THE GOOD SOLDIER
The two of them sat in my grandfather’s living room telling their stories of youth and how they had intersected with his life. The funeral was over and the traditional gathering of family and close friends at the home of the widowed was taking place. It was a solemn affair with a cornucopia of food brought by the community to help fill and ease the emotional pain. But they were far from solemn and almost giddy with the tales of their youth. The stories grew bolder and more extravagant with each new tale. They were good story tellers and had an enraptured and captive audience. People would laugh then self-consciously catch their laughter look around to see if laughter was appropriate. Slowly the audience became comfortable and felt and said what came to mind. “Oh that is just a tall tale” or “I do not know if you want to tell that”. Wives rolled their eyes of long hidden truths being revealed and children were mesmerized by the fact their parents and uncles were young and full of life once.
One story was a snapshot of their lives in rural Alabama on a farm. Playing in my grandfather’s barn they had overturned a lantern and started a fire. Instead of calling the alarm they were so frightened of my grandfather they decided to run out the back of the barn. They circled around through the pasture and plotting their return. They now were on the path leading to the house and barn where they started the fire. Upon their return they were acting as though they had come upon the fire only now. They dutifully started raising the alarm and rushing to get water to put the fire they had started out. The quickly conceived plot had made them the heroes when in fact they were the culprits.
This story even stirred my red-eyed grieving grandmother. Coming from the other room where she had sat motionless as people consoled her with hugs and prayers. She entered the room and towered over them and pointed her finger at the two of them,” That was you! We always wondered how in the world that happened. Tom If your father was here he would rip the hide off of both of you boys.” The two of them sat there paralyzed with fear and looking as two young adolescents who had been caught doing the unforgivable. Grandmother caught herself and as if giving them permission to continue she shook her head and muttered, ”Lord you children will be the death of me yet. Go on keep telling your tall tales I might learn a few more things you do not want me to know” She left the room the two of them looked at each other and you could glimpse them as young boys with sweat on their brows and sheepish grins. They had lived and would be able to tell about it. The stories continued and I even saw grandmother passing the door and shaking her head and suppressing a smile at one of their more outlandish escapades.
My father raised on a farm in rural Alabama had a soul full of wanderlust. He wanted to see things, do things, and be useful. An education beyond high school seemed foreign to him so he chose the military. He would travel, be considered a hero, and do some amazing things along the way. He would become one of the few and the proud a United States Marine. Military life was an escape from the country life. The soldier dreamed acts of courage and fame and believed as he was taught that his country was the greatest.
He rose to the rank of First Sargent. He had served two terms as a Drill Instructor. Two terms was unusual for that time. He had been called back for the second term after a scandal of unnecessary recruit deaths. The drill instructors had crossed too far into sadism and were more concerned in playing machismo games than training troops. Thus they had appealed to the soldier who was as tough as they came but could keep his sadism under control. The country boy in him had taught him a religion of tough love. He did not believe in excessive foul language as was common among the Drill Instructors. He drank in moderation and even quit that at the birth of his second son when he renewed his Christian faith at a revival service. He believed in a quiet machismo. It went as follows be confident in who you are and always be respectful of others. Machismo was who you are in your actions and not who you said you were. Power was a tool and privilege given to you to help others discover what they were capable. He believed in the brainwashing of recruits not because of exerting control but because the soldier who allowed his humanity to cause hesitation in war did not make it home. It was not natural to kill therefore good soldiers were trained to react in accordance with the plan and not to question the plan once it was being implemented. Though he would never tell them he loved his recruits. It was this love that in the end would break the hardcore soldier.
The years passed and he knew he was coming to the end of his military career. He had served as a Marine military guard for President Kennedy and his family. He even was an usher at President Kennedy’s funeral. He often smiled when telling the story of how he a lowly Marine was turning away different dignitaries and politicians trying to claim a seat in the National Cathedral for Kennedy’s funeral. He had served in the Korean War and two terms as a DI. It was a distinguished career with enough medals to make any soldier proud. He had refused an opportunity to take officer’s training preferring to be closer to the foot soldiers and further away from the politics of officers. He was closing in on his 19th year after his twentieth year he would retire with full benefits.
