November 2, 2013
Introduction to “July 24”
October marked the sixty-eight birthday of my late father, Tommy. He died fifteen years ago at the age of 53, in November 1998, from chronic alcoholism. Only months before dying “unexpectedly” this Vietnam Veteran would reveal in writing, for the first time, to my family including his eighty-three-year-old mother and his older brother, an unbelievable secret from his exposure to war, in 1968. His confession came as a complete shock and devastated, both, my mother and me.
Having long viewed his life as a puzzle to be solved, I never had enough pieces to figure out this complex Jigsaw. This thirty-year-old secret was a bombshell, to say the least. It would serve as a giant and central piece in his adult life, which all other subsequent events and relationships would be colored by. This experience would definitely explain why his life turned out so tragically and the painful impact it would have on our small family.
The following narrative is one of two written stories that he left behind. My mother and I chose to reveal their existence to family and friends upon his death. For over a solid year, we gave out copies of both stories upon request from family and friends, acquaintances and even complete strangers. Sharing his recorded life served as much needed therapy for the pain and suffering that we had long felt, yet we didn’t know exactly why. We refused to let his secret to become ours for even one day. In April 2000, on the eve of the 25th Anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, his story was published in its entirety in the Sunday edition of the (Mobile, AL) Press-Register, my hometown newspaper.
Over the past fifteen years, I have continued to share his stories with hundreds of individuals. In 2008, the second year of this writing project, I shared both of them with then a much smaller audience (some 1,000 contacts) to convey my desire to make this new endeavor have impact, depth and be something special to read and enjoy, if my essays weren’t already achieving this goal. For the past year, I’ve wanted to share these stories again with this larger audience. Now, seems like the appropriate time. (Note: His second story, The Camp, will follow in December.)
Tommy was just one veteran who came home from Vietnam with all ten of his fingers and toes. His troubles weren’t physical in nature. While problems abound around the house, he kept his tracks back to Southeast Asia well covered and camouflaged. I was well aware that he served in the U.S. Marine Corps and went to Vietnam.
As a child, I use to play with his metal dog tags. I studied a photo album of him training with the U.K.’s Royal Marines in the Libyan Desert and pictures of him standing on the top deck of a merchant ship. I routinely pulled off the bookcase his yearbook from boot camp at Parris Island, SC each time searching out his handsome portrait dressed in “Blues”. As a student in high school, I broke out his olive green cotton fatigues and wore them around the house. He never uttered one word about anything. Vietnam as a topic of conversation was never once mentioned in our house and his silence should have tipped us off. It never did.
My impression of his deployment to Vietnam was nothing more than a weekly trip to the grocery store for milk and bread. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He was sober for a period time, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t cough up this source of so much guilt, shame and self-destruction. He wasn’t the only humiliated veteran to return home from the war to suffer in silent violence nor was our family the only one that would unknowingly be fighting a losing battle with our marine and his tormenting demons.
The current and past soldiers, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families will no doubt have similar issues to face and resolve. I hope all those in uniform will have the courage to talk and make peace now rather than wait for a lifetime to pass before getting right with their Maker and taking their last breath. My family paid a high price for my father’s service in Vietnam and the many decisions he made afterwards, but he paid the ultimate price with his life.
He was smart in his own right, maybe even a genius. He was well-spoken, humble, making friends easily. He repeatedly received invitations to go fishing, hunting, to play rounds of golf at private clubs including once at the famed Pebble Beach and annual offers to attend the Kentucky Derby with a new friend who served as a director to the J. Graham Brown Foundation in Louisville, KY, which owned part of Churchill Downs. All of these offers came from those well above his social standing.
He could tell a story with the best of them. I always enjoyed hearing him recount fishing and hunting excursions as a young boy in the bayous and fields of north Louisiana. Unable to write my one and only term paper to graduate from high school, I asked him to. A bankrupted home-builder and lost in life, he reluctantly agreed. His reward for his work was getting the highest grade in my English Literature class, not bad for someone who failed out of college twice, once before life in the U.S. Marine Corps and once more after being honorably discharged.
