David Paul Spears
04 Dec 2002
and by his children
Frank, Karen, and Linda
SSG David Paul Spears
From his daughter,
Karen Spears Zacharias
17 Feb 2003
If I had not made it back alive from Vietnam, I wonder if my daughters would have expressed their feelings as eloquently as you do in this site. I hold my grandchildren, and hug my daughters, and wonder what God has saved me for. Maybe it's just to thank people like you for carrying on the memories of their fathers who died in Viet Nam.
May God remain with you,
Edward J Kalkbrenner
Covey 188, 288
11 Aug 2004
It took two false starts before I made it to the Wall, and then I walked past it so fast I didn't look, I couldn't look. That story about the lemon tree, I don't know if it's true or not, but I believe it because if I had been there I'd have sung along. And that's something I have trouble dealing with 36 years later. What a waste ... what a waste.
From one who can't shake the memory,
25 Jun 2006
I just finished reading "Hero Mama", and felt compelled to write something to honor the sacrifice that was made by David Spears and his family.May God bless and keep you.
Unlike Karen's dad, my dad did return home from Vietnam in July 1969. I was one of the fortunate daughters. That point was driven home to me even more the first time I visited the Wall in D.C in 1998. I stood there flabbergasted and saddened at all the names inscribed on that Wall. It was then I realized how lucky I had been that my daddy had been one of the ones to come home to his family. My dad, MSgt Jimmy A. Coley, USAF, continued to serve his country until the time of his retirement in 1982.
To Karen, and all the other children of Vietnam Vets who never made it back home: Those of us whose daddies did come home realize how blessed we were. Nothing can bring your daddies back, but we, the "lucky" kids, keep you in our prayers always because we do realize how indiscrimately that war killed. We do realize that "there but for the grace of God....".
Thank you, David Spears, for serving your country. Thank you, Karen, for writing the book. It was like reading a story that could have been written by me if the circumstances had been reversed.
05 Feb 2007
I just finished Karen's book Hero Mama and so appreciated the child's perspective of her daddy. It reinforced my gratitude for having my father return from Vietnam after serving from July 68 to July 69. I have always been proud of my father and he is turning 72 this month of February. David Spears would have sure been proud of his daughter's account of her short life with him and the pleasant memories he left for her. I call my father frequently and always on Veterans' Day to express my appreciation for his service and his devotion to this great country. I also say my thanks and prayers for those who lost their lives and the heros they left behind. I thank you, Karen, for keeping the memory of the fallen alive.
Listen to Karen Spears Zacharias's commentary
"Vietnam's Postwar Legacy"
TREE OF GRIEF
I came across an awful story the other day. A story of a Vietnam soldier. Tim O'Brien tells the story in his book, The Things They Carried. O'Brien has mastered the art of telling ghastly stories of the American War in Vietnam.
I'm careful about when I read his stuff. I don't read his prose while eating. I don't read it before bedtime. I don't read it if the kids are around. Simply because his words make my stomach convulse, my heart pound, and the fissures in my soul ooze with the pus of confusion and anger. But I think Sunday school teachers ought to give their seniors a copy of The Things They Carried, instead of that insidious Prayer of Jabez book, which projects a ridiculous Daddy Warbucks image of God. I don't know about you, but I hope the God at my side isn't such a namby-pamby.
I need a powerful God. One who can handle the raw realities of life and death. One who can carry his own weight at the front lines. And back me up if I need it. I've been needing that sort of God a lot lately.
Which leads me back to the story O'Brien told about a dead man named Curt Lemon. Here's what O'Brien recalled of his death:
"In the mountains that day, I watched Lemon turn sideways. He laughed and said something to Rat Kiley. Then he took a peculiar half step, moving from shade into bright sunlight, and the booby-trapped 105 round blew him into a tree. The parts were just hanging there, so Dave Jensen and I were ordered to shimmy up and peel him off. The gore was horrible, and stays with me. But what wakes me up twenty years later is Dave Jensen singing 'Lemon Tree' as we threw down the parts."
O'Brien added that you can tell a true war story by the questions it raises.
