AFTER ALL THESE YEARS


His name was John. He was born in the spring of the year shortly after World War Two. He had an older sister and in the first few years of his life he gained a younger sister and a younger brother. Life was very good considering that his fathers income was only enough to provide the minimum necessities for the family. Those childhood days during the fifties were peaceful. The fears of the cold war were brought up from time to time but his youth quickly swept them away. His second hand bicycle provided a freedom that was absolutely the greatest thing he knew. After getting a little older that bike gave him the ability to deliver newspapers every day before school. The earnings provided the necessary equipment to play baseball and basketball. Being an American was definitely very good even for the lower middle class. The hours spent earning his own spending money taught him early in life the values of responsibility and self dependence. The physical conditioning and popularity gained by being an athlete taught him confidence among other lessons.

It was a great time and place to be a kid. His heroes were on television every week and always did the right thing at the right time. His mother and father were not extremely religious but they did take the kids to church every Sunday. The Sunday school lessons made a very strong impression on him, particularly in the earlier years of his childhood. The one theme that was repeated in so many ways at church, at school, at home and even on television was the very high value of human life. It was very difficult to imagine violence between human beings because it did not occur in his home or neighborhood. One day a local bully had cut his little brothers arm with a knife and it took two or three stitches to mend. It was a very upsetting event and he drew immediate revenge by beating the thunder out of the bully. The bully was three years older and without the anger driving him it would probably have been him that took the beating. He never forgot the anger and in the years to come he believed strongly in non-violence. He knew however that there were things that a person had to fight for at times because there were violent people in the world.

He became high school age and obtained a drivers license along with an old car. The responsibility of paying the cost of a car meant trading a paper route for a job at the local gas station. It took more time and the balance of school, work and sports was something that also taught lessons that would become important later in life. The owner of the station knew him as the "paper boy" for years and was a good and fair boss. The owners wife thought that he was a cute kid and even spoiled him with a free lunch from time to time.

His father had been working in the local factory ever since returning from the war and had not always been pleased with the bosses. John was very happy to have a good boss and gained no bad feelings toward him. He found it enjoyable to work with the public at the station and came to know a large number of people at the job. Frequently some of the regular customers would spend a little time talking to him about his sports achievements.

As some of his older friends graduated from high school he began to realize that there were only a few paths available in the future. Some of his friends were fortunate enough to go to college either by the good fortune of financial ability or scholarships. John's family did not have the financial ability to send the kids to college. It was well understood in his family that after finishing high school they would get a job. This subject had been discussed numerous times through the years and there was no question about it. He had been a faithful team member in sports and had always been ready to do his part but he had never excelled. There was no possibility of going to college on a scholarship.

The war in Vietnam had begun and all branches of the military were recruiting a lot of young people. Some were even being drafted. One day in his Senior year of High School he heard about a guy that had graduated the year before that had moved to Canada. He had assumed that the guy moved there for a job but he later learned that he had gone there to keep from being drafted into the military. John told his father about it that evening and the whole family was appalled that anyone would do such a thing. John's father and uncles had all served in the military in World War Two and they were a very patriotic family. By the late sixties it was well known that Communism was out to take over the world. It was well known that they would invade small countries and outright murder anyone that resisted them. John had always been taught the value of life and freedom. It was a simple yet strong concept that formed the very foundation of America. One of his older cousins had been drafted about a year earlier and was stationed in Germany. A family friend had a son who had joined the army to be a green beret. He was in Vietnam and wrote home about the horrible events of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese wiping out entire villages of men, women and children in a single attack. These things bothered John a lot and he believed very strongly that even the poorest peasant of Vietnam deserved the right to life and freedom.

Before finishing High School he experienced numerous discussions of the war in Vietnam and never budged from his belief concerning the importance of those basic human rights. On numerous occasions the old statement of "it is not the United States job to police the World" was presented to him. John simply stated that he agreed, but that it was the Worlds job to police the World. Therefore, since the United States was the strongest Country in World they had a large part of that responsibility.

John spent many hours thinking about the situation and always concluded that he was willing to fight for the rights of people of any country because it was a world affair. To take advantage of the good fortune of having been born in America and turn your back on the less fortunate, particularly the defenseless children, was not an act John felt he could live with. He was not a war monger by any means and did not run down to the recruiting office to join up and run headlong off into battle but he knew that he would not run away when the draft board called.

