Dear Lonnie, Tworek and First,
I don't know why I find myself standing here. It's not as if I started out with the goal of being here when I left this morning. I got up earlier than usual to take a drive, no place in particular, but the whole time I was driving I felt compelled to be here at this very spot. I've been meaning to visit for years.
Your names appeared so quickly and clearly. The others are blurry and not so defined. I can't believe how easily I've found you. And now, finally seeing your names up there . . . well, I can't believe how overwhelmed I am by so many feelings. So
many years have gone by; February 8, 1971 seems like only yesterday. I feel as scared and tired and fragile as I did then. I'm still out of breath. I think it's a shame that the three of you aren't together up there. I don't like the other names placed between yours.
Do you remember the first
time I came out to join the 1st Platoon in the bush by Mai Loc? I was never so scared in my life. I had just turned 20 a couple weeks earlier and I was still a peace loving, naive, green draftee. We carried so much gear; I could barely stand underneath it. My legs were so shaky and weak I couldn't get to my feet after I was shoved out of that helicopter. I feel that way now. Lonnie, thanks for the smile, and for picking me up out of the bushes and holding me steady and restoring some of my dignity. Thanks for a whole lot of things that I never got to thank you for, especially for a lot of the knowledge and experience I needed to survive and get out of that place. I've wrestled with the fact that I was supposed to be at the point that morning, but I know you wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
Tworek, I hope you know how glad I was to have you by me on those first ambushes. Lying in that rain and mud at night was a whole lot warmer next to you and somehow not as scary. You were so patient about getting me to learn to sleep without snoring. I didn't get any sleep for days, but you managed to keep my head clear and focused when it began to get to me. You were so laid back about it; just nudging me without freaking out. Wish we could have gotten to you sooner. I wish I'd reacted faster and been there for you. You had such a brutal trip down that trail later. I know you wouldn't have complained
though. It wasn't your turn, you didn't have to be up there with us.
Mike First, I never realized that you were almost as new to Vietnam as I was. No one wanted to be up there. I have always admired you for that. I remember how hard I searched inside me for that courage. You seemed in good shape when we strapped you in the jungle penetrator. You gave us such a reassuring look. You had it made and you were going back to the world. Next thing, the chopper pilot was on the horn chewing on our cases for not sending you up before everyone else. It came as such a shock.
Lonnie, I'm sorry you had to spend the night up there. We tried all afternoon to get to you, but the contact was too heavy. We got the area marked for air strikes and had stuff falling all around us. Chief took some shrap from the bombing, but wasn't injured too bad. Just before dark JJ, Chief and I went back up to look for you. It was too dark to see anything by the time we had climbed back up there. You weren't where we saw you fall. The whole landscape was changed by the bombing. I kept tripping over packs and gear and who knows what else. We finally had to get off the hill before the artillery fire
missions started again. We stumbled down it the entire way and ended up downstream from where we were supposed to rendezvous with 3rd platoon that was moved in to reinforce us. It was so dark we couldn't see our own hands in front of us. We tumbled into that stream to sit on our butts while we caught our breaths. I don't know why or how, but we started laughing hysterically. We sat there till my laughing turned to crying before we continued our way up the stream to the old bunkers where you and I picked up the mechanical ambushes that morning where JJ had the rest of the platoon catch up to you and I. We ended up walking right into an ambush our reinforcements had set up. JJ, Chief and I were caught in the middle of the stream. Lead was cracking and zinging and hissing around us like a hive of mad hornets. It made my ears feel as if fire was bursting deep inside them. The neon red lines of the tracer rounds were cracking by my face and streaking between my legs and under my nose and arms and hands. I could see JJ's black form outlined between them when I tripped. It took forever for my face to hit the water, and when it did I just stayed there, face down. I wasn't sure if I was still alive and really elated that I was feeling no pain. I wanted to die; to be out of there; I couldn't take another second of it. Then I felt my body lifting out of the water. I was sure I was dying and I remember I was in a hurry to find you. I was so glad it was dark and that I couldn't feel anything. Then I realized there were hands searching all over me and finally I could hear voices whispering and asking if I'd been hit. It was so dark I couldn't see a thing. Nobody could. I didn't know for sure myself,
and as it turned out, I wasn't. We spent the rest of the night calling mortars and artillery down on that hill top. I didn't like it all coming down on top of you, just in case Lonnie. You and I knew when we policed up the mechanical ambushes hours earlier there were people up there, that things weren't right. It was the only time I ever got mad at you. Nothing felt right that morning. Everything was a little out of sync somehow.
A couple of nights later we dropped at dark on the blood trail we were following to rest for the night. I don't remember the guy's name, but he decided to get a free ride back to the world by shooting his foot off. Others were ready to shoot him too, but we got a chopper in at first light and he was history. We were all mad at him for exposing our position, and we ended up humping hard for a couple of days trying to get ahead of the blood trail we were tracking and get it all over with so we could get out of there, but I know how he felt. We were under constant rocket attacks as we moved through the day and exhausted from running out from under air strikes and the B-52 strikes. It was getting more scary each minute, and we knew by all the activity around us that we were only bait.
A few months later JJ, Randy, Lang, Tittzel, Smitty and I were the only ones of the thirty or so who started that mission with the 1st Platoon to come back out of Laos. Those reporters we left at the border were killed a few days after we were hit. We were supposed to be inserted at their crash site (those infamous "Sparrow Hawk" and "Bald Eagle" missions), but our chopper was taking so much ground fire we couldn't get closer than 200 meters to the treetops. We aborted the insertion and the chopper had to be set down halfway back to the Khe Sanh for damage assessments and minor repairs before we continued on. We were dropped off at Ham Nghi in the dark to spend the night with the ARVN's there.
