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The Story Behind the Photo

Many of you have asked what the story behind the photo was/is. My answer is smoke. One of my sisters who was there, said she saw a hero getting off the train, in uniform, the stripes, the patch on the shoulder, the medals. What they don't see is the disillusion, the loss of innocence. When I look at the photo now, I don't see me, this was never me. It is all just smoke as if one good gust of wind could blow it all away. And yet, despite not remembering this day exactly this way, hence the smoke, I do remember that I was there.

The other people in the photo are my parents in the foreground, my grandmother to my right, and I am not sure who the younger man is. What must he have thought of the wispy me? What was I thinking? Perhaps something like: "No matter what you do, don't do this."

In my senior year in high school, we had "college day," or something like that, where my parents and I met with my guidance counselor (whom I had never before talked to) Mr. Lundeen, known to all students as Porky. The conversation went something like this:

Porky: "So Mike, what do you want to do with your next several years?"

Wispy me: "I want to go to the University of Illinois and study architecture."

Porky: "Oh, I don't think that will work, your grades aren't good enough."

My parents (in unison): "Yes, I think that is right."

Or something like that, though the result was the same, despite my shock (at the lack of support) and disappointment that at least one of my parents couldn"t say "I think he can do it," or "You can do anything you want to do if you believe in yourself and work at it." But no. I ended up at Western Illinois University studying accounting with a minuscule hope of becoming a golf pro-not the playing kind but a club pro. As you can imagine, I made it less that two semesters, was in the army six months later, and a little over a year later in Viet Nam.

The first eight months or so in country, were uneventful despite the occasional mortar attack. I was fairly fortunate in that I was a radio teletype operator, and mainly kept secure at landing zones. Then the Tet Offensive occurred. Then everything changed. Overall, it could be said that, from a military perspective, Tet was a failure (politically it was another story as it led to great dissatisfaction with the war, and ultimately the US retreat), except for Hue.

On the first night of Tet, Hue was overrun by North Vietnamese Army, and the Viet Cong-as many as 10,000 at one point. The Viet Cong flag hung from the Citadel (19th century fortress) over the city for days. The small garrison of marines there was completely surrounded, with no way in or out. Now, the tragedy was that neither President Johnson, or General Westmoreland could bring themselves to believe this was happening, or, in fact, that North Viet Nam was even capable of such an attack. The hubris of their beliefs cost the lives of several thousand citizens of Hue, several hundred Americans, and virtually, in the end, the total destruction of the city, which, by the way, was a beautiful university town heretofore untouched by the war.

Several batallions of my division (the First Air Cavalry) were sent to Camp Evans, northwest of Hue, and about four hundred men ordered to march through rice paddies without the usual chopper support that the air cav was known for, without ample gasoline, or artillery none of which had arrived from the rear yet; with the goal of liberating Hue. They marched right into a village with two thousand Viet Cong, were pinned down, and surrounded for a period of 24 hours during which they lost half of their men. By this time I had arrived at Camp Evans, and spent my first night doing casualty reports. The good fortune for the survivors was that it was drizzly and foggy, so much so, that, at night, they were able to walk through enemy lines to the safety of a hill several miles away (a miracle?). They would not, however, be freeing Hue. Surprisingly, they were then ordered to march back to that same village and join in an attack along with more air cav units, this despite Gen. Tolson (air cav commander) not believing that there were that many VC there. Now, you can see that this young man-the wispy me, did not have the kind of PTSD that one of the grunts who spent a horrific 24 hours pinned down in that village being vaporized by mortar attacks might have. Imagine the march through enemy lines with weapons, and all your gear where you don't dare make a sound. All I had to do was transmit those KIA (killed in action) reports, knowing that each would result in a knock on some poor families door. I have said that I was fortunate-my PTSD is mild, and yet all veterans share in the PTSD of those traumatized by the horror of war.

So, have another look at that soldier. Sure, he looks good, even handsome some would say, like a hero returning. Cue the marching bands, and waving of flags. But there was none of that, just some of my family. And yes, I was glad to see them. But the me who went over there was not this me who returned. In fact, I was more that disillusioned, I was jaded, and I continued that way for many years. I suppose that I could say that I am still skeptical of the meaning of the lives that we lead, the beliefs, particularly political, that we embrace. I have watched two people die, looking right in their eyes, and compared to that all this claptrap that we call our daily lives is just smoke, and yes, mirrors. All (ALL) things are impermanent. We all die, and until we realize this, invest true meaning into our lives, will we begin to live them.

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