Photo Essay

Toy Soldiers

Vietnam July 1967

Tom had just turned 18 when Uncle Sam came calling. He was a marginal student and he was poor. It wasn't rocket science for the US government to use these boys as pawns in their war games... in their unrelenting struggle for power and wealth. They called it 'glory'. Serving your country is honorable. We are proud of you if you can take a bullet like a man. But these weren't men. They were little boys playing GI Joe. You can almost hear the boys in the first image saying, "This is my rifle, this is my gun. This is for fighting, this is for fun."

Tom served in Vietnam during the Tet offensive. He was stationed at Laki along the Cambodian border. He was Big Red One... the baddest of the bad. His platoon was on patrol early one evening when a bounding mine detonated, killing most of his company. Tom took the hit to his back, right flank, and right arm. Shrapnel tore through his body, embedding in tissue and bone. Tom was evacuated to a field hospital. The nurse triaging removed the pressure dressing to assess the wound and then ran off. The blood flowed freely as nurses and doctors ran through Tom's blood to save the dying. When he finally passed out, he was taken into a makeshift operating room, was given a piece of rubber to hold between his teeth and surgery began. The bleeding was stabilized. The shrapnel was left unattended and he was wired shut.

Tom went home. He was returned to an army base in Texas for more surgery. After a failed attempt to remove the shrapnel, the doctors decided it was too much effort to dig it out. Instead, the plan was to cut the nerves that were causing the pain which would render his right arm useless. The lie went like this: "Attempting to remove the shrapnel will cause far more damage than if we cut the nerves". But Tom's mother was having none of this. Scared to death, she put herself on the first plane to Texas, got a little drunk, deplaned and went straight to the chaplain. Tom was in the OR the next morning.

I met Tom 3 months after he was discharged. He liked my tough guy attitude. I liked his ass. So... we got married and babies started arriving. During these years, he flatly refused to talk about Vietnam. But talking wasn't necessary. He was there night after night after night, screaming and running and calling out to the phantoms of his past.

Then, one night, we had friends over for dinner. We were sitting around the table chatting. Our kids were close in age and the subject of war came up. Specifically, would we let our sons serve if they were drafted? John, a policeman who never served, said he would be proud to see his son enlist. I agreed. Tom lost it. I mean crazy-eyed, veins bulging insanity. Neither of his sons would ever go to war. He would send them to Canada and there would be no more discussion. Then Tom went silent again.

It wasn't until our oldest son started talking about enlisting that the floodgates opened. It is difficult to watch a man's man cry... to listen to the stories that, in the telling, rendered him almost inhumane. The fear and pain that had ravaged his dreams were now words that mixed with conscious tears in his search for absolution.

I am very proud of Tom. I cry for the boy he was and I cry for the man he dreamed he might have been. Knowing it was time, for his 64th birthday, I took all the Vietnam memorabilia to an art shop in town and had it framed. When he walked in and saw it decorating the dining room table, he hugged me for what seemed an eternity. And then we cried... together. Welcome home sweet man. Welcome home, father of my sons.

10 responses

  • John Linton

    John Linton gave props (10 Apr 2012):

    Hell YEAH! Rad!

  • Fred Moskey

    Fred Moskey   said (10 Apr 2012):

    I am sorry for what Tom and thousands of others had to go through. I was lucky, I had a wife and two children to support when the war got going full force, so I was never drafted. I did my service, 26 years, with the Cabell County Sheriff's Dept.
    I had many friends who served in WWII and if you could pry it out of them the horror stories they went through. I had a neighbor who's wife stopped him in the middle of the night from going out a second story window. He was dreaming his plane was on fire.
    We all owe these men and women way more than we could ever repay them. At least we can say thanks for your service!

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (10 Apr 2012):

    Thank you for your comments Fred. Regardless of where or when or how you serve, it all remains the killing fields. The exposure to such horror alters humans. It takes away pieces of their humanity and replaces it with a version of self that even they no longer recognize.

    Tom and I were married for 31 years. We divorced in 2001. The anger that raged during those years took its toll, on all of us. The kids were off getting their degrees and I traveled the country plying my trade as an ICU RN. Tom sought help and through tears and admitting that he was unable to control the emotions that were birthed in the killing fields, he found the man he wanted to be.

    We never remarried but we now share space and are learning to forgive and forget.

    I know with complete certainty that what was done to him as a boy in a war nobody wanted robbed him of much of his life.

    Again, thanks for your thoughtful words. Each is greatly appreciated. And... thank you for serving.

  • Regenia Brabham

    Regenia Brabham gave props (11 Apr 2012):

    I have so many things and emotions tied up right now that I can't get them out. This is a powerful story! A fine tribute and I hope your husband continues on his journey for inward peace.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (11 Apr 2012):

    Thank you Regenia for your beautiful post, props, and comments. Thank you as well for the nomination. The honor is not mine. It is... finally... Tom's.

  • David Jeffries

    David Jeffries gave props (22 Apr 2012):

    So touching. The memories and crosses that we all have to bear cannot compare to one another with the exception of the humility that we all can show towards each other. Beautiful story and such calamity that clearly shows what a strong individual you have become perforated with understanding.

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper   said (22 Apr 2012):

    Thank you David for your post that is so beautifully written. I so appreciate the time it takes to provide comments and support. Our lives swirl in a vortex of obligations pitted against time. I absolutely understand what each comment represents. I am grateful.

  • Michele Wambaugh

    Michele Wambaugh (Deleted) said (11 Aug 2012):

    Very powerful! During the time I was pregnant I prayed for no sons so I wouldn't have to make choices. I was lucky & had 2 daughters.

  • Carlos Aviles

    Carlos Aviles gave props (12 Oct 2013):

    Beautiful

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