On a warm, cloudless afternoon last week, I drove through the local cemetery to visit a couple of high school classmates.
I stopped at each of the gravesites and stood near the markers, noting not for the first time that each of the stones carried the military branch of service and rank of my old friends. Mike’s stone tells visitors he served as a 1st lieutenant in the Army. Ross made captain in the Marine Corps. Both served during the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Mike missed combat, but Ross flew helicopters under battle conditions.
Although we grew up together and shared classes, sports and truck-stop burgers, I know little about my friends’ military experiences. They didn’t talk much about it, to me, at least. I didn’t ask, either. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, their service would have been freshest in their minds, but people who didn’t serve didn’t ask, and people who did serve rarely volunteered stories.
Maybe that communications divide between those who went and those who didn’t has always been there. I only know about the Vietnam era. That was my generation’s war, and that’s how it was after. As I stood by those graves, I wondered what stories my friends would have shared if I’d had the courage to ask. Clearly, they were proud of their service. Most headstones in most cemeteries have limited room for information. Choosing to make rank and branch of service a priority shows how much it mattered.
I’ve reflected on that visit several times as Veterans Day neared. My friends’ stories, whether in combat or otherwise, are worth saving, not for bragging rights or anything like that, but because the stories were such an obvious and essential part of these men’s lives.
As I thought about the importance to them and their families of their part in the military service to the country, I remembered a book some Vietnam veterans in the Pierre area compiled back in 1986. The Vietnam Era Veterans Association of the Pierre area titled the book “South Dakotans in Vietnam,’’ with the subtitle “Excerpts from the South Dakota Vietnam Veterans Oral History Project.’’
When the book came out, I wrote a story for the local paper, and the project leaders gave me a copy of the book. I would sometimes leaf through it on a Veterans Day or Memorial Day. I knew several of the veterans who shared their stories, and I liked to read their thoughts about war and casualties and coming home. I liked seeing the candid photos of those people in their youth, usually smiling in spite of the dangers of the combat zones in which they found themselves. Their stories, even the parts about actual battles and hazardous missions, were simply told, lacking in boastfulness, just young men and women who stepped up and faced something many of the rest of us went out of our way to escape. The simplicity of their words touches something deep inside me even today.
Here’s how my friend Dale described his decision to join the Army: “In September of ’67 you were very likely to be drafted. I went down to my draft board and said, rather than put this off a couple of months, put my name at the top of the list and let’s get going.’’ Dale hoped to be a radio repairman. He went to Vietnam as an infantry truck driver.
Francis, a combat medic, said this about life in a war zone: “I guess one of the things that happened in that whole experience was my self-confidence. As time went on, I realized that I could make it out there as a medic. To be alive, just to keep on living, is sometimes a struggle. But after a while I became very confident.’’
To end a Veterans Day essay, Sharon, an Air Force flight nurse, says it well when she talks of the value of her military experience: “It gives me a better feeling as far as what I can do for my country. Our country isn’t just for us to take and take and take. We have to do some giving ourselves.’’