"Somebody tells a story, let's say, and afterward you ask, 'Is it true?' and if the answer matters to you, you've got your answer," O'Brien noted.
I've been asking lots of people questions about the American War in Vietnam. And about my father.
In a sense, I feel like I've shimmied up a tree to pick through my father's remains. It's an unpleasant task. One that haunts my sleep and startles me throughout the day.
Here's what I know so far, Dad was asleep in his tent when he was hit with shrapnel from a mortar round. He had a wound in his gut and one in his back - the one nobody noticed until he died. The medic who was sleeping in the same tent as Dad got shot in the butt. Forest Gump didn't make it up. Lots of guys in Vietnam really did get shot in the butt. I wish Dad had gotten his ass blowed off. He'd likely have lived through that. But instead, he died, in a muddy LZ, about 20 miles from base camp at Pleiku. It took nearly an hour before he bled to death. Fierce rain pelted the camp all day long. I like to imagine that every soul in heaven, including Almighty God, was weeping for my father. He died July 24, 1966. A Sunday.
On my desk, next to my keyboard, is a picture of my father. He's wearing combat boots, Army greens, and a grin so sweet it makes my heart drip with sorrow. Behind him, standing three deep in places, is a row of Montagnard children. Some are grasping cans of Army rations. Others have their hands folded, as if in prayer. All are barefoot. One is wrapped in an Army shirt. A couple are wrapped in Army blankets. Some have bright smiles. One has a gaping, ulcerated sore on his left leg. He's smiling anyway. Behind the kids stand two soldiers whose names I don't know. And behind them, pointed away from the picture, is a U.S. Army 105-howitzer.
This is the picture I will carry with me to Washington, D.C. this week. It is the picture I will leave in front of the panel where my father's name is inscribed.
Beginning this week, people will gather at the Wall to read the names of loved ones, dead and missed. It'll take four days to read all 58,299 names. If I can choke back my grief long enough, I'll be reading my father's name at 10:30 p.m. Thursday.
I've only been to the Wall once before. I had a 4-hour layover in D.C. so I took a taxi to the site. A hard rain pelted the memorial's black surface. I like to imagine that every soul in heaven, including Almighty God, was weeping for me then.
This is the 20th anniversary of the Vietnam Memorial. If he had lived, my father would've celebrated his 71st birthday this year. I was 9 when he died. I will turn 46 the day I leave D.C. to return to Oregon.
Sometimes kindly folks tell me I need to get over Vietnam. Just forget about it. Sometimes I wish it myself. But as O'Brien notes in his book: "That's the thing about remembering, you don't forget."
I can't get down out of this tree until I'm sure I've removed every last shred of my father.
These remains are all I've got left of him to hold onto.
FREEDOM TO GRIEVE
"Please, don't cry, honey. It upsets your mother." With those departing words, my father turned out the light and I buried my nine-year-old face into a pillow in an attempt to hide my grief.
That was in December of 1965 and those were my father's last instructions prior to his leaving for South Vietnam. So I tried not to cry when he came home in a body bag. And at his funeral as gunshot echoed through the skies, I grasped my sister's tiny hand and fought back the tears.
Two years ago, on a four-hour layover in Washington, D.C., I took a taxi to the Vietnam Memorial. As I stood there in front of my father's name, gazing at my reflection and that of my own nine-year-old daughter, a heavy rain began. The beaded raindrops upon the glossy black surface looked like the tears of angels. All of heaven is grieving, I thought. Why can't I?
My father was a wise man. He knew far before I did that my grieving over Vietnam would upset people. Not only my mother, but many, many others. So I learned early not to talk about it.
Not talking about Vietnam was easy, really. Lots of people don't talk about family shame. And as a teen-ager I was ashamed that my father had fought in Vietnam. I thought he should've known better. From the looks of the demonstrations on television and in the papers, educated men certainly knew better. It seemed, to me, that everyone knew better-- everyone, but my father.
But then he wasn't an educated man. He'd left high school to join the military. Growing up in the Smokies in East Tennessee, my father thought that having an opportunity to see the world was the best education he could ever afford. Turns out it was the best he would ever get. He was a simple enough man to even be proud of what he was doing.