Finally Graduation day came and he was very happy to be finished with school. He and his friends partied well into the night and they all were excited about the paths they were taking into the future. Some had jobs, others were going to college and different branches of the military, a few were even joining the Peace Corps. John partied with his friends, some of which he would never see again, and on Monday went to work with his father at the factory. The war had grown to the point that a lot of jobs were available to those who were not in the military. Getting hired after high school was no problem and the pay was great. John continued to live at home. He paid his share of the bills but still found his savings account rapidly growing. Life had become very easy. For the first time in his life he had more money than he spent and more time than he needed. After a life filled with school, work and sports the demands of working forty hours a week and nothing else seemed very light. The war in Vietnam was growing more and more all the time and it was definite that he would be drafted. He knew that day was coming although it wasn't going to occur immediately. He knew that making any long term commitments were not wise. He didn't even buy a new car.

A little over a year went by, and induction day came. He said goodbye to every one and went on the bus ride to the Army. He spent the next several months in basic and infantry training and learned a great deal about war and killing. After training, like almost everyone else in the infantry, John was sent to Vietnam and directly out to the jungle. Landing at a large base was a major culture shock but nothing like the life in the boonies that lay ahead. His first view of Vietnam from the airplane window included numerous bomb craters and defoliated jungle. Even from far up in the sky it was a very ugly and depressing sight. After having spent his entire life in a quiet and peaceful neighborhood lined with neat houses, shade trees and back yard playgrounds, the sight of a combat zone was something that he would never forget.

John's entire view of life was significantly altered. Four days of in-country briefing was followed by a quick trip through base camp and fire base to his platoon in the jungle. His outfit covered terrain far too rough for motorized vehicles and they carried everything on their back. The point man was killed by a sniper on the fourth day John spent in the boonies. The point man was nicknamed "Mack" because he had been a truck driver back in the world. He had been the first person to talk to John about how to survive in the jungle and help ease his anxiety.

John was the third man back in the file and it all happened right in front of him. They had been moving through an area of tall grass and the silence was broken by a single gunshot. Mack was struck in the chest and immediately fell over backwards. He did not die immediately but no one could get close enough to aid him. Anytime someone moved in his direction the sniper fired another shot. The sniper shot Mack four times before he died. John and the backup man kept trying to get to Mack and they both received minor bullet wounds. Everyone returned fire but the sniper ran away through the grass and disappeared. John was scared, sad and confused but more than anything angry.

He was angry at the sniper who had killed Mack. He was in general very angry at all the communist VC and NVA. As time went by that anger grew and grew. Every time they came to a village where unarmed civilians including old people and children had been gunned down or mortared he grew more and more angry at them. Every time the VC and NVA fired at him and his platoon he vented his anger by killing as many of them as possible. He was no hero and never did anything stupid to make a good target of himself but he was a fighter.

By the time he had been in Vietnam for six months he had lost count of how many he had killed. On a few occasions he remembered how he had felt that same anger at the bully that stabbed his little brother. He was amazed that the anger had grown so strong but he knew that the communist were causing far more harm than a simple knife cut. On those occasions that his platoon captured the enemy he felt like shooting them because of the innocent civilians he had seen butchered. The prisoners were flown to prison in helicopters. John had heard of prisoners being thrown out of helicopters during interrogation and felt no sympathy for them at all. He knew that if he were ever asked to do the throwing that he would have no problem doing so.

He spent his year in the jungle and was a very good soldier. He was awarded several medals and promotions. On several occasions his platoon was involved with defending villages. John was always sympathetic to the civilians. Frequently the villagers were not receptive to the Americans but John was happy to do his job. The one thing that affected him a great deal was the harm done to the children. There were times when he gave all of his C-rations to kids who were hungry and didn't keep anything for himself. He noticed the look in the eyes of the children of that war torn country and remembered how secure and protected his childhood was. The vast difference between the little bit of violence he saw on television as a child and the real life tragedies those kids lived with was tremendous. He wished that he had married before going into the service so that he could take one or two of them home with him. He had discussed the possibility of adoption with his commanding officer and found that it was near impossible for a single man.

One day late in his tour John was walking point through some very dense jungle. His time remaining on his tour in Vietnam was getting short and He was becoming very paranoid. Early in the afternoon a sniper fired on the platoon. No one was hit but the incident made him even more paranoid. About an hour later they were moving through the jungle again not far from where the sniper had been. John was still on point and he was scanning the jungle around him carefully as he moved ahead. Suddenly he saw a flash of someone dressed in black running through the jungle in front of him. As he had done so many times before he opened fire on them. He saw several of his bullets blast through the back of a black shirt and the body went down in a splatter of blood. As usual everyone else had hit the ground by the nearest tree and prepared for a firefight but after Johns clip was empty there was only silence.

