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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Day I Grew Up

The Day I Grew Up

This is like a letter to my son.
In the military young men try hard to become a man but becoming a man doesn't start until the first fire fight. You don't grow up until you see your first combat death. You gain even more maturity when you see your first dead American. The horror of all the sights and sounds jolted me  from childhood into adulthood instantly.

During my training people tried to tell me but I didn't listen. Veterans described in great detail what happens but I ignored them. I saw movies showing combat death but movies didn't prepare me. Nothing sank in. I didn't know until I saw with my own eyes. Then in an instant, I became very fearful. I found out. I grew up.

There were times when a new guy came into the platoon and he would talk big. You know, all brave and courageous. He still suffered from the brainwashing he got during his training. He would be boasting and brag how he was going kill all those gooks. Obviously insecure, his big talk covered his fear. He was still a kid suffering from youthful delusions. He didn't know.

Almost without fail he would shut his mouth after experiencing his first firefight. The incredible violence and noise shocks a person into submission. A firefight injects a feeling of helplessness and humility into the child and then the child doesn't want to speak anymore. The child loses his tongue.

The child becomes a man. Men don't brag. Men don't boast. Men become humbled by what they see. It’s so horrible a man won't talk about it years later. Not even with those he loves. The experience is so terrible he knows the feeling can never be communicated to anyone that hasn't been there. Even when two combat infantry vets meet each other they can't talk about what they saw. They just drift off into their private thoughts and nod at each other. Men shut their mouths. 

It has been a life time but I remember well the day I grew up. The moment was branded in
my brain and every detail is as fresh as the day it happened. The memory is there day and night. My sorrow is deep and gets worse with age.

I went to Vietnam and met a guy who like me, had not quite grown up. We were rookies together. We became good friends because we had the mutual bad luck of being assigned to the same squad in the same infantry unit. We had similar families and our lives seemed to be taking the same course. We were alike and from the beginning we were best of friends.

We watched out for each other and took turns carrying heavy loads. Combat makes instant friendships. Stress requires someone to talk to. Fear requires a companion. Neither of us had been in a firefight yet. Our very first engagement ended badly.

While going through a lightly wooded area outside of Cholon, a sniper shot Ron square in the center of his chest. The bullet must have hit his breast bone and mushroomed because when the bullet exited, a large gob of flesh, bone and blood was expelled and covered my face and uniform . Ron died instantly. A thousand days later my skin would burn from where Ron’s blood had touched me. Many times I have awakened in the night rubbing my face.

It was the first of many moments in that wretched place  I survived only because I was lucky. The sniper must have had his sights on me at one time but instead, chose Ron. He was nineteen like me.

History would change, love would not take place, children would not be born and the lives many unknown people would be altered. I often wondered what kind of life Ron’s children would have had if the sniper had chosen me instead. 

How different the life of some unknown woman, had Ron lived. How different the life of my own wife had I died in that place. How diminished the world had my son not been born? What has the world lost because Ron’s children were not born?

Ron’s passing was the day I grew up.

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