My father did not have the skills to debate foreign policy. I'm pretty sure he couldn't even have spelled it correctly. So when I heard McNamara discussing his book and read the editorials, I once more felt shame that my father gave his life for such a senseless cause. And once more I found myself silently grieving.
While attending the Oregon Press Woman's conference I asked Norm Maves Jr., a writer for The Oregonian, and a Vietnam Vet, if the media would ever tell the stories of the Vets of Vietnam the way they do now for the Vets of World War II. Maves said, "No."
Why? Because, it seems, people don't talk about national shame either. Later Maves came to me and assured me that our society's reluctance to talk about the Vets of Vietnam does not in any way diminish the life my father gave. When I was a girl, young enough to be carried in my father's protective arms, he took me to military bases to show me the artillery he was so proud of and the look alike soldiers marching in rhythm. He taught me to salute the twenty-one guns. The last place I remember visiting with my father was a cemetery on the island of Oahu, replete with row after row of alabaster headstones, dedicated to those who died at Pearl Harbor. In his simple way, my father was showing his appreciation for the gift those men gave.
Several years ago, my husband gave me a gift that I will appreciate to my own dying day. More precious to me than gold, that gift was simply a philosophy: "You cannot take knowledge that you have available to you now and judge the mistakes you made in the past." Although educated, my husband can sometimes be a simple man -- much like my father.
Frankly, I don't care if McNamara makes millions off of his book and I don't care if Donna Shalala thinks we didn't send our brightest and best to Vietnam. I just wish that as a nation we would learn to adopt a philosophy that says we made a mistake, but let's not judge history with today's hindsight.
My father's gift of life is diminished by a nation that has refused to talk about that life, and the many like his.
I wish that Americans would once again take pride in their military strength, in their flag, and in their Vets...all of them.
I want the freedom to quit hiding my grief. And I long for the freedom to be proud of my father's life...and his death.
David Paul Spears, Master Sgt. in charge of Artillery, was killed in action July 24, 1966. He was a career military man. Spears found great pleasure in the simple joys of life. In the midst of a chaotic war, he found time to go fishing, write poetry, film children at play, a winding river, and a sunset. He is still grieved by all who knew him.
MY FATHER'S MEDALS
I grabbed the bulky envelope from my car's front seat, along with the pile of other mail daughter Konnie had stacked there.
Glancing at the Philadelphia, PA, postmark, I recalled the memo my editors had faxed to me earlier that day. It urged reporters to be careful about any mail without a return address or from unknown sources.
I didn't recognize the return address, which was marked "Soldiers System Team." Squeezing the bulky package, I wondered if I needed a pair of latex gloves or a gas mask.
But I reasoned the only people I've angered lately live elsewhere. No enemies in Philly that I'm aware of.
A red string dangled from the back of the envelope. "Pull here to open" was printed below it. I thought about tossing the package aside. I'd just returned from a city council meeting. I had a story to crank out. But I've never been one to live by deadlines, why start now?
Yanking on the string, I held my breath and waited for white powdery substance to float skyward.
Instead, what fell into my lap was that gray mess, resembling cigarette ashes, the postal service uses to pad its packages.
Dusting off my lap, I dumped the contents of the envelope onto my desk. Out fell five navy-colored boxes, all about 2 inches by 4 inches. The white labels on the boxes had bar codes and corresponding numbers. I searched for a letter. There was none.
I opened one of the boxes. Out slid a gold-red-and-green ribbon with a medal attached. The bronze medallion was emblazoned with a cluster of what appeared to be bamboo trees with a fierce-looking dragon lurking between them. "Republic of Vietnam Service" was engraved below.
Grabbing the next box, I pulled out a beautiful blue-and-white pin-striped ribbon. At the medal's center is a design shaped like a globe. On the back it said: "For service in defence of the principles of the charter of the United Nations." The next was a maroon-and-white ribbon medal. Embossed on the medal is an eagle, with wings outstretched and chest puffed up. Its claws grasped a sword that lays across a thick book. "Efficiency, Honor and Fidelity" are the words encircling this medal.
On the back is a 5-point star. My father's name - David P. Spears - is etched under the star. It's a good conduct medal.