At the time of his death and funeral, his brother, Jimmy from Louisiana, mentioned to me that his former college classmate at Louisiana Tech University, Stan Tiner, was the managing editor of the Mobile Press-Register. Eager to get his story told, I made an appointment to meet with Mr. Tiner and shared the two stories. Stan also served in the Marine Corps and he too fought in Vietnam. He was skeptically receptive to our meeting and to my father’s story. He was well versed in this subject having read many tales from the soldiers of ‘Nam.
After I quick introduction, I passed my copy of the story across his old wooden desk. Stan leaned back into his chair and began reading. He stopped only once, midway through the essay, to make a comment on something my father wrote about covering his dreadful C-rations with Tabasco sauce before chowing down. Upon completion, Stan’s one and only comment about my father’s story was this, “It isn’t [Ernest] Hemingway.”
I wasn’t expecting any comment of that esteem, but I thought somewhere in his negative critique was a generous compliment. I left our meeting feeling proud and maybe vindicated having watched the life of the man that I loved and called “Dad” never taste one bit of so-called “success.” In his death, the feedback from others has been overwhelmingly kind. I will leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions.
Today, I credit my father with any gifts that I may be enjoying as a writer, which have given me a great sense of purpose. It’s been said that there is a genetic link in writing between fathers and sons. I decided to share his story so you could better understand mine. Our past, our history explains our present – as individuals, as families and as a nation. It’s not knowledge that’s gives one power, but insight.
His late-in-life revelation has forever changed how I see him, as my father and as a human being, war and myself. He purged a deadly tumor that decades of drinking could no longer suppress. I have no doubts that he wanted to take this story of great shame with him to the grave and he almost accomplished his goal. How fortunate our family was to learn what caused him so much agony and finally brought to an end to ours. Many tears have been shed over his life, his death and this story to fill up a bathtub.
I’ve also attached a second word document titled, “President Obama – a loser coach managing a losing team.”, which is actually an email exchange between myself and Jan McNamara, an executive at PBS, in Alexandria, Virginia, when I originally wrote to PBS President and CEO, Paula A. Kerger, complaining about network’s media personalities’ (Mark Shields and others) and their comments and coverage of Washington (both, the president and Congress) on various news and political programs. Using analogies, it’s a colorful description of what’s wrong with, both, our politicians and their friends and neighbors – the Washington media establishment. Both groups need term limits.
Numerous lawmakers, decisions makers in academia, business, major foundations and government were “copied” in the email. David M. Walker, the former Comptroller General of the United States and head of the Government Accounting Office (1998-2008), wrote back and said, “Nice job!” on my effort. David is widely credited with bringing to America’s attention the impending financial crisis, beginning in 2003. He’s received national and international honors for his work.
Economist, college professor Mark Skousen had this is say, “…But you certainly hit a nerve with your remarks about PBS, Mark Shields, et al…..I call Washington DC “Death Star” and with good reason. I’m sure you would agree. Nobody seems to care anymore where our country is headed. All we hear on TV networks is name calling, political demonizing, but nobody just talks about real solutions. I see CNN has started up the divisive “Crossfire,” where they have representatives of the “left” and the “right” instead of “Best Solutions”…..”
See attachments – July 24
President Obama – a loser coach managing a losing team. (http://www.toxicnation.blogspot.com/2013/10/president-obama-losing-coach-managing.html)
Note: The following story was published posthumously in its entirety, in April 2000, on the Eve of the 25th Anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War appearing in the Mobile Press Register.
July 24, 1998
The following is true. It happened thirty years, three months, and four days ago. This is an account of an event that has affected my life. It is about living with shame and guilt, about a man of fifty-two, searching for a peaceful place in the valley, on the other side of the mountain. It is neither about justification nor an excuse. This is about redemption.
I have never told this to another human being.
On April 20, 1968, I killed four innocent people, maybe five. Two were children, their mother, and an old man. If the severely injured young girl survived, she has lived without a leg. I will never know their names.
