MEMORIES—THE VIETNAM WAR

Leo and the Wall
by J. Michael Orange

Leo: Cleveland Ohio; September 1970

     As the soldier prays for peace, he must be prepared to cope with the hardships of war and bear its scars.
                                                                                                       
—General William C. Westmoreland, “Vietnam in Perspective”

     Seven months after I left Vietnam, I had the urge to visit Leo, the only other Vietnam combat vet I knew from home.  Leo and I attended high school together at Borromeo Seminary, back when we both thought we had a calling to become Catholic priests.  By our senior year, secular voices and loud hormonal urges overcame the sotto voce of vocation that had originally lured us to the seminary.  Our friendship solidified as we distanced ourselves from the clique of seminarians who were more certain of their calling, and then later discovered we had both joined the Marines after a couple of years of college.

     Under a clear blue sky brushed with cirrus clouds, the towering elms and oaks created a living cathedral that embraced Cleveland’s Lake Street.  The trees wore a natural plumage that fall morning that mocked the artificial orange paint of my brand new 1970 VW bug.  I had the convertible top down on my way to Leo’s parent’s house and relished the freedom to breathe in the trees as they rusted into their fall colors, their last act of spectral independence before a winter hibernation.

     I didn’t even know if Leo lived there anymore.  He would have left Vietnam a year before that day and might be living anywhere.  But I didn’t want to spoil my surprise by calling his parent’s home to find out if he was there, and risk tipping him off.  It didn’t matter.  The chance that I could spring a surprise visit on him was worth the risk of a wasted drive from Kent on that beautiful Saturday morning. I owed him a surprise visit.

     It was under very different circumstances almost a year and a half earlier that Leo paid a surprise visit to me.  Marine Cpl. Leo Heath found out where I was stationed and hitched rides through sixty miles of Vietnamese countryside to get to my outpost.  On a base with over two hundred men, he found me cleaning my rifle outside my hooch.  I instantly recognized him, although he was a good thirty pounds leaner than when I saw him last.  His broad face, blonde crew-cut hair, laughing eyes, and wide, crooked smile were unmistakable.  High school memories flooded back as he gave me a bear hug and we executed six-stage handshake.  I didn’t know then the exact location of my first fire support base, nor had I ventured off it since arriving.  For Leo to figure out my whereabouts and then walk most of the way there through a combat zone was to me the equivalent of walking on water.  Leo was a welcome apparition.

     Unfortunately, it had taken him so long to find me, we only had a short time to reminisce about our seminary years.  I don’t remember Leo ever being serious about anything, with the exception of physics and chemistry, at which he excelled.  He couldn’t play an instrument or sing a note, so he wasn’t very welcome in the choir-camp counselor clique I hung out with.  And, in spite of his large size, he wasn’t very good at sports either.  So, he did what he did best—he made everyone laugh.

     We laughed a lot those few hours we had together in Nam.  We rehashed the time Leo built a full-sized dummy caricature of Father John Crocker, our 1962 freshman Latin teacher.  Using a pumpkin for a head, he stuffed a priest’s cassock with newspapers and propped the dummy up in the front of the classroom.  He draped it with a sign that read “The Bear,” Father Crocker’s nickname.  Father Crocker hated the nickname, but seemed to enjoy the good-natured ribbing anyway.  Of course, Leo had to be punished for his show of disrespect with a brief sentence on the detention brigade washing windows and cleaning blackboards.  It was a small price to pay.

     Over the two years since high school, we barely saw one another.  We were both busy at college, he studying physics at John Carroll, a Jesuit university in Cleveland, and I at Kent.  Joining the Marines seemed so out of character for him.

     I pulled over to the curb in front of the familiar Heath home on Lake Street and sat there in my car admiring how the massive oaks in the front yard shrank the homestead to an intimate, human scale.  Everything reflected order and care: the intricate workmanship in the 1920’s brick facade, the polished brass gas light, the meticulously landscaped yard and walkway, and the rich natural wood finish on the oversized front door.

     I thought back on the last time I was at that house.  It was in the summer of 1968 at a party Leo’s parents threw for him when he was on two weeks’ leave after completing his basic training at Parris Island.  In the midst of his party, held in the basement, Leo pulled me aside and led me into the furnace room where we could talk in private.  He spoke of his disenchantment with college and of questioning his faith, people in general, and politicians in particular.