He was a First Sargent the highest rank for a non-commissioned officer. He had nothing to prove. Yet there was one nagging problem the country was at war in Vietnam. He did not understand why we were there but he was a true patriot loyal to his country. He continued to train young men to fight. They would leave to go to a country most could not find on a map, Vietnam. The reports of the war were not good. The reports were confounding we were losing the war to a country we had never heard of before, the morale was low, and horrible events were occurring that shamed the military code. Some you read about in the paper others were known only by those in the know.
He continued to train young men to go to Vietnam. The country needed more soldiers so a draft was created. He saw draftees for the first time. He had chosen this career but these draftees were of a different breed. Not necessarily bad soldiers just sometimes more reluctant. A reluctant soldier is too often a dead soldier.
He had a family now and was a deacon in his church. He was young enough to start another career. He was not soft. His recruits, family and friends could tell you that truth. At thirty-eight he was at an age where the thought of going to war was not a choice he wanted. War was for the very old (usually without battle experience) to send the very young to. He was neither of these.
But the stories of the young men dying in jungles far away from home kept coming back. His religious and military pride were slowly intersecting as he thought of their immortal souls being lost forever in Hell. Maybe he could help lead them to the gates of heaven and back into their loved ones arms here. Nobody could disapprove of him not going out into the jungles for weeks on end that was a younger man’s game. His wife would not like it. Hell he did not like the thought of it.
The training continued the devastating news kept coming. Then one day at a recruit graduation ceremony he was overwhelmed with guilt. How could I train these men and then watch them go to a place he had never been to endure hell without him. He felt hypocritical. This was not a feeling he was used to. He knew then he would go.
He hated leaving. His wife supportive but angry let him go. His three sons he had raised as recruits were at crucial ages and he did not want to leave. But by now he had convinced himself that he was on a holy mission for God and country. He was a good soldier.
But as Vietnam was for many it was not a place that went as planned. He spent months in the jungles. He would preach to his men in the hopes their souls would be saved. But many would say they were not ready to commit and the next day they would die. They were young men brave and unselfish but they died. His beliefs would condemn them to an eternity in Hell. In his faith there was no Valhalla for the soldier who died a good death. It did not matter that many were drafted and forced essentially into an early death. Ninety percent of the men in his troop died or were wounded before they finished their tour. Vietnam for him had become a black hole sucking souls into it.
To make matters even more surreal his leave time became as painful as time in the field. He would take his leaves to An Hoi. There he would meet his cousin and child hood friend who was a supply sergeant for the Marines. The abundance of supplies which seemed short in the field could be found here. And the noncombat officers were enjoying them to the max. His cousin showed him warehouses full of champagne, steak, and other necessary goods for war. He became bitter knowing they would receive medals and commendations for serving in wartime and on the battlefield. It was not right but his fight was in the jungles and not in the back offices.
After his first leave he returned to the field and for the first time noticed the soldiers were black, latino, or poor white boys like him. He seldom encountered anyone whose race was white and whose class was upper. They were fighting a war in the jungle miles from home for a domino he did not quite see. And his soldiers had no real say in these decisions. He for the first time began to feel expendable.
His cause was tainted with caviar and class. He never questioned his own loyalty. He was a loyal partner. But for the first time he questioned the loyalty of his partner, his country, to him. He also began to see unusually mean soldiers. They may not be winning the war but they would show the Viet Cong their hatred for them. He could keep his troops form crossing lines and somehow keep their humanity but he was not sure others were doing the same. He was sitting precariously on the lid of a powder keg.
The questioning and doubts brought the fear. Fear of mortality was not the source but he doubted that what he did mattered or that anyone in charge cared. His life and the lives of the soldiers around him were balancing on a tightrope that was in full sway. The gods of war seemed capricious. It was this capriciousness he feared.
He remained the good soldier despite the gnawing fears. He was wounded by bomb shrapnel once patched up and put right back into the war. Another time his company was under fire. This was a twice weekly occurrence as the Viet Cong wanted to remind them they were still there. The mood was tense and the air of tension could be sliced as they sat in their foxholes. So he said to his captain for the other soldiers in the foxhole to hear. “Hey Cap we rushed to our holes and you seemed to have forgotten your coffee over there in the mess tent. Let me get it for you.” The young captain looked puzzled at first and horrified by what he did next. Slowly getting out of his foxhole ignoring the bomb spray all around him, he sauntered over to the mess tent poured a cup of coffee and returned and presented the captain with his cup of coffee. The soldiers thought he was mad but they also felt the tension leave. Then he grinned at his soldiers and said in a serious voice if any of you boys try that I will kick your ass. The bombardments did not seem as frightening after this.