Continuing to open each of the boxes, I held my father's medals in my hands. They felt heavy, like my gut.
My father's death in Vietnam in 1966 was such a trauma to my oh so very young mother that she tried to exorcise the demons by ridding our home of any remembrance of him. I don't know what became of his wallet. Or the boots he spit-shined while sitting at the kitchen table. Or the lighter he kept in his right pants pocket. I don't even know what Mama did with that woven belt of Dad's. The one with the brass buckle that could scare the living daylights out of me and Brother John.
Over the years, I've often wished for just one article of clothing, something to rekindle that Old Spice and tobacco smell of my father. Yet, those white T-shirts and khakis that Dad was so fond of held no comfort for Mama. She didn't need any reminder of what she'd lost.
When Dad died, we kids lost more than our father. We lost the woman our mother had been. She knew the man who loved her would never pour cream over a bowl of peaches at her dinner table again.
The Army had finally mailed me my father's medals because I've been searching for anything connected to his military service. His service records arrived over Memorial Day weekend this year.
Two years ago, military officials said Dad's records were destroyed in that infamous St. Louis, Mo., fire that the Army blames for all of its missing records.
Thankfully, I remembered one lesson Dad taught me - never believe anything Army brass tells you. So I continued my search. The medals are ones Dad had earned but was never awarded.
Brother John has the biggies - the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and the flag that was draped across Dad's casket.
Yet, for me, these medals represent my father in a way that those medals never could. After all, a good conduct medal is awarded for the way a soldier lives, not how he dies.
Still, such pretty ribbons and shiny medals are pitiful substitutes for a daughter who simply desires the warmth of her father's embrace. And patriotic pride is cold comfort to a woman who weeps for the nearness of her husband each night.
THE AMERICAN WAR IN VIETNAM
I spent last weekend at Fishtrap, an annual writers conference at Wallowa Lake. The theme this year was "The Legacy of Vietnam." I almost didn't go because I fear picking at old scabs is stupid. But I went because I am writing a book about what Vietnam and the loss of my father did to our family.
"Avoiding Dismemberment" is the working title, although my buddy Don Cresswell said he likes the alternative title better: "I Was a Trailer Park Victim". I thought being with Vietnam veterans who are established writers would challenge me emotionally and professionally.
My buddy Don, a photographer, has a family member who lost a husband in World War II after only a year of marriage. So he knows first-hand how painful such things can be.
"Why do you do this to yourself?" he asked me Monday. I didn't have an answer, other than to say, "I've got to write this book, Don."
Folks told me that all weekend long.
That's what Yusef Komunyakaa told me. A Vietnam vet, he is a native of Louisiana and a professor of humanities and creative writing at Princeton. In Pleasure Dome, a collection of his poems, Komunyakaa says he wore out a hundred angels and offers those angels his gratefulness.
"Thanks for the tree between me and a sniper's bullet. I don't know what made the grass sway seconds before the Viet Cong raised his soundless rifle. Some voice always followed, telling me which foot to put down first. Thanks for deflecting the ricochet against that anarchy of dust ..."
"Tell your story", said Xuan Nguyen, the translator featured in the award-winning documentary, Regret to Inform.
I don't know why, but I was startled to learn from Nguyen that in her country the war is called "the American War." How odd, I thought. A whole generation of Vietnamese women, mothers like me, have been teaching their children about "the American War."
Nguyen was only 14 when her 5-year-old cousin was shot while climbing out of a tunnel, only a few steps ahead of her. Thirsty, he'd dashed off ahead even though she warned him of the danger.
Nguyen said the war forced her to make choices about who would live and who would die. So she ignored the cries of an old man calling for help when her village was bombed.
"I pretend not to hear him because I choose. He's going to die. I going to live."
It was just one of the costs of war, she said.
"Why should 14-year old girl have to make such choices?" Nguyen asked. No one had an answer.
Tell your story, she said, wrapping me in a gentle embrace.
"We are getting old. You tell the story so our grandchildren won't forget," she said.
Tell the story because no one has heard from us women yet, said Pauline Laurent. She was 22 and seven months pregnant when her husband of nine months was killed. She never remarried because, "Howie was the love of my life."
