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Carnage and Guilt
By Tom Gery
Oblivious to the carnage, there were no thoughts of guilt. The war had been on Americans' TV's for at least three years before my induction. My teen life included high school, then junior college, while clerking in a grocery store to pay bills. The immorality of the conflict did not hit me until many years later. The national strategic goals of the Vietnam engagement were not considered nor was the very essence of warfighting, to kill other human beings, given any thought. In retrospect, it was the basic training chow hall practice of shouting out "Bravo Killer" and a number for the headcount that began to give me a clue.
Personal morality is often mixed up with patriotism when it comes to war. There is the enemy who has the same task as you. There are rules of engagement that dictate actions according to circumstances. A military-age male in a so-called free-fire zone is subject to death. An old man in a rice paddy miles away from any designated killing area ought not to be. Personal morality smacked me in the face the first time a pilot next to me in the scout chopper took potshots at civilians on the ground while we were in route back to base after a day's operation. Given he was my platoon commander, a captain, and older than me, there was no comment from this kid. It didn't feel right, but I didn't say a thing. It was before I learned about moral injury. There were other things as well that gave me a sense of the mean-spiritedness.
A day of reckoning arrived on April 8, 1969. The Captain's low observation combat helicopter (LOCH) took enemy fire, became engulfed in flame from a severed fuel line, and crashed landed. I was in the wing ship, which immediately came in to pick up the downed crew. The pilot was burned, his observer physically unharmed. Together, we got the Captain into my LOCH, returning to base where the pilot received emergency services before being sent to Japan.
On April 22, the unit command conducted a memorial service. The burns were fatal, the pilot was another statistic, a name to be etched in black stone.
I had dark thoughts that day. Did one bad turn deserve another? I thought I knew what had been in this person's heart. Was the immorality of this conflict revealing itself to me?
I buried it, easy to do in the day-to-day routine, moving on, counting the days, thoughts of life back in "the world." And the thoughts remained buried upon return in September of 1969. For me, it was out of the uniform, active duty in the rearview mirror, with life as a civilian no longer on hold. Or so I thought.
Sometime later, within a few months, I received a letter that was addressed to my unit in Vietnam. It had been forwarded to my civilian residence. The postmark was within easy driving distance of my home. The contents were a surprise - I was shocked. The dark thoughts resurfaced. The parents of the pilot were reaching out. They had received a letter from the replacement scout platoon CO detailing my role in their son's death. They used the word "our " with his first name. They assumed we were buddies expressing gratitude for my actions; they wrote words of grief. They wanted to remain in contact. The painfully beautiful cursive said so: ". . . knowing you were such a good friend of our. . . always know you and keep in touch. . . do hope sometime you will come and visit us in . . . " I tried to bury it again.
It didn't work. They were persistent, these parents. Their emotional wounds were raw. They just wanted to fill in some blanks; they wrote of a wife and a nineteen-month-old who would want to know someday. Survivors desperately hold on to memories; to grieve is to remember. He was their hero. There were medals awarded posthumously. The memory was to be honored and I was part of the memory, like it or not.
As a youth of twenty-one, I cared little for war memories or grief. I still had a bitter taste in my mouth from what I had seen and knew. I turned my back and this time the dark thoughts stayed buried until they weren't. They resurrected with some guilt. I have since come to better understand grief and the need for closure by those left behind. I realize from the heartfelt words in those two letters saved for 50 years that I could have been there in their time of suffering. Had I been wiser, more mature, I could have found a way to be comforting without being revealing. If I'd been able to set my own feelings aside during that period of parental pain, the deeply personal heart-wrenching experience of losing a child, then perhaps some goodness realized.
No longer oblivious to the carnage I know the thoughts of guilt.
Tom Gery served in the US Army from January 1968 to September 1969 with a tour of duty in Vietnam '68-'69.
He is a retired social worker, married with two adult children and two grandchildren.