9 Apr 2012
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.