Vietnam Stories: The never-ending grief of the survivors

For the Monitor
Published: 9/30/2017 12:04:57 AM

When I taught freshman composition in the early 1970s, a birthday lottery draw was held to draft young men into the military.

I was in my Rounds Hall classroom as students entered for our class. Two of them, roommates, told the class that in the birthday draw one of them had the first number and one had the last. One had to leave Plymouth State and get ready for duty with the military – go to war. The other got to stay and be a student. We all sat silent and shocked for a bit.

Sometime in the late 1980s, I was on a bus of protesters going from Portsmouth to D.C. We were going to protest war – must have been Ronald Reagan’s war of attrition on Nicaragua. I know I met Jean Stimmell of Northwood on the bus.

I told him that my cousin Philip had committed suicide in 1985, the year we both turned 40. Philip had been a medic in the jungles of Vietnam, in the thick of the fighting. He’d also been raised Catholic, and at one point thought of training for the priesthood. He wouldn’t kill anyone.

When he finally succeeded in killing himself, Easter of 1985, he had had two previous attempts.

Family story tells that Philip had nightmares of the U.S. soldiers he didn’t mercy-kill. Some medics put our servicemen out of their pain and misery, shooting them as begged. When men lost their legs and or genitals to landmines, they didn’t want to live. Philip couldn’t do that killing. He saved men who begged not to be saved.

Poor Philip, who came home to nightmare nights, tacky day jobs, never a wife or family of his own.

Jean Stimmell told me that by then as many returned vets had killed themselves as were killed in the war.

In the 2000s, I was in Washington, D.C., with my friend Cathy Bentwood. We had participated in an anti-war rally and the determinedly noisy event was over.

We trekked to see the Vietnam War Memorial, the “Wall.” We realized the immensity of that loss of life: 57,939 names at the time of the 1982 dedication. (By Memorial Day 2017, 58,318 names, including those who died of their war wounds.)

We, in our casual dress, began conversation with a very well-dressed black woman who had come to D.C. and the “Wall” from the Midwest. Her father had died in Vietnam, and this was finally her time to come and see his name. With her, we looked at his name. She told her story.

She was a little girl in the South, living there with her father, mother and brother. The night before her father was to leave for Vietnam War duty, all four slept in the same bed, hugging the father into sleep. In the morning she pretended she was sleeping, still, while she heard him up and getting dressed to leave. He headed for his truck. Now she couldn’t pretend any longer but got out of the bed and ran after him, into the yard, chasing after the truck. So he stopped.

She was crying that she didn’t want him to go. He spoke to her out of the truck, window down. He gave her a quarter and told her, “You keep hold of this quarter. It’s my promise to you that I’ll be back.” But he didn’t return. Her mother remarried, and they moved away.

She was crying while she told us, and we were crying while we listened.

(Lynn Rudmin Chong lives in Sanbornton.)

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