I have spent my lifetime trying to hide from the memory of that morning. Guarding this secret has been expensive; I have treated it as a valued possession, and allowed it to dictate the path in life that I have stumbled down. It has cost me my family. I have lost every meaningful relationship that I have ever had, or wanted, because I have refused to allow myself relief from this torment. Guilt and Shame have replaced my friends, and today are my constant companions.
On April 19, 1968, I was twenty-two years old. I was aboard a marine helicopter flying to a remote and unnamed place north of the City of Hue, near the banks of the Perfume River. In fifteen days, I would be leaving Vietnam and returning home, to be honorably discharged, and within three weeks, I would be back in school. In the previous seven months, I never had the occasion to fire my weapon at the enemy nor been in a situation where my life, and the lives of others, would depend on my reaction under fire. That night was to be my first test. Regrettably, it would be the first of my many failings.
Fate had been kind to me during my time in the Marine Corps. I always had easy and interesting jobs and had the opportunity to see much of the world. My job in Vietnam was that of a courier of classified information. I was a special delivery mailman, transporting the secrets of military leaders in high places to combatants in the field. I had a special pass that allowed priority access to any aircraft going anywhere and had flown nearly every place imaginable in the five northern provinces of South Vietnam. Because of restrictions involved with delivering classified information, I had orders to never stay in the field overnight. Usually, if flying aboard a chopper, the pilot would wait on the ground until my materials were delivered and signed for before resuming flight. On April 19, 1968, an unkind fate would keep me at a remote and unnamed place, north of the City of Hue, near the banks of the Perfume River.
I joined the Marine Corps on a dare and bet. My father, unhappy with my performance in college and life in general, was the inspiration. While watching Huntley and Brinkley on the NBC evening news on July 25, 1965, a piece about marines in Vietnam had just aired, he turned to me with irritation and anger in his voice and said, “I’ll bet you a thousand bucks that you don’t have the guts to join the marines. I dare you to do it.” The next morning I enlisted for three years.
My reasons for enlisting were never political or about fighting communists. I joined for noble, gallant, romantic, and unrealistic notions. This was to be an adventure, the opportunity to prove myself a man. The Marine Corps had always been about honor and loyalty, about toughness.
When the radioman informed me that the helicopter would not be returning for me until the following morning, I remember feeling excited. I was finally going to get to spend a night in the bush with the enemy. The dispatch that I had delivered to the company commander contained intelligence reports of a North Vietnam Army unit that was believed to be in the immediate area. It was the same NVA unit that had been responsible for the wholesale slaughter of nearly a thousand South Vietnamese civilians in Hue during the Tet offensive. As I ate a can of boned chicken, laced with Tabasco sauce from the “C” rations that I always carried, the executive officer was briefing the platoon leaders about the latest intelligence report. Various patrols were to be deployed after dark and the remainder of the company would standby on high alert.
Within the small compound there were thirty or forty Vietnamese refugees that were there for protection from the NVA, and they were situated in bunkers near the center of the encampment. A staff sergeant directed me to a bunker not too far from the refugees, gave me five magazines of ammunition and five hand grenades. I had thrown one live hand grenade in my life in infantry training at Camp Lejune.
The compound was a maze of trenches and sand-bag bunkers, holes in red clay. Razor-wire ringed the perimeter. M-60 machine guns sat atop sand bags. Weary-eyed and unwashed young men, sitting in small groups smoking cigarettes, were engaged in conversation about one topic, going home. I had visited hundreds of places like this, always leaving before darkness, never understanding the feeling of desolation and loneliness that arrived with the night.
A light rain began falling with the approaching darkness and I wrapped in my olive drab poncho. As I sat alone in the bunker, I remember my thoughts like it was yesterday. Fifteen more days, fifteen more days, I cursed the helicopter pilot for not returning for me. The thought of dying in a muddy red hole, near the banks of the Perfume River, surrounded by strangers and strange people, never entered my mind.
