Vietnam vets find some peace on visit to Parris Island

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMarch 23, 2013 

Jack McLean of Fort Lee, N.J., left, and Bill Murphy of Orlando, Fla., catch up during a reunion lunch for a group of U.S. Marines who fought together in Vietnam. The reunion was held March 1 at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. Both McLean and Murphy graduated from Parris Island in the 1960s.

DELAYNA EARLEY — Staff photo Buy Photo

War is hell.

Then what?

Vietnam veterans are still wrestling with that question.

This month, a group of Marines returned to Parris Island, 44 years to the day after a battle in Vietnam killed many of their friends.

They saw things and felt things that remain stuck like a piece of shrapnel deep within them.

The boys of Charlie 1/4 were still kids when they got home to the Woodstock nation, and were called baby-killers.

They're in their early 60s now, some gray and bent.

On this day, they saluted baby-faced Marines graduating from the famous boot camp that seems so different from the one they left long ago. They stood for the colors and got goose bumps listening to the Parris Island Marine Band. They cheered along with parents who were amazed at the quick transformation of their aimless children. They shook hands with the new privates and welcomed them to the Corps.

About 20 of the vets came from all over America. They've only recently rediscovered each other and begun peeling back hidden layers of hurt and confusion in a spree of reunions. They're bonding again as a brotherhood that only the members of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines who charged Hill 484 on March 1, 1969, will ever understand.

And they openly admit that the devil in the "then-what" question has brought them as much hell as the war.

'I WAS LOST'

Karl A. Marlantes of Oregon was their executive officer in Vietnam. As a first lieutenant, he earned the Navy Cross and two Purple Hearts. On this day, he was the commanding general's guest of honor reviewing the newest of 20,000 Marines who graduate each year at Parris Island.

Marlantes went to Yale University on a National Merit Scholarship and was a Rhodes Scholar who left Oxford to volunteer for Vietnam. He has spent three decades trying to put into words what happened next. His 2010 best-selling novel, "Matterhorn," spares no grueling details in what The New York Times called a "raw, brilliant" account of war -- the fear, military incompetence, boredom, questions, memories.

In his 2011 book, "What It Is Like to Go to War," Marlantes devotes a chapter to killing.

"Killing is what warriors do for society," he writes. "Yet when they return home, society doesn't generally acknowledge that the act it asked them to do created a deep split in their psyches, or a psychological and spiritual weight most of them will stumble beneath the rest of their lives. Warriors must learn how to integrate the experience of killing, to put the pieces of their psyches back together again. For the most part, they have been left to do this on their own."

The Charlie 1/4 veterans I talked to over Frogmore stew and barbecue at the Parris Island Community Center had shoved their feelings and mementos in a closet and never talked about them.

"I tried to bury that part of my life away," said Ray Ducharme, who came from Arizona. He found the weekend reunion, hosted by their buddy Doug "Jake" Jaquays and his wife, Terry, of Lady's Island, to be "healing."

Hank Feiner of Boston said, "The beauty of it is we put things to rest."

Lonnie Young of Arkansas said, "For years, I got to the point I didn't know if I was really there. I was just lost."

He wore a black leather vest with about 20 replica dog tags pinned to it, one for each buddy who did not get home alive. The vest has been with him for 200,000 miles on his Harley. After their next reunion in June, Young plans a ride to Washington, D.C., where he'll leave the vest at The Wall.

Bill "Murf the Surf" Murphy of Orlando said it has helped to see his buddies far removed from the jungle, with wives and grandchildren.

"It takes it from the worst of the worst to the best of the best," he said.

'BACK IN THE WORLD'

On paper, Jack McLean of New Jersey should never have served in Vietnam. He from a family of wealth and influence. He was a boarding student at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., with George W. Bush. He became the first Vietnam veteran to enroll in Harvard University.

He saw, tasted, smelled and felt death of kids his age. But he told me that when he got home, "People were ambivalent. It didn't matter."

Later, he, too, put his experience into beautiful words, in the book, "Loon: A Marine Story."

Also in the room was a man who earned two Silver Stars on back-to-back days. Richard D. "Pete" Porrello then spent 16 months in a hospital.

Richard Genovese drove up from Florida. He said that after surviving Vietnam he was spat on in the San Francisco airport.

"Six hours after that, I was home," he said. "I didn't do too well."

During a recent move, he found a box of his Vietnam stuff. In it was a peace symbol medallion on a string of leather. He and his buddy James "Biff" Brinson each bought one in Da Nang. Genovese recalls the conversation on the day he and Biff parted ways in Vietnam:

"We got to remember this," I said.

"Well, ..." Biff said, "you take this (peace symbol) and I'll take yours, and we'll see you back in the world."

Genovese brought it to the Parris Island reunion, though Biff was buried a couple of years ago in Beaufort National Cemetery. He gave the peace symbol to Biff's daughter, Brandi Brinson.

"No words ..." she said.

Brig. Gen. Lori Reynolds, commanding general at Parris Island, spent about an hour with the Charlie 1/4 boys. She told me their gathering is "what the Corps is all about."

She said something to the vets, which seemed to help.

"We may not have treated you well 30 or 40 years ago," she said, drawing a big laugh, "but believe me, this Marine Corps loves you, and we thank you and we appreciate the stories and standards and the legends that you created.

"You are welcome here anytime."

To that came a roar of applause.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

Band of brothers find each other 43 years after Vietnam, May 26, 2012

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