After waiting long enough to be sure it was safe they moved up to the body. Usually they found weapons, maps and other items on the dead enemy. John was the first to the body and noticed that it was very small. Some VC appeared to be only fifteen or sixteen but this one appeared small even for that age. He reached the body and rolled it over for a closer inspection. It was a young girl. She was probably in her mid-teens but looked only about twelve years old. She had no weapon or other military items. John's heart sank to his feet and he just stood there speechless. The tragedies of war he had been living with for the past year had taught him to keep his emotions to himself so he didn't say a word. He felt weak, almost like he was going to pass out. He sat down and leaned over on a tree. The company commander was with John's platoon that day and declared the girl to have been the sniper. She might have been and she might not have been. It was possible that she kept a rifle hidden in the jungle but no one knew for sure. There weren't any villages in the immediate area so she had travelled a good distance from home for some reason. It just happened that she saw the Americans and decided to run away from them. No one ever knew any more than that.

John was in a state of shock for several days after killing the girl. His platoon leader sent him for a three day R&R in China Beach to help him recover. He did a little water skiing and spent some time playing the slot machines in the EM club. Most of the time he spent on the beach. There were several other men there and they wondered why he spent all those hours sitting in the sand looking out at the ocean. They invited him to visit the ladies with them but he refused to go. After returning to his unit he found that the CO had arranged for him to finish his tour with a base camp job. He only had a little over a month left but it was great to be in a safer place. His high school auto mechanics class paid off, he was assigned to repair work in the motor pool. Being in base camp allowed him to visit the EM club every night. He spent a lot of time listening to the music and drinking away the memory of the dead girl.

Eventually his year ended and he flew home. He was discharged from the army and given a bus ride to the front gate of the Base. There were a few taxi cabs at the gate and he took one to the airport. He was still in uniform and there were several people at the airport. The anti-war movement was at full force and there was a small group of protesters at the airport. They were shouting a lot of rude comments at the soldiers that came in and one began yelling at John. The protester walked up to him, spit on him and called him a Baby Killer. He was very upset because those people knew nothing about him. They knew nothing about what he did or did not do or why he did anything. He confronted the group and found that they were not at all interested in what he had to say. They would not listen, they only shouted above him and only cared about what they had to say. He became very angry and noticed that his trigger finger was tightening down on a trigger that was not there. Then he pushed the protester back out of his face. He knocked two of them completely down and was reaching for an absent machete when the security guards arrived. The guards were sympathetic to John and escorted him to his airplane. On the flight home he had several drinks and was in a much better mood when he was with his family again.

John told his father about the incident at the airport. After a long discussion, John began to realize that he was back in America. He had been trained to kill and had been very good at his job as a soldier. Now he had to remember to live by a nonviolent set of rules. He was surprised to discover that most people, including his family did not want to hear about what was going on in Vietnam. In only a few days he quit talking about it and went back to work at the factory.

As the years went by John was married and divorced four times. He had several jobs and never found a boss he could get along with. At one point he spent a few weeks in rehabilitation for alcoholism. He had five children and was not very close to any of them. They all lived with their mothers and were told a lot more about what was wrong with their father than what was right with him.

After more than twenty five years of trying to find the life he knew before, he finally realized that he never would. Going to war was an extremely difficult experience for someone who had been raised in such a peaceful environment. Returning home after being in such a violent and tragic situation and being expected to immediately revert to normal was an impossibility. In fact there was no way that John or his life would ever be the same again in a hundred lifetimes. What was done was done and what had happened had happened. It was over but it would never really end. The memories would be with him until death and the only thing he could do was to live with them. The only people who would ever fully understand it were the ones who were there. The opinions and expectations of the non-veterans were important only in a theoretical way. The only thing that was of real importance to John was within himself.

As time went by he began to spend more time with his children. For the first time ever he had a meaningful discussion with his oldest child who was a grown man himself. John told his son, "Always remember that everything you do will remain with you forever. After all these years of trying to go back to what I was before I have realized that I can never do that. I was changed forever and I will forever be what I am now. The memories of all those sad starving peasant children will never go away. The memories of my dead friends never go away. The memories of all the people I killed will never go away. Nothing in the past will ever change. I can not travel through time and go back to change them.

"I have finally realized that the past is permanent so now I can set the memories aside. They will never go away but I can set them aside. That means that at least now I can be a better grandfather than I was a father. It means I can finish my life at peace instead of at war. After all these years I will let the past be the past and make the most of the present. After all these years."


Copyright © 1997 By Dennis L. Hodo, All Rights Reserved


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