The Objective: Simply To Survive

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic

I remember the many days and endless nights. I remember friendships and bonds that only a war can make. And I remember after all these many years, the emptiness that forever shrouds a human soul at having seen and heard the suffering, the agony and the death of dreams that never came to be.


By Al Garcia

I remember the many days and endless nights.  I remember friendships and bonds that only a war can make.  And I remember after all these many years, the emptiness that forever shrouds a human soul at having seen and heard the suffering, the agony and the death of dreams that never came to be.

I was young, naïve and invincible like so many of my friends.  We were too young to understand, too young to comprehend, too young to die.  And today I sit at home and wonder and see only shadows in the light of those we left behind.  Shadows that wake me in the middle of night, when I hear a whimper or a moan that brings back memories that haunt my mind and burden my soul. 

I hear the wind and feel the rain drops on my face.  I feel the cold that embraces the awakening day.  It is the constant reminder that I am alive and feeling and living the moments of my life.  Yet, I also hear the sound that nothing makes – the quiet sound of nothingness, that allows the hollow sounds of whimpers and of moans to explode into my mind and awake the horrors of my youth.  That is when I find myself standing in a wetted field of grain, listening to the roar above a darkened sky, feeling the wind consume my very breath.  It is the recurring nightmare that never leaves or fades, despite the passing time that is supposed to heal the wounds of loss and the scars of war. 

I was a scared young boy back then, so many years go in Vietnam, just like so many other confused and baffled young boys my age.  We were all puzzled as to why we were in the middle of a war, and bewildered and afraid. 

Back home in America and here in the Valley, meanwhile, it was a time when young people were asking “Is God Dead”?  In Vietnam young men like me were not asking that question, because we were living in hell.  It was a time of activism and anti-war protests in America.  In Vietnam I was surrounded by the malaise of bewildered young American men.  Idealism in Vietnam became foreign, while cynicism became a way of simply making it through the day. 

The objective of each young man in Vietnam was simply to return home.  In Vietnam many of us were mesmerized by the surreal environment and atmosphere, and consumed by our compulsion to find answers to why we were there, where none existed.  Others persisted in their attempt to destroy the demons of war they had witnessed or participated in.  I learned too quickly in Vietnam, that for some of my fellow soldiers, going home was not an option, not yet anyway.  For many, the Tet Offensive, My Lai and other scenes of war were images they could not erase from their shattered minds.  Given America’s overwhelming superiority over the “simple people” of Vietnam, I, like those serving with me, were dazed, shaken and broken at the endlessness of what we saw around us.  Many young soldiers, and even veteran “old-times,” shared their demoralized feelings at night when talking with me at the club in our compound over drinks (and more drinks).  Meanwhile back home, it was the Age of Aquarius, free love and flowers in your hair.

I, like my fellow soldiers serving in Vietnam in the late 1960s, felt we were America’s forgotten generation.  We truly felt forgotten and abandoned.  We were an army of young, inexperienced and untested boys and men thrown into a hailstorm of political and hostile warfare, without strategy or direction, other than to persevere. 

This was what I walked into on that hot, humid morning in Can Tho, Vietnam, when I reported for my first day as a Military Journalist at the Public Information Office (PIO) as a 19-year-old boy, scared and dazed.  Little did I know how this episode in my life would forever alter my life and my appreciation of those around me.

And back in America, as the war began to wind down and fewer coffins were unloaded at Dover Airforce Base, yellow ribbons began to appear “around the old oak trees,” telephone poles and mail boxes across America.  The prodigal sons were returning home.  Many in coffins, others mangled and broken, others with defeated spirits.  We were the spoils of war, and America had failed to respond. We were the forgotten Vietnam Veterans. 

On my return from Vietnam I learned about friends from Edinburg who had been killed in Vietnam while I was also serving there.  These were guys I had gone to school with and partied with and joked with.  I remember their faces and the sound of their voices and even their laughter.  I recall so many little things about them that have stuck with me all these many years -- faces, scenes, words, emotions that one would have thought would have faded over time and gone the way of childish dreams.  Yet the faces and the words, the senses that surrounded me, the emotions that arose in me so many years gone by still linger and evoke the rawness of those moments and those places we shared. 

