Remember fallen troops with action, not bumper stickers

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMay 24, 2014 

VIETNAM MEMORIAL ILLUS

A depiction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

LEE HULTENG — McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Thanks to George Masters of Hilton Head Island for sharing a personal essay appropriate for Memorial Day.

"For me, every day is Memorial Day," Masters said.

Masters served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam and later graduated from Georgetown University, where he began to write. His articles and short stories have been published in major magazines and newspapers. This piece has been published in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and other newspapers since he wrote it in 2008.

His website (www.georgeeyremasters.net) says: "To support his writing, Masters has been a commercial fisherman, worked construction, tended bar, taught school, sold cars and cooked on yachts. As a stuntman, he was eaten by the beast in the film 'Alligator.' "

He may be reached at gmasters46@gmail.com.

'Missing in America'

By George Masters

I'm driving.

Jack, my co-pilot, sleeps in the passenger seat. His chin rests on my upper leg. The car in front of us wears two "Support Our Troops" ribbons on its backside. One is yellow, the other red, white and blue. Both are made in China.

On the right rear bumper is a black and faded MIA sticker. The driver of the car probably means well but by now I've seen too many ribbons. While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to kill and maim, I can't help but think how they are also shaping the future of returning veterans. Many of these men and women will come home and go missing and you won't even know it. Returning from war is more than getting off an airplane and putting on civvies. Combat changes a person. It changed me.

I'm driving angry.

I want to tell the guy in front of me: You want to support the troops? Get them the hell out of the line of fire. Or: If you think this war is such a necessary enterprise, haul your ass on over there and spend some time in Indian Country. If you're too old, pull your kids and grandchildren out of college and send them.

I'm driving sad.

You want to support our troops? Give the man some space when he gets home. Give the woman a job. Don't tell either of them how you would have been there if you could have and then spin off a bunch of excuses why you weren't. She may not understand, but then again ... He may be more quiet than you're used to and kind of keep to himself. She might be missing an arm; he could be in a wheelchair knowing he'll never chase his kids down a beach again. Both may drink a bit. She may smoke pot, dress wild and date too many guys. She might like to play her music too loud and dance alone in her room. He could go to the movies for hours and come home and cry and cry for no reason you can think of. Don't lecture them. Don't tell him to forget about the war; he can't. Don't try to tell her how she's escaping reality. She's had all the reality she can stomach. He may carry what you call an attitude. She might have an extremely low (expletive) tolerance, a quirky sense of humor you don't really understand. If you touch her when she doesn't want to be touched she could very well turn around and bust you in your chops.

Listen up:

If you've never hunted humans, if you've never been hunted; if you haven't been shot at on a regular basis, one thing you could try is appreciate what this person has been through. Then get down on your knees and pray and thank your lucky stars it wasn't you.

I'm driving lost.

It's Vietnam, 1968, Quang Nam Province. I work up a spit of bleeding gums, saliva and bug juice and spit into the cow-cropped dry grass to my left. Rolling my shoulders, keeping Valdez in sight, I wonder about the skeletons we passed an hour ago. No way to tell who they were or how it happened. Three sets of bones, picked and bleached, partly clothed in faded, rain flattened tatters of black and white. Sprawled outside four fighting holes, two of the skeletons lay mostly intact, arms reaching, legs cocked as if trying to crawl back to their open graves. The third had no skull and no sense of direction. Couldn't make up his mind which way to go. Bones everywhere in the parched, knee high, wheat-colored grass.

Concentrating on the ground, on where to put my feet, I breathe in shallow drafts. Turning my head I scan the hot, windless valley. Alone under my helmet, wet under my flak jacket, the sweat rolls like marbles down the inside of my legs. In single file I follow Valdez, the radio man, 10 meters to my front. Valdez, with his antennae tied down, shifts his rifle. Where Valdez steps, I step. I feel more than see the forward progress of Koster, the point man. Then Frenchy, Davis, Stillman, Billy Mac and Valdez. Hearing Barberra behind me, I'm aware of Duke and Ski, like a snake knows his tail.

Packed inside myself, I'm jammed in and scared. The rifle angles down to the left across my body. On full auto, my finger's hooked outside the trigger guard. Feeling the sun steam through the damp towel around my neck, I want to turn a canteen upside down behind my helmet and empty it. Not enough water left in the canteens for that, not until we find more water. Damn windless heat thumps me through the flak jacket.

We cross an open field of cracked earth and yellowed grass that crunches beneath my boots. Heat worms up through the soles of my boots. Toes cracked and bleeding, heels aching, my swollen feet fester in the canvas and leather. Twin belts of gun ammo cross my chest, triple canteens hang off the back of my belt. An M-16 bandoleer is slung over my shoulder and the magazines inside clink lightly. Two grenades, like giant steel eggs, hang smooth and round off my flak jacket pockets. C-ration cans clunk against the sticks of C-4 explosive in my trouser kangaroo pockets. I hate being in the open like this.

I'm breathing shallow to keep the burn out of my lungs. Fear pulses the big leg artery, my crotch is laced up tighter than the jungle boots. Helmeted shade, my eyes sting as I scan the valley left to right, right to left. One foot in front of the other. The sun up there crouches like a big animal with its jaws open and growling.

Too scared to let my mind wander, I do anyway. I remember a girl back in the World -- her face, the way she looked at me when we ate ice cream. Heat and water loss scrambles my thinking, makes my tongue thick, and caves in my cheeks. Stay here, don't drift, I tell myself. Easy to get sun drunk. Easy to sleepwalk. Shake it off, bite your lip. I do and taste how the bitter bug juice mixes with the sweet copper of bleeding gums and the salt that drips off my nose. I talk to myself. Mumble silently is more like it. Watch where you put your feet, look for movement, for a wire, a vine, stick and stone signs, a slight depression, for geometry -- a straight line, a circle, a triangle, for what doesn't belong. Don't stare, you'll get hypnotized, scan. Doing it without thinking, repeating the movements like an endless rosary, my Marine squad stretches 100 meters single file along the floor of Happy Valley.

I'm driving home.

The car in front with the ribbons turns off. I go straight. Rolling down the windows, I crank up Rod Stewart on the radio and scratch Jack between his soft and beautiful ears. He likes his window all the way open and moves there to put his face in the breeze. You want to do something for our troops, bring them home.

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