He would win a silver star for retrieving troops from behind the enemy lines. Their position had been over-run and ten troops were stuck wounded or pinned down in various places behind the new battle lines. They were surrounded by the enemy. He had taught in their basic training no one was to be left behind. He now knew how simple that was to say but to live it here in the capriciousness of war seemed almost insane. Yet he gathered two of his best troops and led them to retrieve his men. One of those rescued soldiers many years later would hold a supper for our two families and he formally thanked my father in front of his family for saving him that day. He had four children. One was a newborn.
My father felt the need to stay another tour. So he signed on and immediately realized his patriotism and soldier’s pride were sending him on a fool’s errand. But he had a whole new group of men who had come to fight including a fresh inexperienced captain. They were frightened and looking to him to help them make it through. So he stayed. His reward was to be sent even further into Viet Cong jungles. The generals seemed to think if you were not winning the war all you had to do was try harder. He and his men were the try harder.
The fear had infected every fiber of his body. One night as he went to sleep in two inches of water with rain pouring on his cold body the prayer came. He found himself praying wound me God let me not be crippled but wounded enough that they will send me home. The prayer surprised him at first. He did not feel ashamed of it. He knew it was time. His luck could not hold out. When he first came he thought that only soldiers who made mistakes and mental errors in battle were the ones who died or were wounded. But now he knew better. War was quite capable of taking the best soldier. And sometimes being the best soldier made you have to sacrifice your life for your comrades. And he knew he was a good soldier.
It happened in a flash. They were sweeping a field to secure it. His radioman was the typical five feet away. He heard an exclamation of shit from him, a boom, and nothing else. He aroused to find himself in a helicopter being evacuated. He asked how his companion was and he could tell by their faces he was dead. He tried to assess his own situations. His right leg was in great pain. His head was throbbing and they were working on him at a consistent but not furious pace. Feeling pain in his leg was a good sign it was still there, the pain in his head was not so bad that he could not think straight, the relaxed pace they were working on him and their faces told him he would live and maybe keep all of his limbs. Thank you God he thought then fell unconscious.
The good soldier was broken. He was shipped to Guam to recover. He would stay for two months. He was exhausted his physical recovery was slow but his spiritual recovery was a long way away. He met soldiers who were not ready to go back to civilization. All they knew was to kill. They were angry and confused. They were not ready to be back with family and friends. Post-traumatic stress disorder was not accepted and there was very little in the way of assistance back in America. He became an informal counselor for many of the men but often thought who was he fooling. He could not heal himself and even if he could there was too much left on the rice fields of Vietnam to ever be whole again.
I will never forget the first Christmas he returned. Just a few weeks before the three of us his sons lined up to welcome him back. We had not seen him for over eighteen months. We stood at attention as if we were his recruits. He observed gave a faint smile and then hugged us. Not many words were spoken the boisterous loud confident voice we had known was gone. He was different. Mom hugged him, loved him, and nurtured him but it wasn’t bringing him back. It was as though he was trapped in a thick fog and he no longer could see clearly. The confident Marine was gone. He was on unsettled ground his bearings were off. He was lost unmoored in the world.
He and Mom argued over a rifle he had confiscated from some Viet Cong and smuggled back stateside. She had never allowed guns in the house. This was unusual for a Marine Family. But her brother had committed suicide while drunk with a gun and she swore she would never allow a gun in our house. He explained this gun was not to use. It was somehow a reminder of comrades alive and lost and he wanted it at home not at his office where he usually kept his guns. He knew it did not seem rationale but it mattered to him.
He talked to us boys different now. Where once he treated us as his young recruits in training giving us white glove inspections, having us stand attention while he dressed us down, conducting mini hand-to-hand combat classes, we were now just boys. We had been encouraged to prepare for military careers if that is what we wanted. He now told us we would not go in the military. Only blacks, latinos, and poor white boys fought the wars and he was not going to let us go. The three of us watching him were scared. If war could do this to him of all people we wanted nothing to do with it. We were now expected to go to college. We would be the first generation of Freemans to do so. He was determined to steer us and his grandchildren from war.
