A man comes back into my life without invitation, without warning, without the merest hint I would ever hear his voice again.
“This is Roy Hoffmann,” he says over the phone. I feel shock, the kind of shock that takes away your breath, makes you stop everything you are doing and focus attention only on the immediate.
“Yes sir?” I respond, as if I’m still under his power to command. My body stiffens as if I am still on a Swift Boat in 1969, on a river, answering his call, ready for orders.
“I have a favor to ask,” he says. “I’ve created a foundation for wounded veterans.” His deep gravelly voice ignites memory cells that race through my brain too fast to stop. His radio call sign was “Latch” when I last heard his voice, thirty-six years ago on a river in Vietnam. “Could you deliver a check to a wounded marine at Camp Pendleton?”
I’m caught off guard. I need time to think and pause before answering. My brief silence must sound like rejection.
“You wouldn’t be going alone,” Hoffmann says, perhaps understanding my hesitation. “Chuck Rabel will be there. He’s a Swift Boat skipper too. He has the check.”
“It would be an honor,” I finally respond. I’m embarrassed my words come out as if something is caught in my throat.
“Who was that?” my wife asks as I hang up the phone. Jacqueline looks at my eyes, her forehead scrunched with wrinkles. I must look startled. Maybe she thinks I’ve just received bad news.
“Someone I knew a long time ago. An admiral. He’s retired now.”
“What did he want?”
“Just a favor,” I say and walk into the backyard to be alone for a minute. I’m not sure I can do this, not sure what I’ll see. But it’s clear, after all these years, Admiral Hoffmann has not lost compassion for those who go into harm’s way—and come home less than whole.
It’s a warm Saturday afternoon in San Diego as Chuck and I sit with a young sergeant convalescing from war. I watch the marine grip a glass of water with two gnarled hands. The marine sees my concern and laughs.
“My nickname is Pinky Stub—for missing fingers,” he says, and then he laughs again. His laugh helps me relax, but his missing fingers are minor wounds compared to horrific scars on his face, his arms, and his legs.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I ask, almost in a whisper. Maybe he’ll think I’m invading privileged ground. It’s a question no one has ever bothered to ask me.
“We were in Fallujah,” Pinky Stub says, “looking for insurgents. It was hard to know who were civilians, who were bad guys.”
“You were going house to house?”
“Yeah, clearing them, one at a time. I took the point, in front my squad, something I never do, but this time I did. I spotted the IED too late. I remember a white flash.”
Pinky Stub begins to describe a violent ambush and reflections of Vietnam rush to the surface with a staggering flood of emotion. His words are like a concussion bleeding my ears—I smell the smoke of cordite mixed with the sound of machine guns and urgent yelling. Visions tucked safely away in a dark-musty closet leap into my face like dirty gray moths, awakened by light.
My visions are a jumbled kaleidoscope—distorted images, bizarre, broken pieces of shattered glass; nothing fitting together in any cohesive manner. Slowly, they take shape as I piece them together: a marine dying in my arms, a young girl’s burned skin, my friend Bruce vaporized into a cloud while defusing a mine. I fight an involuntary muscle quivering my chin, a prelude to tears.
“How do you feel? Are you okay now?” I ask. I try to concentrate on his answers, not on memories. It would not do for me to lose composure in front of this brave marine.
“I’m okay—pain’s not bad. But I’m worried they’re going to give me a medical discharge. I can’t pass the physical.”
“What will you do then?”
“Don’t know. I’ve always dreamed of a career in the marines. Made sergeant in three years. I keep hoping they’ll change their mind, let me stay. But if they don’t, I’ll understand.”
I am in awe of the character of this young man so fresh from the battlefield. I want to hold him in my arms, to console him as if he were my son. His absence of self-pity stands out with enormous clarity, like the man without limbs in a Vietnam hospital ward.
“This is for you,” Chuck Rabel says, handing him an envelope, “from the Admiral Hoffmann Foundation. Thank you for your service.” Chuck is taken with this man, impressed with the exceptional maturity of a twentyone- year-old marine. “I have an electronics firm. Join us; you could start tomorrow. I’ll coach you, show you the ropes.”
“Thank you,” Pinky Stub says with an air of dignity, but he’s not ready to give up his quest to remain in the marines. Pinky Stub, with his distorted flesh, conveys neither recrimination nor regret for his wounds, only strength of conviction to move on, to remain focused on his future. Things I deal with today are so superficial, so trivial—so insignificant to what he now confronts.
“I wanted a military career too,” I say to Pinky Stub, “in the navy. I was full of ambition and pride like you.” But I don’t tell him I felt lost when that dream died. I needed to start over—but I wasn’t wounded, at least not on the outside. “Your experience and your leadership skills are more valuable than a degree from Harvard.”
“Doubt that,” Pinky Stub says with a laugh.
“You are a marine, a leader—you are elite! Never forget that.”
It is one thing to be moved by patriotic images on TV; it is altogether different to sit with Pinky Stub, face to face, while he smiles and ignores his disfigured body as if it’s just another challenge in life.
I compare this marine of today with how Swift Boat sailors felt returning from their tour. I think how Vietnam veterans might have healed more quickly or died more proudly if our society had given some acknowledgement for their burden, some respect for their sacrifice.
Like this marine, Swift Boat sailors, who fulfilled their commitment in Vietnam, did not talk of bravery, did not beat their chests of medals or bring attention to their wounds. But unlike this marine, they were pariahs when they returned home. Swift Boat sailors became subdued, while holding within their hearts the memory of names that would someday be engraved on a wall.
My youngest son, Bret, is a marine; home from Iraq.
“Hey Dad,” Bret says, “I found something in the garage you might want—a box.”
He’s found my “going-home” box, long since forgotten. I used it to ship my gear home from Vietnam.
I’m startled by this treasure of memorabilia from 1969: letters from Dad, pictures of men trying to escape from waist-deep mud on a canal in Vietnam, a logbook from my Swift Boat, PCF 67, and an audio tape of radio conversations—sounds of men fighting to stay alive on the Duong Keo River.
The dust-covered box is an unexpected catalyst, like the phone call from Admiral Hoffmann and meeting Pinky Stub. I discover I left Vietnam with something else, something unnoticed, hidden too deep to see. The Vietnam War implanted a seed and it germinated, grew and replicated over the years, slowly threading its way through the ganglia of my soul until it permeated my total being, taking hold of my sub-conscious and pouring out now, thirty-six years later, with tears I don’t understand.
This seed is survivor’s guilt and there is no refuge. It is imbued so deep it cannot be expunged. After hiding for three decades, I have taken the courage to remember the past, to let my feelings out—even though no one asked.
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