The truth is I don't remember them very well. I should, I know, I know, I know. After all, I sent them to their deaths. No, I didn't kill them. Instead, I mean I was responsible for them: The orders I gave them were the proximate causes of their fates.
I made Bear walk point, out in front of the rest of the company, leading us into dangerous territory atop a mountain a few kilometers from Laos above the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I shouldn't have done that. He was a short-timer due to return to the States in a couple of weeks. Why did I do it? Why did I ignore his pleas? Foolishly, I wanted to believe a patently false myth: Native Americans had talismanic, mystical warrior talents, or so we hoped. (Our red brothers could see enemy troops in jungles where white, brown, or black Americans saw only impenetrable foliage.) Bear argued with me, he fretted, he complained, he told me how wrong I was. He was just a regular guy off the Rez, he said, with no special tracking skills, but I told him he had to walk point because we all knew he was so good at this stuff and there were bad people out there.
He sensed something terrible was going to happen. He may not have been able to see through triple-layer canopy, but his perception was clearer than mine.
He did his job anyway.
For his conscientiousness, he was shot many, many times. He had foreseen and dreaded this very ambush, but he was powerless to prevent it. His gifts were not really gifts at all. They were jujus, phantasmagoria, and the residue of superstitious, silly, wishful thinking. Everyone in my platoon believed in those gifts but Bear.
He died in minutes.
The second man in line, squad leader Shaefer, was shot through five of his joints--both knees, a wrist, an elbow, a hip; and as a special savage bonus, he was hit in the gut too. He was alive when we got to him. We medevaced him and the next two guys in line. The third man was shot in his right foot. His wound was bad enough to get him out of that bad place but not nearly so bad as to be life threatening. The fourth man was shot in his left buttock, which meant a nice, fat scar and a joyful trip home.
Fifth in line: me. I was unscathed.
Days later, though, I too was shot. After surgery, I awoke next to poor Shaefer. He was still in intensive care, suffering mightily. I don't know to this day if he survived. Maybe he should be on this list of honored dead.
I hope not. Shaefer had argued with me not to put Bear on point. Poor bastards, both of them.
Hours later, they were blown up in a mortar attack preceding an assault on our base camp.
Other people I served with were blinded, paralyzed, mutilated, or killed, but I didn't feel quite so personally responsible for the rest of them. I didn't feel responsible for Lesser, who walked into a booby trap, or the gunner in our mortar platoon who threw a grenade at his buddies, a prank that went bad and killed three people. I didn't feel responsible for Doc Froemming, whose eyes were ruined by a satchel charge even as we stood side by side. That was just bad karma. Crap happens.
Like so many of their peers, Bear, Cumby, and Hartry were kids, teenagers fresh from high school, mere babies. Each one of them was six or seven years younger than my very own daughter is today. These boys died isolated, their deaths unheralded save to their families and their fellow grunts, and now only their moms remember them truly as they were.
I thought I'd remember every tiny detail about their demises, but I have forgotten almost everything. I recall a few flashes of bravery and many more terrifyingly weak moments, but time fogs one's memories. I thought the experiences of war were so vivid as they occurred, scrolling like a horrible movie that wouldn't end, that they had etched deep into my brain like acid, each cruel memory eating in far deeper than does a photograph.
The truth is that I remember little about these three men except that they died.
On days like this one, Memorial days, we remember all our not-totally-forgotten kids. They fought in Korea, the Gulf War, WWII, WWI, the Spanish American War, the War Between the States; they fought in all those damned wars. Today, we know very few of them, fallen or living. They are names on a wall, words chiseled into neat plaques, vainglorious statues, but they never seem real, these vanished souls. Instead, all at once, impossibly, they are idealized, overdramatized--and yet largely forgotten. Yet even when we don't know who they were, can't recall their faces or conjure up their heroics, or feel their mortal terrors, we should remember them, not because they were Trojans, Hussars, or gladiators, but because they did what they had to. They were our boys, our friends, and our buddies. They smoked cigarettes with us, they ate C rations, and they died.
Maybe I'm just blowing smoke here, professing survivor guilt, acting theatrically 32 years after the fact. I can go from one year to the next without thinking about these guys. But that's the problem: the forgetting. Warfare is dirty business. That's true even when we fight for just causes. It's true when we know our enemies are evil or the danger they present is transparent. OK: These ain't exactly news flashes. Though banal, these truths merit repeating, especially on Memorial Day. When we remember sacrifices and honor and duty, we must remember that the suffering is real, and that for some of us war lasts all eternity. As we remember our dead, we must remember to be careful. When we send our kids to fight, we should be darned sure we have good reason. We must strive not to send them to inscrutable conflicts to die alone.
I am deeply, truly sorry it worked out the way it did. May God bless Cloud, Cumby, and Hartry.