It was a warm September day in 1968 when my little brother and I made the trip from the Marine Barracks, Treasure Island (San Francisco) to the San Francisco International Airport. We boarded our flight to Los Angeles. It was a mostly empty flight and I would spend the time pensively staring into space and thinking about the war in ‘Nam.
As we descended into Los Angeles, the stewardess approached and said I would deplane ahead of the other passengers. She saw the black mourning band on my Army dress uniform and told me that she was sorry that I had the escort duty --"There has been so many of the escorts lately," she observed.
As we reached the United Airlines gate, I went to the front of the plane. The stewardess took me to the tarmac entrance and opened the door. Another employee escorted me to the luggage/freight section of the aircraft. I saluted into the afternoon sun as the cargo and luggage from the flight was unloaded.
Passengers in the LAX terminal probably wondered why a young soldier was saluting a freight cart. It was my job. I was the escort for my brother – bringing him home on the day after (what would have been) his 21st birthday… September 6, 1968.
1968 was a bad year in ‘Nam. It was the year of the greatest number of casualties in the war that Americans hated. And my 20-year-old brother was in the age group that suffered the most fatalities in ‘Nam.
A small freight tram came to pick up the wooden box containing my brother’s casket. Driving to the area where my brother would be loaded into a funeral car for Mead Mortuary, Barstow, the cart driver began talking to me about the war. He said that he’d been busy transporting military caskets and there seemed to be a lot of casualties that summer. He asked how many times I had escorted a soldier. “This is my first time,” I said, “and he’s my brother… he was a Marine Killed on the DMZ.”
The young driver turned to look at the crate, said “Wow—sorry” and nothing more.
The Los Angeles to Barstow ride was long. Very long. I thought about the Democratic National Convention in Chicago the week that Bob died (he was killed August 27, 1968). Tom Hayden and the Chicago 7 were raising hell about the war. And those of us in uniform. The odd thing was that hatred of the war focused on those of us in uniform. We were the sworn enemy. Not the politicians.
Most of the guys in the 60’s (including me) were drafted – most of us had no interest in military service. Who wanted to volunteer for a war no one understood?
Arriving at the mortuary, my wife and Dad wanted to remove the cover inside the casket. The undertaker explained that the casket was sealed for a reason. The remains of my brother – who took a direct hit from a large artillery shell – were not viewable.
Bob had an official Marine portrait on his closed casket. Semper fi.
To this day people ask what the Vietnam War was all about. I don’t really know. But I do know that Veterans Day and Memorial Day -- holidays that meant nothing to me as a kid -- are times that we honor the men and women who served our nation in all wars. There were a lot of misconceptions about those of us who served during the ‘Nam war. “Baby killers… village burners… drug addicts” etc. But the guys with whom I served were decent guys who answered their country’s call to duty and did the best we could.
My wife Judy and I will be flying to Hanoi and touring Quang Tri province and the DMZ (Camp Carroll) where my brother served. It’s nothing more than dirt today but it will be an opportunity to stand where my brother stood and to say good bye to an unlikely Marine. Friends who have been to Vietnam tell me it's a beautiful country and tourists are welcome. Vietnam became an important part of my life during my 3 years of service and after my discharge.
I look forward to seeing the nation about which I knew absolutely nothing when I started college in the early 60’s and which today has become such a big part of my life.
To be continued ...