Originally posted on the Bulldog Drummond Uncommon Blog.
Written by Peter Greulich
Memorial Day is set aside as a time to remember those who never returned to us. Honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Remembering those who took their last breath on the battlefield. But I also remember those who returned home dead in spirit.
These families also lost loved ones forever.
I am classified as a Vietnam-era vet but I spent my entire time stationed in Germany. Intellectually, I know I served during this time. I volunteered. I know I could have ended up there, but I hold in the deepest respect those who were on the frontlines. They are, to me, the true veterans of the Vietnam era. Although many veterans were peers in my cavalry unit, if one Staff Sergeant had not shared this experience with me, I don’t believe I would have ever fully understood what he survived.
I hadn’t known him very long, but I knew he was different. He never seemed fully engaged: never talking, never joking, never cursing and swearing, and absolutely never laughing. At times he was completely gone, lost in an internal world no one was allowed to enter — a place where no human could walk with him. His desk was just across the office from me. Sometimes I would see his shoulders slump and his eyes glaze over. One day I summoned the courage to ask, “Sergeant, are you okay?”
He got up and grabbed his hat to go outdoors, but as he was walking by my desk he stopped to sit. His eyes never left the door though, looking through it to a place beyond.
I was raised that it is impolite to stare. But I don’t think he knew I was even there. It felt as though I was on the other side of a confessional door. I saw his darkened face but I felt anguish. Was I staring? Yes, because for the first time in my twenty years of existence I saw into a fellow human being’s soul.
He spoke softly, “I was responsible for a lot of young lives in Vietnam. Too many times we walked into the jungle only to exit with fewer men than when we started. I fought to keep them and myself alive, not for glory. There was nothing glorious. When a new man arrived I hoped to shock him into caution, but nothing can prepare a person. I warned each one of them to not have a heart, to never care. And one day I was too slow to act.” He lifted his arm as if the scene was playing out in front of him and let it drop.
“A child came walking toward us. ‘Chocolate’ was probably the only English word that child knew. Before I could do anything a bomb strapped to the child detonated killing a young life entrusted in my care.”
His eyes watered, but there were no tears. He had long ago learned how to stop a tear — an open expression of emotion. I saw though, because there was no confessional door.
He continued, “I don’t know how long it was after that day, but it felt like we were again walking down that road… Another one of my men caring… another child saying… this time I shot… I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t pause. I didn’t think about right or wrong. I just killed a child. But it was different this time. No explosives… no explosion… just a child’s mother screaming. Not directed at me but filled with the pure agony of the god-forsaken. Her cries exposed all the evil I had seen… all I had done. It laid bare all the pain I had inflicted to avoid having pain myself.”
He turned to look out the window, “Every now-and-then, a sound catches me unaware. I will only hear it faintly, but it will have the right pitch and that day returns. I hear her screams… I will hear them for the rest of my life. May God forgive me because I will never be able to forgive myself.”
He got up and walked out the door.
Physically, three lives died on this battlefield: one mother lost an innocent, exploited as an instrument of war; one mother lost an innocent, ignorant of war’s dictum of kill or be killed; and one mother lost an innocent because, no matter how hard we try, war kills innocents and destroys innocence. Spiritually, a fourth life was also lost — this young man that managed to leave the battlefield breathing left his spirit behind. His mother too lost her child, for to those back home who loved him dearly — the ones he tried to return home to — he had become unrecognizable.
This Memorial Day may we remember all the men and women who never returned to us — those who made the supreme sacrifice and those that, though they walk amongst us, seem forever lost?
Peter E. Greulich is an author, publisher and public speaker. He has written two books about IBM and three essays on Thomas J. Watson Sr.’s leadership during the Great Depression. His latest book, A View from Beneath the Dancing Elephant: Rediscovering IBM’s Corporate Constitution is a historical look at IBM that puts a spotlight on its current human resource practices in light of IBM’s time-tested human-relationship achievements. It is a different perspective from Louis V. Gerstner’s Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance. It is a view from beneath — the perspective of an IBM employee-owner.