As we watch the brilliant PBS documentary “Vietnam,” we are told stories of valor and tragedy, brilliance and stupidity, honesty, corruption, and sacrifice.
Let me tell you another Vietnam war story, one you won’t see on TV.
In November 1965, after spending a wonderful summer in Boothbay, Uncle Sam sent me a draft notice and I reported to the induction center to be poked and prodded. Once they determined I was alive, I joined 50 others in a room where a fat Army sergeant looked us over then barked out a challenge: We need three Marines. Who wants to volunteer?
When his request was met with dead silence, he looked around the room and pointed to a big guy.
You look like a Viet Cong killer to me. You’re a Marine. Then he focused on me (and my thick glasses) and said: “You, sealed beams. And, when the black guy (he used another word) in the back wakes up, tell him he is a Marine.
The black guy was named Larry. He was a loosey-goosey street kid. When he woke up, he was not amused.
The three of us were bundled into a plane and flown to San Diego where we were plunged headfirst into the legendary USMC boot camp experience.
To make a long story short, boot camp transformed Larry into a squared away Marine. He was proud to be an “03,” a Marine rifleman, a warrior.
Of course, he was sent to Vietnam, where Larry was given a choice. He could go out into the bush and get shot, or stay back in Da Nang. He picked the latter, and was assigned to a support unit known as “Graves Registration.” This meant Larry spent his 13-month tour stuffing the remains of other Marines into body bags. When he came home, he was a heroin addict. A stone junkie.
At about the same time, I came home, got married, and was hired as a cub reporter for a major metropolitan daily newspaper.
One day, while hanging out in a criminal courtroom, I recognized a guy who was standing before the judge. It was Larry. I asked the judge if I might chat with him. He said OK.
Larry said police had pulled him over for a traffic offense. When he pulled out his driver’s license, a small packet of heroin fell out of his wallet and he was arrested.
He asked me for help. I said I would try.
After I explained Larry’s story to a friendly lawyer, he agreed to help.
The lawyer got Larry released from jail, hooked him up with the VA, and got him into a rehab program. After a while, Larry seemed to get better and the lawyer got the prosecutor to drop the charges.
Then, Larry called me again. He was looking for a job, a straight job. Once more, I said I would try.
I knew a kind man who happened to own a chain of small grocery stores. He agreed to hire Larry and teach him the business. As a Viet vet, the grocery store owner thought he had the potential to be a store manager. A few weeks later, I got a call from the grocer. He asked if I had seen Larry. He was AWOL. No one could find him. He disappeared.
I guess it was about six months later when I came across a police report entitled “Man found dead.” It was Larry. Police found him in an abandoned house. The coroner’s report said he had died from choking on his own vomit. He was a junkie. He died a junkie’s death.
But did he? When his nation called, Larry answered. Unlike others, he did not protest, he did not run away to Canada. He stepped up to the plate, put on the uniform, saluted the flag and marched off to war where he was assigned a God-awful task.
And, after spending some 13 months stuffing arms and legs into body bags, he came home a junkie.
There were no lavish welcome home parades for Larry. No one smiled and said thanks for your service. He died alone.
One of the secrets of that war was that a lot of veteran’s organizations ignored the Viet vets. They had long hair, and liked rock music. Most of all, they were losers. The “Greatest generation” whipped Hitler and Tojo. They said Viet vets didn’t win their war. But that's another story.
If you go to Washington, D.C., don’t forget to visit “The Wall.” It lists the names of the 58,000 Americans who lost their lives in that conflict. But don’t bother looking for Larry’s name.
He didn’t die in the jungle, but, make no mistake, the Vietnam war killed that young Marine.
Semper Fi, Larry. God Bless.