Tag Archives: Vietnam

An Alliance of Veterans

“First Day at An Khe,” a short story that I wrote 34 years ago, won the fiction prize in a national veterans writing competition sponsored by The Missouri Humanities Council and the Warriors Arts Alliance. The anthology in which the story appears is titled PROUD TO BE: WRITING BY AMERICAN WARRIORS.

Fiction judge William Trent Pancoast introduced my story in this way:

Specialist Four Monty serving with the 91st in 1966.

“First Day at An Khe” is an odyssey of a medic’s first days in Viet Nam: Phil Warren working to exhaustion in triage in the biggest fire fight the base hospital has had to deal with thus far in the war. He was put on duty by the First Sergeant and never logged in, never relieved in triage for over two and a half days because no one even knew he was there.  The story builds tremendous momentum, and in the course of the odyssey, the author compacts the elements of a tour of duty into Phil’s triage experience—battle, religion, life, death, comradeship, service, courage, compassion, anger, duty, humor, and the loss of self.  This is a fine story and I thank the author for the experience of reading it.”

When I was invited to read my prize-winning story at the November book launch in St. Louis, I declined with these words, “Although I have been a platform speaker more than 100 times, I am unable to read “First Day at An Khe” in public or in private without weeping.  Although fiction, the visionary experience of writing the triage scenes made those events real for me.  Perhaps I would also have difficulty reading my poem “Don’t Tell His Mother” (also appearing in the anthology) for the same reason.”

The 91st Evacuation Hospital in the field circa 1966.

“First Day at An Khe” was my second war story to be published within a month.  My story “Jody Got My Girl and Gone” was included in REMEMBRANCES OF WARS PAST: A WAR VETERANS ANTHOLOGY published in October.

War veterans live among us as family members, friends, and neighbors, but seldom do we get insights into the emotional costs of their military service. Yet, we need to know. We need to connect.  And if we are afraid to personally ask about their painful realities, then at least we can read the candid testimonials of warriors like them.  For here lies the gateway to understanding the grounds on which sacrifice stands. Through intimate prose and poetry we have an opportunity to be made whole as a people who recognize deeply the cost of war.

Sacrifice

UPDATE:  Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volume I, has won the 2013 Stars and Flags Book Award gold medal for an anthology.  A national contest, the Stars and Flags Book Awards program was established six years ago in order to promote books that have a connection to the military and to support veterans.  The judges are historians, educators, and authors, many of whom are veterans themselves.

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War Stories

American society continues to suffer from an emotional disconnection between its civilians and its veterans of military combat.  Too often, veterans do not have the emotional license to articulate what they have witnessed and felt, and so a painful gap emerges that affects both communication and relationships. Veterans may relate their most intimate war stories to other veterans, but they are reluctant to tell them to people outside the military experience.

To bridge the gap of disconnection between civilians and warriors, thankfully there are veterans who have the literary skills necessary to document their war experiences in non-fiction accounts, fictions based on real events, and poetry. These forms as collected into an anthology provide authentic voices that connect to the deeply held personal experiences of war.  In many ways, these artistic efforts are pleas for understanding.

Remembrances of Wars Past:  A War Veterans Anthology edited by psychologist Henry F. Tonn, a man with his own literary credentials, is a bridge that connects us vividly to the men and women that we sent to war.  My own story in this collection, Jody Got My Girl and Gone, lay dormant for 46 years.  It was written while I was still in the Vietnam-era Army, and there seemed no market for it in the backlash of public resentment for that war.

Back cover of Remembrances of Wars Past

There must be millions of artistic efforts in prose and poetry that go unpublished as our society has habitually turned its attention away from the realities and the consequences of war. I say “millions” because wars have been a consequence of American politics since our founding revolution.  We seem always at war somewhere, and the casualties of those wars are always with us and among us while we generally have no appreciation for how they are different from us in the most profound ways.

If lack of understanding for the war veterans’ condition is the disease, then the vicarious experience of walking-in-their-boots via books like Remembrances of Wars Past is the cure. In reading these stories and poems I am struck by the power of these writers to bring us into their reality. The context may be grim or tragic, or lighthearted and humorous, but each creative expression resonates to the core of human endurance, and we may become awestruck on the reading of it.

I now bring myself to stand at attention and honor the editor and contributors of Remembrances of Wars Past with my most respectful military salute. Well done. You are a credit to the Armed Services and to the silent comrades in arms whom you represent.

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Chance Encounter with a War Memorial

Scene from Book Cliffs View by Rob Kurtzman

During our May 2012 vacation to the Colorado Rockies, my wife Pat and I made an overnight stopover in Fruita, Colorado, a town near Grand Junction on I-70.  We had just completed a day in the awesome Colorado National Monument landscape and needed a rest.

Our motel was within walking distance of the Colorado Welcome Center, and any observer could not miss seeing a UH-1H Huey helicopter suspended in static display over a nearby landscaped granite walled plaza.  I recognized the Huey from my days in the Vietnam War era Army, so I went to investigate.

The Western Slope Vietnam War Memorial Park is dedicated to the men and women who served in all branches of the armed forces during the Vietnam War circa 1959 to 1975.  The granite wall that surrounds the helicopter pad is etched with the names of veterans who served during that era, and a Walk of Honor has bricks identifying the donors who made the memorial possible.  Many flags fly at the site, and in 2007 three bronze statues of a mother and father welcoming home their son from Vietnam by sculptor Richard Arnold, himself a vet, were added.

The founding initiator of the memorial park is Jim Doody.  Jim and his fellow vets began their efforts to construct the memorial in 2001.  In the process, they secured the site, got the City of Fruita to undertake the maintenance and liability of the park, got the Associated Builders and Contractors of America to make the construction of the park their 2003 Community Project and contribute $400,000 in materials and labor, and secured other funds and support from across the region to make their purpose a reality.  The ground breaking was in March 2002, and the dedication, attended by thousands, was on the 4th of July, 2003.  Jim later served on the Grand Junction City Council and became its mayor.

For me, walking through the memorial park, there was a sobering reminder of the sacrifices that men and women of courage had made in honoring the call of their country to military service.  Passing though airports on this trip, I saw young people in military uniforms that reminded me that I had worn the uniform and walked in the same harm’s way about 48 years earlier.  My feeling was pride mixed with sadness.

On any given day, a visitor to The Western Slope Vietnam War Memorial Park, a Vietnam era vet, or a family member, will encounter others like themselves with stories to tell and comrades to remember.  The lingering with compassionate strangers is comforting, and even healing, to a degree that remembering pain can be activated by a shared experience.  When the stranger says, “I know what you mean,” or “I know how that feels,” the bell of truth rings clear in the desert mountain air.

Then there are sincere handshakes with direct eye contact and perhaps a parting raised-hand military salute to indicate both respect and honor.  These are the untold legacies of the commitment by a single small community to remember the military service of its sons and daughters during a bitter time of a divided nation.

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