It took her seven grueling years to do it, but Laurent finally told the story of the shame and guilt she felt as the widow of a Vietnam vet in a book titled A Grief Denied.
An article I read over the weekend claimed that of the hundreds of Vietnam widows who did remarry, all but one divorced. Men weren't the only ones traumatized by the war. And they aren't the only ones who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. I think my own mother suffers from it to this day. And I'm convinced I do at times.
But it was veteran Jose Ramos who reminded me most of why I, and everyone else affected by it, should keep telling the stories of the war.
Ramos has made two trips back to Vietnam, the last time for the documentary "Breathe In, Breathe Out". The film highlights several Vietnam veterans as they return to the battlefields of their youth with their grown children. After a weary day of filming in Vietnam, Ramos said he sat down to dinner with a Vietnamese man at least 20 years his elder. The man asked Ramos how his day went.
In typical American fashion, Ramos complained about the heat and his bone-weary body.
Choking back tears, Ramos recalled how that elderly man got up from his seat and knelt before him. Removing Ramos' socks, he began to massage his feet. "I will never forget the humility it took for this man to massage my feet," Ramos said.
I have not been able to stop crying over that vision of an old man gently rubbing his tired feet.
It simply breaks my heart.
Sometimes, I think, as a nation we lost much more than our sons, our brothers and our fathers. I think we lost our dignity. The thing that centers us and gives us such a strong sense of who we are that we can kneel in a state of mercy and grace before those who have wronged us.
I long to live in a place where such humility is valued. A place where folks are willing to forgive you your mistakes, innocent or otherwise, and to embrace you as a brother.
Or, in my case, as a sister.
I got a glimpse of such humility at Fishtrap when Nguyen's son embraced me - the daughter of an American soldier killed by Vietnamese gunfire.
A nearby photographer snapped a picture of the two of us -- a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman being embraced by a dark-haired, almond-eyed man.
I imagine even heaven's angels wept at the sight.
9-11-01By Karen Zacharias
HONOLULU, HAWAII - The toppling of the World Trade Center has shattered more than glass. It has crumbled hearts across the world.
My 19-year-old daughter Ashley said it best as she sat in a hotel room in Downtown Waikiki on Sept. 11 watching FOX News.
"Yesterday when we were at that cemetery, I thought 'I can't imagine what it would be like to live in a time of war. And I don't think I will ever have too.'"
Then crying, she added,"If I just go back to sleep and wake up again will this be over?"
But she knew what I did not say, that no amount of sleep will ever dispel New York's terror and America's nightmare.
She knows this because I have just spent a week teaching my three daughters of war in an up close and personal way.
The cemetery Ashley spoke of is the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, or what is commonly referred to as Punchbowl. Monday was to have been our last day of our "girls only" vacation.
I wanted to take the girls there because this was one of the last places I had walked with my own father before he shipped out to Vietnam.
Retracing the steps I had last taken with my own father was the reason I brought the girls to Hawaii in the first place. I told them stories of my father as we toured Schofield Military Base, home of the 25th Infantry Division (Light). And as we body surfed as Sunset Beach, I spoke of how much my parents had loved living in Hawaii, those last three years of my father's life.
And when we went to Pearl Harbor I had suggested that the girls dress up. After all, I said, "This is like going to someone's funeral."
Before showing a video presentation about the attack on Pearl Harbor, a park offical spoke of the 20 sets of brothers and the father and son who died on Dec. 7, 1941.
"Remember them when you head out on the shuttle to the U.S.S. Arizona," he said.
Sitting in the darkened theatre, I silently wiped away tears. I was surrounded by soldiers. The two on my left had pulled into shore. The two in front of me had served in World War II.
At the tomb of the Arizona, oil spots still surface from the rusted ship. And old men still shed tears for their fallen comrades.
Punchbowl is located in Puowaina Carter, an extinct volcano. Puowaina means "Hill of Sacrifice."
During World War II, temporary cemeteries had been set up throughout central and south Pacific. After the war, Puowaina Crater was identified as permanent burial site.
