were cunning and daring, rugged and bold – everything that I could ever hope to be.
After hours of tales of machineguns and whorehouses, when the bleary-eyed warriors would crash, I’d stretch out in bed, with visions of helicopters dancing in my head.
If you didn’t need a parent’s signature to enlist at 17, I would have dropped out of school to sign-up. I thought for sure Ronald Reagan would sic me on the Ayatollah. But it’s a good thing he didn’t. I wasn’t as tough as I was trying to be. Those men didn’t get to be like they were by trying. Duty called. They answered. It took its toll.
When I began this paean, I intended to name some of the ‘Nam Vets I’ve had the privilege of knowing, and mention some things I knew about them. Then it occurred to me that some of them didn’t want people to know those things.
I know some who are still sharp, quick, cunning, daring and bold. I know some who aren’t. I know some who have problems – aftereffects. Some aren’t real proud. Some are still partly there. They need to come home. All the way. Some tell me they’ve awoken screaming, recalling horrors that made them afraid to go back to sleep for weeks.
All in a day’s work.
I’ve grown to be grateful that I never got to prove myself in combat. I’ve learned a lot since the days when I used to idolize ‘Nam Vets as though they were more than men – larger-than-life paragons of courage and fortitude.
And it hasn’t altered the way I think about them at all. I’ve never stopped trying to be like them.