When Christmas came it was a subdued affair. He and mom had been fighting behind closed doors. On Christmas morning we did not know what to expect. He who was usually the master of ceremonies was not mastering. He was quiet. Which kept the three of us boys nervous and waiting for the explosion. For his part he was acting excited but his mind and heart were far away. We opened presents and said our thank-yous. The last present was one Mom had for Dad. None of us knew anything about it. She had held the cards close to her heart. My father with a puzzled expression opened the present. Shock and surprise came over him as he unwrapped it. It was a gun rack. Mom was allowing his rifle in the house. She never backed down from things like this and yet there was the gun rack. They exchanged looks. And the man who I had never seen cry before now balled like a baby. I did not understand the emotions and the love she was showing her soldier. I certainly did not understand his crying. It scared me.
Nor did I ever understand why the gun rack was never hung and served as a clothing rack. It was not the gun that was important to my father. I still do not understand its importance to him. But it did not matter this would be the beginning of dad’s long path to recovery.
In the next few months he retired from the Marines. He struggled with many jobs never finding one that suited. He would have his outburst some related to his PTSD and others to his old hard core marine self that was slowly disappearing. At one of his jobs he worked and traveled with a man who had played football with Auburn and stood over 6’6 inches tall. Upon returning to their shared hotel room after a night out the football player found dad in the middle of the room cussing and shouting orders and swinging his arms like he was in battle. The man tried to wake dad but could not and slept in the car terrified that night. He said the next day Dad was normal.
Dad would have a scandalous affair. He was a director of the government housing projects in the small town we lived in. He would have the affair with a resident of one of the homes. His job was used as a political football and his reputation was maligned. He felt dirty and a failure. He would endure the scandal as a good soldier. Confessing to his part and trying to make amends even though some politicians were more concerned with scoring points he never fought back. He had done wrong and must pay the price.
Two years later he would disappear for over two months until Mom finally found him in a one room trailer in the woods in Arkansas a far cry from Alabama. He wanted to be left alone and not responsible for anyone or anything. He was done. She coaxed him back into civilization and our family. The good soldier returned for duty.
My mother would say after their fiftieth anniversary, ’The first thirty years were touch and go but the last twenty he cannot do enough for me. They have been the best anyone could ask for. ” He realized he still loved the woman he married and was determined to be the most loving and caring husband he could be. He lived each day trying to make amends for his lapse in their marriage.
He became a baker, a restaurant co-owner with mom, a bus driver in his later years. He drew in his spare time. He returned to the rural small town America he had grown-up. The older he got the more attractive the small town became. His wanderlust was now confined to national parks and museums. He took over his father’s Sunday School class he had led for over twenty years and he would teach it for over twenty years. He would become the chaplain and president of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter. He enjoyed being a grandfather. He taught his grandchildren to play checkers in the grandfather way. The checkers were chocolate and vanilla oreo cookies and when you jumped one you got to eat it. He would lose to them on purpose so they could enjoy the cookies. While they played checkers he would show them his mangled toe that they gawked at when he wore sandals. He would regale them with the story of how he had won the ugliest toe contest with this toe and he was proud of it. He showered them with love.
They say war can take a decade off of your lifespan. That was true for him. His heart was spent. He was hospitalized with pneumonia, cancer, and heart problems. He was dying. He was not afraid of death. He was afraid of leaving his wife alone in her old age to fend for herself. And he would miss his children and grandchildren dearly. But death waits for no one.
I did not know it would be our last conversation when I called him on the telephone. He did however. I had been to see him several times in the hospital. I lived a seven hour drive away. Although, he was ready for death he would fight it for weeks. But after the preliminaries of talking about his grandchildren and how his doctors were treating him he stopped. The language was peculiar to me at the time. “Son I want you to know something. I love you. It has been a privilege to be your father.’ I was stunned and I told him I loved him and we said goodbye. I realized now his words were the soldier relieving himself from his duty. He had for good and bad done all he could. He was the good soldier.