     “I got so confused about everything, Mike,” he began.  “And it wasn’t the seminary that screwed me up, or college.  It’s that everything else seemed screwed up.  Remember how in the ‘sem’ we learned to organize everything in terms of body, mind, and spirit?”

     “Yeah, each principle was to be a platform for the others to thrive.”

     “That order fell apart for me.  I lost my ability to sort out my life.  With Vietnam coloring everything, college seemed like a joke.  I’d attend a business class and think big business was about profiting either directly from the War or by diverting our attention from it by trying to sell us stuff we don’t need.  Meanwhile, guys our age are over there dying.”

     Again, we were on parallel tracks.  “I know just what you mean, Leo.”

     “The Marines,” he said, “restored my sense of purpose.  Just like the seminary, the Corps taught attention to body, mind, and spirit too.  For ‘spirit,’ they just mean patriotism, duty, and honor.”

     We shared our common doubts about the moral justification for the War, but he assured me of his new-found belief in the higher standards of the Marines.  He had discovered a new home where he could strive to be his best.  “I’m proud to be a Marine.”

     I took comfort in his certainty, since my military journey had also just begun.  Unaware of his actions, I had enlisted about a month before his party and was due to go to Parris Island in a couple of months.  This so delighted Leo he gave me another bear hug and wished me well with a “Semper Fi.”  When we returned to the main room, he was his party self again.  He challenged everyone to a pushup contest and won easily.

     During his surprise visit in Vietnam, we talked about his party as we sipped warm beers in the shade of my hooch.  Leo had arrived in Vietnam about six months before me and was promoted quickly to corporal as a machine gunner in a rifle company.  When I brought up our conversation in his parents’ basement furnace room, his face soured and he cast his eyes down.  His reaction puzzled me.  I asked him if he’d been in a lot a shit in Vietnam.  All I got in response was an unfocused glare, like shell shock, the thousand yard stare.

     As I walked up the manicured walkway toward the Heath’s front door, I couldn’t shake the memory of Leo’s impenetrable stare.  I had to replace those thoughts.  I was about to spring a happy surprise on my old friend.  First he’ll shit a brick, I thought, and then we’ll be pounding down cold brews for the rest of the day over stories.

     I rang the front doorbell.  When the church-like chimes finished announcing me, Mrs. Heath opened the heavy wooden door.  She recognized me immediately but instead of greeting me, one hand moved up slowly to cover her mouth and the other found support on the frame of the screen door that separated us.  She took a deep breath, arched her eyes and brows, and choked out an anguished sob.  I waited silently, paralyzed by her keening, fearful of its meaning.

     Recovered, but with the screen door still separating us, she began, “A few months after Leo got back, back from . . . Vietnam . . . he put a gun in his mouth . . . and fired.  In his bedroom.”  The hand that covered her mouth swept across in front of her face.  “Killed himself.  Blood . . . ” her words waned into fleeting images of Leo that swirled in my head; his laughs, his clowning style, his sincerity and sensitivity.  He was the wise fool.

     “I have to go now,” she said abruptly.  Whatever had held her up during the months since her son’s suicide just could not do it anymore.  Rather than collapse as the grief stabbed at her, she slowly closed the door in my face.  She closed the heavy door on a chapter in my life, too.  Still stunned, I mumbled that I was sorry, but she was no longer there to accept it.  She had retreated behind the door.  Its dark, carved wood sealed off all questions as effectively as Leo’s thousand yard stare. 

Author’s note: I reconstructed the dialogue to the best of my ability and changed the names in order to respect individual privacy.


The Wall: Washington D.C.; April 1971 and January 1991

     Speak not to me of the glory of war, for I have stood in front of that black marble wall.  I have held my father’s hand as he searched for the names of friends he lost.  I have felt the pain of remembrance.  People talk now of honoring our troops—our veterans.  If we are to truly do this, we have to remember them all, including those who have no memorial. . . .

     Honor our veterans by giving them a world where what they went through during war is not trivialized or made glamorous.  Honor them by working to understand the consequences of war.  Honor them by working to give them a world where they will never again have to stand at a wall and search for the names of their friends.
               
 —Jessica A. Orange, from “Honor,” 1991.  Our daughter wrote these words after our visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in January 1991.

 

April 23, 1971; Washington, D.C.