Among the dead are 776 casualties from the Pearl Harbor attack, 11,597 identified and 2,079 unidentified World War II dead from places such as Guam, Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
On Monday, another veteran was laid to rest. My daughters had never seen a military burial. So from underneath the shade of a Banyan tree, we watched as soldiers lifted their rifles and fired off a final salute. And when a soldier standing off by his lonesome lifted the bugle to his lips and sounded off a soulful Taps, I said a prayer of thanks for brave men like him.
At the chapel, I read the comments from other visitors. And I left behind a picture of my father that I had carried with me to Schofield and Pearl Harbor.
A 30-foot female figure, known as "Columbia", towers over the building that houses the chapel. She carries a laurel branch in her left hand. Inscribed below her are these words: "The solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom."
They are words from President Lincoln expressed to a mother who had lost five sons during the Civil War.
It was those words I thought about when I heard about the New York police officers and firemen and rescue personnel who died trying to save people trapped in the toppling World Trade Center.
I was sitting on the pier at Waikiki that fateful Tuesday, waiting with my daughter for the sunrise, when a woman approached us.
"Have you heard the news?" she asked. Her accent dripped with Coney Island mustard.
"Someone's bombed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," she said. "Seriously?" I asked.
"Yeah," she said."I'm a New Yorker. I just heard it. I'm a tour guide. I give tours at the Trade Center all the time. I could've been there."
Shaking my rattled brain, I asked, "Who did it?"
"Don't know," she said.
Then, with a shake of her own head, she added, "But it's World War III for sure."
Like Ashley, I wish we could all wake up from the nightmare that's gripped our nation.
FREEDOM'S JUST ANOTHER WORD
I stood before students at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., and said: "Whenever I interview veterans, they show me scars from the slug they took.
When you meet a son or daughter of a Vietnam vet, remember this is where our scars are -- here, in our hearts."
As I spoke, a video of my father played in the background. There were images of Dad fishing along rocky cliffs, of him and his buddy Erwin Naylor playing horseshoes, barefoot in the mud, and of Dad walking past the alabaster headstones of Pearl Harbor's gravesites.
While driving home, I thought of how satisfying it'd been to speak my father's name -- David Paul Spears -- without shame. It'd been a chance for me to show yet another generation of sons and daughters that soldiers like my father were not murderers who indiscriminately raped and slaughtered Viet Cong. But only days later, when I reached for the morning paper and read the headline -- "The Raid of Thanh Phong" (The Oregonian, Sunday, April 29) -- I wondered if those students would imagine my father with bloodstained hands the way I had Lt. William Calley.
I was a teen when Calley of My Lai Massacre fame was court-martialed at Ft. Benning, Ga., the same base where my dad trained troops. Convicted of the murder of 22 (some say more) unarmed Vietnamese women, children and men, Calley served time in military prison until President Nixon ordered him released.
He then married a local gal, Mrs. Tilly Vick's daughter. If Mrs. Tilly was upset that Penny married a convicted murderer, she never said. For the most part, out of respect for Mrs. Tilly I suspect, nobody said much of anything about Calley or his ghosts of Vietnam. Even today, folks in Columbus remind strangers that Calley was a good soldier. One who carried out orders.
In court, Calley testified that he was told to go into the village and destroy the enemy.
"That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children," Calley said.
I called Calley after reading U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey's account of what happened at Thanh Phong. He was uncommonly kind as he listened to me blabber on about being the daughter of a Vietnam vet and had he heard about the Kerrey thing and what did he think of it.
Very cautiously, Calley offered a few brief remarks.
"I have no idea what took place over there with Sen. Kerrey. But I feel Kerrey is being very, very sincere," he said.
Does all this stuff bother you? I asked.
"I think Vietnam is always troubling to everybody," he said. Then, graciously, Calley said he didn't want to make any more comments. "This puts me in a very difficult situation," he explained. Thanking him, I hung up. I can't tell you why I cried through most of my conversation with Calley. I'm a journalist. I'm usually pretty good at holding my water. But Vietnam makes me weep bitterly.