A young marine joined me for a brief visit shortly after dark. He was a Private First Class, I believe his name was Ralph, from College Park, Georgia, and he liked to talk, a lot. He had been in Vietnam for three weeks, had a girlfriend back home, liked to work on old cars, and he wrote his momma and daddy every day. He was eighteen years old and would not live to see the next sunrise.
I lost many friends in Vietnam: Jerry Caldwell, Peter Moskos, Jeff Blackwell, and others, names that I cannot, or will not, recall. I had seen death — Viet Cong, NVA, civilians, and too many Americans. I had flown with the dead on airplanes and on helicopters. The vision of metal caskets, strapped together eight at a time, being loaded with a forklift on C-141’s at DaNang will never escape me. Except when it stared me in the face, I did not think about death.
I have known fear and it has many faces. It was hearing your father drive into the garage after he had been drinking, knowing that he had learned of a failing grade in Algebra. It is standing alone in a room full of strangers at a cocktail party. It is the telephone ringing in the middle of the night, your teenage son not yet home. It is the deputy, knocking on the door with the summons from the IRS for a bill that you cannot pay. It is a momentary slip, a tip, a revelation that someone may uncover your secret. Fear is all of the above, and much more. I have lived with these fears. For thirty years I have tried to describe the fear of April 20, 1968. Never have I been successful.
The attack came after midnight. The first barrage of mortar rounds landed outside of the perimeter of the compound. The second salvo landed behind me, squarely in the middle of the Vietnamese refugees. I can still hear the screams of the injured and dying, of children crying, and of the sounds of chaos and confusion. In a lull in the incoming, we rushed to the aid of the victims, moving the living and less severely wounded to other bunkers. The staff sergeant who gave me the hand grenades directed me to another bunker closer to the perimeter. A woman, her three children, and an old man were relocated to a bunker to my right.
One of the patrols that had been sent out after dark was ambushed and the sounds of rifle fire could be heard in the distance. I could hear radio chatter but could not understand what was being said. I remember feeling totally calm, almost as if what was happening around me was a dream. I wrongly assumed that the attack was over.
Sometime later, a round landed directly in front of me, no fragments touched me but I was covered in mud, temporarily blinded by the blast. Another series of rounds were falling all around me and small arms fire began pouring in from outside of the razor-wire. To my right, in the trench where the Vietnamese were huddled, I could hear the cries of the young children. Their screams were terrifying. I cannot imagine the thoughts of a child in that situation. The explosions were so close and so loud that I can still hear the ringing in my ears.
A bunker to my left sustained a direct hit. Other marines were trying to help the wounded survivors. I returned fire in the direction of the muzzle flashes and, in a matter of only a few minutes, the barrel on my M-16 was so hot that I burned my hands trying to reload the magazines with fresh ammunition. Mortar rounds and bullets were literally flying everywhere around me. The North Vietnamese were moving closer to our perimeter and I knew that we were on the verge of being over-run. I heard someone yell for a hand grenade to be thrown to the wire. I could not see the wire but, because nobody responded, I pulled the pin and threw it as far as I could.
This attack stopped almost as fast as it started. For whatever reason, the NVA pulled back.
The pause was awful. Fear, with stark realizations of our situation began creeping in. The horror of a battlefield cannot be described in human words. I have read many accounts of fear produced in the heat of battle; none have ever given justice to the reality.
Fear has smells, of human excrement, urine, vomit and spent gun powder. It is the sounds of small children hyperventilating between screams of terror, of young boys crying and praying to God for His help, of a ringing in my ears that I have heard for thirty years. Fear tastes like stale stomach acid, laced with Tabasco sauce, as it crawls up your throat toward your dry mouth. It is white-hot. It is looking into eyes that are helpless, hopeless, and empty. Fear does not understand honor and loyalty, or toughness.
The wounded were taken to a make-shift first aid station near the command post, dead marines were dragged to an abandoned bunker and the refugees were left where they died. With my poncho, I covered the blood-soaked body of an eighteen year old from College Park, Georgia, who would never write another letter to his momma and daddy.
