One of my last college classes was about the Vietnam War.
Peaceful protestors from that era were my teachers and predecessors. I emulated them when protesting the more recent Iraq War. That’s why I wanted my final report to be an in-depth interview with a local man who’d lived through the Kent State tragedy.
My professor had other ideas.
He wanted me to talk to a veteran. Someone who’d fought in the war.
A soldier? Me? Did my professor not notice my DROP BEATS, NOT BOMBS t-shirt? All the bumper stickers quoting John Lennon?
Didn’t my toe rings give a clue?
I told him I routinely urged Marc’s nephew to put away his GI Joe shit.
“Aunt Katie doesn’t play with war toys,” I said.
My professor sort of insisted.
Ron, my stepdad, served in Vietnam with the Marines. He didn’t talk much about the war. In fact, the subject rarely came up.
There were times when Ron rolled his eyes after a news report documented some deranged veteran who’d killed people, and blamed it on PTSD. Ron thought the condition was an excuse, a crutch.
“If they didn’t blame it on Vietnam, it’d be something else.”
He didn’t like Jane Fonda.
And whenever we complained about something, anything, he’d smirk and ask if we were in a foxhole, with rain beating down on us and people shooting at us. We’d say no. He’d say, “Then you don’t have it so bad.”
One summer day, I sat with him to talk about Vietnam and turned on a tape recorder. This is the story that stands out.
In 1969 or 1970, somewhere in Southeast Asia, Ron put in a requisition order for a new radio backpack. That was his job. Radio Guy.
I’m sure there’s a more official title, but our talk took place several years and more than a few glasses of wine ago. This is how I remember it.
The strap on his backpack kept breaking and his radio would fall to the ground. Putting everything together again and moving on took too much time.
Too much time.
He needed a new one.
Requisitions took forever and it’s not like the war stopped while he waited. Ron had to continue to deal with a broken strap on his radio backpack.
One day, his platoon took incoming fire. They had to move out, quickly.
His strap broke. Again. Ron stopped and put it together, then hauled ass to catch up to his platoon. He ran fast through the jungle, running to reach them.
No one wanted to get stuck out there alone.
He did eventually catch up to his platoon. They’d been ambushed or maybe they tripped a few explosive devises.
At any rate, they were dead. Every single one had been killed. Ron was the only survivor. He radioed for help and eventually reached safety.
He had nightmares when he got back home, but he’s okay now. No excuses. No crutches.
We stayed quiet for a long time and then shared a few beers together.
We never discussed Vietnam again.