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Page 47
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Survivors Guilt

By Tony Cokely

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I didn't even know him well. He was a clerk in the company office. Four weeks earlier, I had lied my way into a job in that office. It's better always to be in the rear with the gear! I had spent seven months humping the hills and paddies with two different grunt units. When the First Sergeant assembled those of us with some college, he asked if any of us could type. I said I could, and I got the job. I became the new company correspondence clerk. It was only a tiny lie; after all, he hadn't asked whether I could type fast.

I have always told the story of his death casually and as if it didn't bother me. I would say something like, "He believed he was a real Texan. He had a swagger, a drawl, and thought he was tough. The rest of us saw him as typical Rear Echelon Mother Fucker. He was a clerk, and he was a good typist." He wanted combat duty. He wanted out of the office. After all, he was a Marine. Then, one day, it was payday. Someone had to fly out to the bush; witness the paying of the other Marines; and, then hump back in with the platoon.

It was payday, and the Lieutenant picked me to escort the paymaster, who would take the script to the Marines in the field. The Lieutenant picked me, a combat Marine with little interest in further risking my life, especially considering my fellow Marines would get their money on time, but in a place where they couldn't spend it.

There was absolutely nothing to buy in the jungles of Vietnam except whores, which were against regulations; black market goods, which were against regulations; and drugs which were even more against regulations. We were not even allowed to give the Vietnamese the script we were paid with.

When the Marines in the bush received their pay, they were scheduled to return to the rear, where they could spend the script.

Notwithstanding, regulations said Marines were paid on a particular day. If they happened to be in the field on that day, then that is where they were paid.

He volunteered to take my place. He begged the Lieutenant to send him. I remember asking the Lieutenant, "Do you think he wants to go home without ever being in the field?" Eventually, he talked his way into escort duty. He loaded up his rifle, and he went in my place. He got on the helicopter with the paymaster and the money. He was probably having sugar plum, John Wayne visions of glory.

Marine pilots were chosen for their ability to fly without concern for the law of gravity or an enemy trying to shoot them out of the sky. This day, the pilot came in fast and banked to drop quickly to the ground. Maybe he didn't see the tree, or perhaps he just misjudged the location. He clipped the tree with the propeller, and the machine dropped straight into an inferno of its fuel and armament. My replacement died with four other Marines that day. Ten other Marines were wounded.

I didn't realize how guilty I felt about his death until I corresponded with his mom on Thanksgiving Day, 2013. After her first letter, I broke down and cried for a long time. My grief for him was unbelievably intense. The only other time I had ever cried like this had been 34 years before, on the day when my father died.

For years, I had minimized the day my replacement died. I would say that he volunteered, and that was his problem. I didn't know how much his death bothered me until I contacted his mom. I had difficulty approaching his name on the Wall in Washington, DC. His name is carved on panel 05W, line 64.

It is funny how it is so silent there at the wall. Even the children seem to know not to run and play. It is too bad because the lost soldiers would like to hear them run and play, even if it upsets the living and what the living are feeling.

I had a friend take a picture of his name on the wall. That picture hung in front of me on my office wall for many years. He replaced me on that helicopter, and he died, and I came home. I did my best to forget those war years. I rarely would talk about it. When I did talk about it, I likely mentioned him. In the fifteen or so years that I had the photo over my desk, people would sometimes ask about it. I told the story of his death as a fork in the road. He died, and I lived.

That Thanksgiving, when I found his mom's address, I was crying in grief for him and her as I composed a message to her. I told her that I have always felt he saved my life. I pray that whatever I told her comforted her and did not reopen old wounds. I cannot imagine her pain in the loss of her child.

I told his mom that there were at least two medics on the ground where the helicopter went down. The medics said they were able to treat the wounded almost immediately. I hope that knowledge helped.

Forty-two years after he died, a sixty-five-year-old Marine sobbed like an injured child. I couldn't stop crying. I never knew until that day the depth of guilt I felt from my living while he died.

The next day, in the shower, I was back to feeling thankful. Each day, I live where I can shower until the hot water runs out. Every morning, I am grateful for the toilet, the running water, the shower, and the clean water for brushing my teeth.

There was a time when I didn't have any of those things. I carried my belongings on my back, slept in a hole in the ground, squatted for the toilet, and dry-shaved with an old used razor blade. Oh yeah, and I tried to avoid killing people or getting killed.

On January 25, 1971, he convinced the Lieutenant to let him take my place on a helicopter that crashed, killing him and at least four others. A fine line separated me from him. I had a life after that day. His actions allowed me that life.

How blessed was I to have found his mom at Thanksgiving? How lucky to have lived to have a family, a life, this day and tomorrow? Yes, I give thanks for my family, for my grandchildren, for everything in my life, and that he got on that helicopter in my place.

Tony Cokely was drafted into the Marine Corps and served from 1969 to 1971. He retired after 29 years as a government employee, union member, and officer. He has volunteered as a shuttle driver for Veterans and home-bound seniors for many years. He lives in the California foothills.

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