The final attack started about an hour before daylight. Mortar rounds again preceded the small arms fire. Within a matter of moments, the NVA were so close that you could hear them yelling at us and each other. It was clear that their plan was to try to breach our perimeter. Reinforcements from other areas in the compound had joined those of us who remained in the bunkers. I was alone in my mud-filled hole and between the mortar blast, all I could hear was those poor children crying and the incessant ringing in my ears. The first NVA soldier that I saw was crawling on his stomach, almost to the wire. I threw two grenades in his direction and never saw him again.
Expecting to see other enemy soldiers at any moment, I placed another grenade in my muddy and wet palm. I heard someone off to my right yell for a grenade to be thrown to the wire. I pulled the pin. As I tried to throw it in the direction of the perimeter, it slipped out of my hand, off to my right, toward the trench where young children were crying. Three seconds later, my life was changed forever.
My guiding and moral compass has always been my mother. Her motto of: “always do the right thing, when you are wrong or have done wrong, stand up like a man and admit it,” were more than just words to me. Her axiom had been instilled in me as a child and was a part of the fabric of my very being. I can thank the Baptists for introducing me to the feelings of guilt and shame. I should have paid more attention to the sermons on forgiveness.
To this very day, I cannot recall how we broke contact with the NVA. I am sure that I had reached a point of total mental and emotional shutdown. I vividly remember sitting in a wet and muddy hole, my face covered in mud, sweat, and tears streaming down my face. I remember the silence. I remember praying to God to let me hear the cries of some children sitting in a hole next to me, knowing that there would be none. I remembered my mother’s words, “always do the right thing.”
I did not have the courage to look. A navy medical corpsman would be the first to find the bodies of the four dead and to administer first aid to the little girl who had lost her leg. She was removed from the bunker and rushed to the first aid station, in shock because of the loss of so much blood. I do not know if she lived or died. I have spent a lifetime trying to forget the sight of the bodies of four innocent people, laying motionless in a muddy red hole, in a remote and unnamed place, near the banks of the Perfume River.
Less than two weeks later, I would find myself flying to California for my honorable discharge, carrying with me, concealed from my conscious sight, an emotional stowaway that has become to heavy to bear. My first battleground had been in Vietnam; I had suffered no loss of limb or blood. My final fight, the one with the most casualties, would be fought over the next thirty years. The wounds would be real and ugly; Purple Hearts would not be awarded, only broken ones.
What happened in the early morning hours of April 20, 1968 was an accident. I can accept that. I never had any intentions of harming anyone, except those trying to take my life. What I cannot excuse is the stark fact that four or five humans lost their lives that day and I am responsible. The innocent people no longer exist, they are gone forever. I can rationalize that my hands were wet and muddy, that the circumstances were horrible, that I was afraid. No amount of justification will give those people the opportunity to ever draw another breath.
That morning I did not do the right thing. Instead of accepting the responsibility for my actions, I did and said nothing. I took the easy way out. I allowed those around me to believe that an incoming mortar round had found the bunker and that their deaths were the result of hostile fire. My guilt and shame stems not only from the fact that I killed innocent people but that I did not have the courage and honor to admit my mistake.
I have spent my life punishing myself, and those closest to me, for what happened that morning. My punishment has been severe. I have felt unworthy of any the rewards of a rich and full life. I have expected failure as part of my penalty. I had sworn to never harm another person but I have spent thirty years destroying the lives of those that I care for.
I dedicated years to a life of recovery in AA wanting to deal with my demons of drink, always silently understanding that I could never tell another human being the exact nature of my wrongs. I could be honest with myself, but lacked the courage to tell another. With age, the self-loathing and self-hatred that I feel are manifested in my negativity and burst of anger that I do not understand. Depression is the cousin of my companions Shame and Guilt. I have locked myself away for weeks at a time, crippled with feelings so dark that I cannot bear to think about them.
It is time to move on.
Copyright © 2014, 2013, 2008, 1998. All Rights Reserved. “July 24″ by Tommy Burnett.
My other essays can be viewed at my blog – http://www.tedburnett.com. I can be contacted via email at – email@example.com.