I had that dream again this week. The one that's haunted me ever since my father was killed in action. The dream distresses me. I awake unsettled. Angry. In my dream, Daddy comes home from 'Nam. He can't tell me why he pretended to be dead. He doesn't say why he's spent 35 years hiding out in the jungle. He only tells me that he missed me and that he loves me. I'm left to wonder, didn't he feel welcome at home? Maybe he was too ashamed to return. I don't know whether my father ever killed innocent women and children the way Calley did, the way Kerrey and his crew did. It's possible. But if he did, I suspect that, like Kerrey, he too felt that such actions were not war crimes, but part of the atrocities of war.
"And that's why I feel guilt and shame for it," Kerrey told Dan Rather during an interview with 60 Minutes.
Personally, I think it's Dan Rather and writer Gregory Vistica who should feel the guilt and shame. I'd like to kick their sorry butts for pitting Kerrey's version of what happened against his compatriot, Gephard Klann, in a "he said, she said, they said" game of journalistic "Gotcha." Rather claimed the reason he pitted the two men's accounts against each other was to show "some of what war is really like." When first questioned by Vistica, Kerrey was reluctant to talk.
"There's a part of me that wants to say to you, all the memories that I've got are my memories," Kerrey said. "We thought we were going over there to fight for the American people. We come back and find the American people didn't want us to do it. And ever since that time, we've been poked, prodded, bent, spindled, mutilated, and I don't like it. Part of living with the memory, some of those memories, is to forget them. I've got the right to say to you it's none of your damned business."
I've mulled over Kerrey's words and thought about how sick I am of people playing kick-the-can with Vietnam vets.
I awoke from my nightmare humming a tune popularized by Janis Joplin: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Ain't that the gospel truth?
I got an e-mail from a reader Carol Elder of Prosser, Wash. recently. She wrote to tell me about Bobby Brance Edwards, her first husband and father of her three children. Edwards, 32, was killed at 10:15 a.m. Christmas Eve,1968, when the helicopter he was flying in was shot down near Tuyen Duc. Elder was 29, her kids were 11, 8 and 4. Elder didn't learn of her husband's death until Dec. 27. It was her father-in-law, not soldiers, who delivered the grim word.
"My husband's picture was on the TV in northern California as killed-in-action before anyone had been notified. A relative of my mother-in-law saw it and called her about it," Elder said. The Army chaplain showed up on her doorstep shortly thereafter.
"The children were in the room when the chaplain said, 'The body is ready for shipment. Where do you want it sent?' That was my official notification from the Army!" Elder recalled.
People used to ask the young widow how her husband died. But whenever she told them he died in Vietnam, they would change the topic, quickly. So she learned not to talk about Vietnam or her husband's sacrifice.
"The hardest thing for me was the way people disregarded his death. All the hymns are sung to World War II veterans. But Vietnam embarrassed our nation. So everyone connected to it gets short-shrifted. I don't feel that my husband's sacrifice has ever been appreciated, although, he gave the best he had, he gave his all," Elder said.
Although she eventually remarried and happily so, Elder said for many years the holiday season was difficult.
"It took 16 years before I could enjoy Christmas again," she said. Her comments reminded me that for many people, Elder and me included, the season can herald sad tidings. I told her that my dad got his marching orders during the holiday season of 1965. The year Christmas came early, I've always said. "President Johnson has called me to Vietnam," he told me and Brother John, 11. Sister Tater, 5, deemed too little to understand, was soundly asleep. I took the news like any nine-year-old would -- I cried. December 19 was Dad's departure date. "How can we have Christmas without you?" I wailed. "It's OK," he said. "Santa will find us. We'll have Christmas early this year."
So we did.
There were no brick chimneys in our Oahu neighborhood. I pulled the covers over my head and scrunched my eyes shut as I heard him pounding at the front door, calling out, "Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!" I couldn't imagine how Santa knew to make that special trip just for us.
Mom got a mothers ring, with all our birthstones gleaming like a jeweled crown. The kind of crown King Jesus wears. And I got a doll, with hair of spun gold, just like me. A magical doll, I could make her ponytail grow by pressing her tummy. I gave Daddy some cologne, something he'd surely need in the jungles of Pleiku. He left early the next morning, but first he crept into our room and woke Sister Tater and me for lots of good-bye kisses and hugs.