But what remains so vivid and ever present in my mind after having served in Vietnam are the many wordless instances when I looked into the faces and the eyes of the brave young men around me and I saw the pain and anger, and the fear and uncertainty that their silence conveyed and their unblinking stares revealed.  With each place I visited, and with each person I spoke to, I felt somewhat diminished and exhausted emotionally.  And I was only 19 or 20 years old then, but no longer a young man.  It felt like a lifetime had rushed past me in the blink of an eye.

I always thought that “brothers in arms” was just an old adage said in passing by those who had served in our fathers’ wars of long ago.  During my time in Vietnam I met young men from across the country.  They were my colleagues.  Only acquaintances brought together by circumstance.  A fleeting association and nothing more, or so I thought.

But then, without thought, without effort and without the luxury of time to develop and grow, I found that in a matter of months my colleagues and acquaintances had become more than just fellow combat soldiers.  We had made a connection.  We had opened ourselves up to each other.  We were bound by some inexplicable energy and essence.  We didn’t prick our fingers and pledge an allegiance, nor did we stack our hands on top of each other’s as in “one for all and all for one,” reminiscent of the Four Musketeers.  Yet, at an unknown time and at this unexpected place, we formed a bond beyond mere collaborators or camaraderie.  There were no words nor actions to confirm this new link between us.  And the reason was simple.  We didn’t know it had happened.  It was natural.  We had become “brothers in arms.” 

I recall the faces and the places more than I recall the names, of the men I met and spoke with throughout the Mekong Delta, while I was in Vietnam.Each face had a story, a history behind it.  As a journalist attempting to get a story, my talks always began with light-hearted chit-chat.  That was the easy part.  That was the part where they would tell me about their hometowns, their families, their dogs named “Sandy,” and about going back to finish school or marrying their girls.  There was much of that.  I guess it made them feel a sense of the normalcy that they no longer had.  I guess it helped bring a part of their lives back, the part that had been snatched from them, and the part that now helped them get through each day.

Each time I went out on assignment, I brought back with me not only a story, but recorded in my mind were the faces, the aches in their words, the unspoken anguish in their silence, and the helplessness and grief of each young man I met and spoke to.  This was to be the alien and hidden time bomb within me that I still carry with me to this day.

Then there was the cruelty and heartlessness of war that cannot be more movingly demonstrated than when I visited a local orphanage in Vietnam.  The sight was heartbreaking.  It took my breath away.  Hundreds of children huddled together and helpless, their lifeless eyes devoid of the glimmer and sparkle that a child should have.  The hardship and trauma of their young lives etched into their faces.  Each one craving to be held and hugged, embraced and protected.  It broke my heart when I walked away. 

The senselessness and tragedy of the children in orphanages and witnessing the raw and unbridled needs of young men unleashed in war has stayed with me all these years.  These young men also shared their innermost chaos and uncertainty that was flooding their minds and emotions.  Those were the images -- the words, the feelings and the raw emotions that I saw and heard each day.  This was what could not be put down on a piece of paper.  How could I explain the feelings and emotions I myself could not understand at that age? 

This was the part of serving in Vietnam as a military journalist that continues to haunt me.  I’m certain that my other colleagues at the Public Information Office experienced the same thing.  Yet, we went about our jobs day-to-day, without comparing these most personal of experiences and feelings.  I believe, each one of us thought we were the only one going through this turmoil and perplexity.  We didn’t want to share.  We couldn’t share.  After all, we were soldiers.

Now, so many years after having to grow up too fast, I feel I understand the meaning of what it means to be a veteran, because I lived the long days and endless nights of a soldier’s life in war.  I feel the anguish of loss, knowing that so many of my friends that I grew up with in Edinburg never returned to fulfill their dreams.  There is guilt of course, knowing I was one of the lucky ones. 

On Veteran’s Day now, I salute my fallen friends and those I never met, with an understanding and awareness I never had before.  And I extend my hand to those who returned with injuries to their bodies and their souls.  Veteran’s Day is personal now – it is a part of me.  If only my friends were here to share this day with me, because I can still hear their words and their laughter on quiet nights when I sit alone beneath a glowing moon on a calm and balmy night in the Valley. 

And I wonder where have all the brave young men gone?  And it is then that I again hear the whimpers and moans that bring back the memories and the tears that never cease to break my heart and pain my wounded soul.

I am a Veteran -- forever wounded by shadows that never die and by the dreams that never came to be.  I remember the service and the sacrifice of too many young men.  And I ask myself why? 

The objective was simply to survive.  And we did, but at what cost? 

Submitted: May 25, 2021

© Copyright 2021 A.Garcia. All rights reserved.

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