Vietnam Stories: Death at home, death in Vietnam

For the Monitor
Friday, September 29, 2017

Several years ago, at a church social function, the conversation turned to the military.

Someone asked me, “Were you ever in the military, did you go to Vietnam?”

I replied, “Yes, I was drafted in 1966 and served two years active duty.”

This person went on to describe, with pride, how a relative, to avoid the draft, intentionally and permanently injured one of his eyes. That conversation brought back some memories for me.

After our junior year of high school, Paul Lebrecque, a classmate, excitedly told me he was quitting school to enlist in the Army. Midway through my senior year we learned Paul died in Vietnam. I still recall going to that funeral.

On my 19th birthday, I got my high school diploma and a 1-A classification from the draft board. It never occurred to me to not serve. My father’s only experience with war was as a child in France during the First World War. “Uncle Johnny,” my mom’s brother, was in Normandy on D-Day. He never talked about that. I only recently learned he was a hero, receiving a Silver Star.

October found me in Georgia for basic training. Eight weeks later, I was in Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md., for 16 weeks training to be an “aircraft armament repairman” then sent to Fort Knox, Ky., to work on helicopter weapons systems.

After several months, just as I became comfortable thinking my two years active duty would be spent stateside, I received orders for Vietnam. This was just following the Tet Offensive, and I found myself in a place called “Camp Evans.”

My worst day came when the company commander pulled me out of my tent late one night. “I don’t know how to tell you this so I’ll just say it.” He read from a Red Cross telegram. My mother was dying, terminal cancer, less than two weeks to live. I think it was a Monday night.

“Can I go home?” I asked.

“In the morning. Get some rest,” he replied.

It was Friday night when my sister and brother-in-law met me at the bus station in Providence, R.I. I saw Mom on Saturday morning; she died on Wednesday. I was very close to the end of my two-year active-duty obligation. The Army sent me to Fort Devens, Mass. By the end of 1968, I was home and like many veterans of this and other wars, I went about trying to live my life as best I could.

Paul Lebrecque’s brother, Robert, enlisted in the Army. He was killed in action in Vietnam in 1969. In 1971 my best friend’s nephew, Bobby Lebrun, was drafted. He was killed in action in Vietnam that same year.

In 1989, I visited Washington and went to the Vietnam War Memorial to touch those three names.

(Raphael Lahousse lives in Concord.)