When Christmas Day finally rolled around us kids were sad. It seemed odd for our daddy to be gone. Loss is one emotion I've never grown accustomed to, even though it's been 36 years since my father was killed in South Vietnam. A few years back, during another Christmas season, a neighbor absent-mindly inquired how my dad was doing. I think what she meant to ask was how my husband was. We were both in a hurry, so I just smiled and said,"Fine, thanks," and went about my merry way. Then, as I drove down Main street, I passed a doll in a storefront window. The doll had hair of spun-gold, like mine used to be. Like it was in 1965, the year Christmas came early. Turning to my own daughter, I said, "That's the first time in my life anyone has ever asked me how my dad is doing."
How odd, I thought, as the tears of a young girl pretending to be brave surfaced once more. Sorrow, it seems, is an endless well. Sooner or later we all draw from it. So it's important to remember that for many the Season of Joy can stir bittersweet memories.
"Christmas is not always what it seems -- all glitter and glitz and Ho! Ho! Ho!" Elder said.
That's why for many, Elder and me included, the very best gifts are simply warm embraces and nods of understanding.
Dear Anti-War Protesters:
I doubt you saw me standing on the curb near Pioneer Square as you marched by, angrily shouting profanities at President Bush on Saturday.
"One, two, three four! We don't want your f---g War!" you screamed. And I doubt you heard the mustached fellow who cried out, "Pleeease, there are children present."
One of those children was my own daughter, Shelby.
You wouldn't have noticed her either.
That's because Shelby isn't like you. She never does anything to draw attention to herself. The wildest thing she's ever worn is the pink and orange tie-dye shirt she and her cross-country teammates at Eastern Oregon University designed. She would never march down the middle of a street chanting profanities at the top of her lungs, no matter how angry she might be.
Fact is, although she's 20, Shelby doesn't curse at all. So she was confused by your actions.
"What's wrong with these people?" she said. "Do they honestly think they can change anything this way?"
Tears streamed down her face as your ugly rally cry grew louder.
"I don't know," I replied, not bothering to wipe away the tears that warmed my own cheeks. "I've never seen a protest up close and personal like this." I didn't like it one bit. And it's not because I voted for Bush, although I did.
"Thing is, I don't think we ought to be attacking Iraq either," I said. "But this is what democracy is all about, honey. These people couldn't protest like this in Iraq."
Truth is, I'm glad we live in a country where people can march down the middle of downtown Portland, Atlanta or Cincinnati, shouting whatever they like.
Still, watching you all stomp and shout angered me.
I wanted to jump up and do a bit of yelling myself. I wanted to ask what gave you the right to curse a president. I wanted to know what gave you the right to mockingly shake your signs and flash peace signs at us. I wanted to know how many of you have ever read a book about Vietnam, any book.
I wondered if any of you had ever lingered over a cup of Earl Grey on a dreary morning and tried to grasp the wisdom of author Tim O' Brien in his book, The Things They Carried:
Or the words of Lance Geoghegan's mother in Hal Moore's book, We Were Soldiers Once... and Young. Geoghegan was killed Nov. 15, 1965, in the Battle of the Ia Drang:
Had I stepped off that curb, I would have asked: "Do you know what it means to stand beside the coffin of such a man?"
Because I do. My own father was killed near Pleiku in July, 1966.
Then, only 9, I was too young to understand the magnitude of war or my father's death.
Now 45, I understand it all too well.
Shelby understands it, too. That's why she reached out and grasped my hand as you marched on, caught up in the power of your protest, unaware of our tears.
I didn't step down from the curb to ask you what gave you the right to act so ugly in public because I already knew that answer. You have that right because of the blood of my father and that of thousands of other veterans - both alive and dead.
Still, I wish you'd consider the wisdom of Tim O'Brien the next time you feel like publicly cursing the president simply because you disagree with him.
Words make a difference.
If it's world peace you truly you want, perhaps you ought to start by deleting all the violent words from your own vocabulary.
Words make a difference.
Choose them wisely. Then, people will gladly line the streets to hear you.
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