You know, after being out on a ninety day mission like that I expected a formation, a flag, a parade, a band or some kind of ceremony when we got back to Quang Tri. We were the last unit to make it in and we missed all the ceremonies by a week
or more. Four months later the 1st Battalion, 11th Infantry was standing down with the 5th Mechanized Division and taking our colors home. I was headed to the One-Oh-Worst at Camp Evans in Thua Thien Province to finish out my remaining months walking point around the A-Shau.
Lang and Randy nearly bought it in the Ba Long a few weeks before the 1/11 went back to the world. We were setting in for the night on a wide open hill top when things just started exploding. Booby-traps were going off everywhere. Larry's legs
were blown out from underneath him right where we were both side by side clearing a fire-zone. He took it all and I went flying five meters through the air without a scratch. At the same time, uphill behind us things were starting to explode everywhere and Randy, who was giving Lang and I cover after the first explosion, took a piece of shrapnel in his throat that
went down into one of his lungs. I carried Larry up the hill on my shoulders after we finally got a medevac down. The windows had all been blown out of it by the time I set Larry on the chopper deck. That's when Randy jumped over me and sat back leaning against the copilot's seat holding his throat. I didn't have a chance to say anything to him. Randy had taken your death real hard. That, and getting the news on February 12, four days after you died, that Lieutenant Gary Larson had just died of wounds in Japan that he received Christmas day in the Mai Loc AO. It had changed him. It changed
all of us. Everything that ever was between us all was all right there in his eyes in that instant when he looked up at me. I had the feeling then that everything would be okay. It's what I needed to walk the rest of us out of there in the dark. Then he was gone; back to the world. Every time that medevac tried to drop in the world just started exploding.
Lonnie, I finally was contacted by your brother Larry a couple years ago. His health was failing and he found himself going to the cemetery and wondering if you'd really been sent back home. He wanted some answers. Your family didn't seem to know
too much about how you died. The Western Union Telegram the Army sent them was quite confusing:
Since I've talked to Larry last I've found and contacted our friend Chief (Matthew Jones), and together we've remembered many more things that I'd forgotten that happened up there that I've yet to tell Larry. It was Chief with his wounds from the bombing the day before that accompanied you back to Quang Tri on the 9th.
Tworek, some 29 years later I received a picture of you in my e-mail when you were only an E-4 in the 1st Armored Division. It was followed by a recent picture of your daughter who was six years old when you died. With her is your grandson who was
about your daughters age back then. The emotions I felt were overwhelming. I also heard from your brother. Things that happened back then that seemed like only rumors among us there at the Laotian border became reality as he shared his story of what your family had to go through hoping to find a reason for what happened to you. They ended up destroying a lot of anything they already knew about you so that your survivors would have some benefit for your sacrifice. I've recently learned there was a rumor back in Battalion there at the Khe Sanh that no medals were awarded to anyone in the 1st Platoon that day in order not to draw attention to us and our mission.
Mike, more than twenty years after all this I heard from your sister, Jane. After all those years of not knowing or not even having anyone to ask, she and the rest of your family, all those brothers and sisters of yours, got to. I felt terrible that no one had ever told them anything. They had no idea of where you really were, what your MOS was, what you were thinking, doing, or how you left us all. At least now your families know what was going on back then and maybe the emptiness they've felt all these years is finally giving them some peace. I hope I've done you justice and filled that void in them with a vivid and honorable memory of who you were, what you were doing and how you gave your lives.
I see the reflection of people in the black, shiny wall behind your names. Sometimes I hear them asking each other what it was all about, what does it mean, why, how, who? Someone made the remark, "I would have known better than to go over to Viet Nam and die for nothing." Through the years I've heard that one a lot. I feel so lonely outside the wall and their reflections. I wish I could tell him about us. I wish they knew, but at the same time I'm glad they don't. I hope none of them will ever have to. None of us wanted to go. Many of us didn't have a choice. Big kids gave their lives at the very end for themselves and each other. That was all there was we could do. We did it many times, over and over and over. We weren't anything less than anyone else or anything more. Fate chose our role for us and no matter what it required, even when
it was beyond human and any human capabilities, and we were dying and lost, and there were no answers or reasons or God or hope, and even later when we found ourselves alone in those nightmares, we lived it all by its rules and we rode it out no matter how horrible and terrifying it got. Just names etched in black rock to many I suppose, but to many of us the names on
that wall are memories of the most profound and overwhelming years of our lives. They are the memories of your voices, faces, your dreams and fears. They are the stories that were your lives that you shared in those moments while we sat in those bunkers at the end of the Khe Sanh air strip with those rockets coming down on us, or when we sat through countless afternoons waiting for darkness to come before we set out on those ambushes. Some of us found ourselves destroyed physically, some of us mentally, some of us died instantly and some of us over a period of years. For the living and the dead that youth in us was ripped or blown right of our souls. All bear the scars. We have all been as right as we have been wrong, as much a part of life as we have denied. We have experienced the full timbre and extreme boundaries of our own and each others emotions, strengths and weaknesses. I wish Lonnie, Tworek and First, you were here now to remember and to feel
with us the depth and the breadth of our mortal souls.
Keith B. Short