     A huge procession of protesters, two hundred thousand strong, gathered at the steps to the Capital.  A thousand of these protesters stood out from the others.  They wore proof of service in Vietnam; long hair and green clothes; floppy green hats; jungle boots; uniforms of green, blue, red, and black.  They wore ribbons and medals on their chests and around their necks, symbols made of precious metals and colorful satin, symbols awarded for having served their country in wartime, for sacrificing their time and their labor.  Many sacrificed more—their patriotism, their sense of honor and duty, their self-respect, their sanity.  Some left friends, senses, and limbs in Vietnam, others lost their souls there.  They had only these symbols and a sense of betrayal to show for it.  It would be eleven years before their country would build its first national monument to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country during the War.

     One by one they stepped forward to a microphone placed before a fence erected at the base of the Capital steps.  One by one, they spoke a few heartfelt words into the microphone and, in an act enriched with more symbolism than the medals and ribbons they held in their hands, they cast these symbols back at the headquarters of the government that awarded them.  For the first time in this country’s history, men who fought a war protested to end it.

     As jumbled as my convictions were at the time of my enlistment, my war experience jumbled them even more.  Post-Vietnam life in the land of plenty didn’t help either.  Every day I tried to turn off the Vietnam movie that ran through my head.  Change channels; channel change.  I was a closet veteran.  I came to that Washington demonstration as a passive observer, with friends who accepted me in spite of the fact I couldn’t accept myself.  I left as a member of the group that organized the protest, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

 

January 1991; Washington, D.C.

     After two decades of political involvement, Cynthia and I returned to Washington, D.C., this time with our daughter, Jessica.  We were there to march for peace in the Middle East.  Jessica had been with us on protests for liberal causes since she was a baby and several on her own, but this was her first in the nation’s capital.  She was eighteen.

     We made a pilgrimage to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  After a time, Cynthia suggested that Jessica and I stand at either end of the panels that listed the dead during my tour of duty—March 1969 to March 1970.  Cynthia snapped a picture of these 365 days of death.  The black polished granite panels numbers thirteen to thirty-one towered well beyond the reach of my hand.  That year engulfed a major portion of the monument’s inscriptions.  I wondered how many sons died because they wanted to prove themselves worthy of their fathers.

     I wanted to find John Kitson’s name, my friend from boot camp and Advanced Infantry Training school.  The monument’s directory gave the following information: John Frances Kitson, Pfc., 18 July 50, 23 July 69, Levittown, NY.  He died five days after his nineteenth birthday, a little over four months after we both had arrived in Vietnam.  The monument didn’t mention his glory days on the 1964 varsity lacrosse team at Gen. Douglas MacArthur High School in Levittown or the family that survived him.

     I decided to do a pencil rubbing of his name from that ominously powerful wall. “J . . . O . . . H . . .”  I only got that far. Seeing the individual letters emerge from the white sheet to create that name—to conjure up that skinny teenager—ignited such sorrow in me.  I struggled to complete the task through eyes burning with tears.  I liked Kitson in boot camp where I got to know him.  He had a New York tough-guy attitude that was probably just a thin cover for the deep fear we all harbored while training for warfare.  I hadn’t just lost a friend.  I lost a piece of myself in that damnable War.  I was crying for myself.

     I turned to Cynthia and Jessica for the embrace and acceptance I desperately needed.  I cried uncontrollably on my daughter’s shoulder.

     In their arms, I experienced an out-of-body sensation that placed the three of us in the middle of the scene.  In this mental picture, I saw two women consoling a gray-bearded man holding a crumpled rubbing and dressed in faded jeans, a “Veterans for Peace” cap, and a Marine Corps field jacket bedecked with peace buttons and twenty-year-old stains.  I realized we were inadvertently reenacting the typical Wall scene so often pictured in the media.

     I returned to the massive gravestone and searched for Leo’s name.  When I could not find the engraving that would help to commemorate his life and his service, I asked for the help of a Park Ranger.

     “There are no suicides on the Wall, only deaths directly related to the War.”

     Had I known then that more men killed themselves after the War than are listed on it, I would have told the Ranger we’d need another memorial for the sixty thousand suicides that would not have happened were it not for the War.  For the sixty thousand Leos. 

Author’s note: Since I published my book, I have found that the source I used for the number of Vietnam veteran suicides attributed to the War has been substantially criticized. At this time, I do not believe we have a reliable estimate of the number of veteran suicides.

END 

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