Growing up, Memorial Day was a special day in my family. As the children and grandchildren of Italian immigrants, we felt strongly and emotionally about America. Although I remember that it was filled with family get-togethers, barbecues, and watching the NY Yankee Doubleheader on a TV brought outside, we always took time to remember the soldiers who gave their lives serving our country. Many of the men in my family served in the military in some capacity during their youth. No one that I know of saw actual combat.
It was a childhood dream to be a soldier. I’d grown up on the war movies that Hollywood churned out in the 1950s and 1960s. For as long as I can remember, I was a patriot. My childhood hero was Captain America. God, country and the red, white, and blue was ingrained in me. I grew up during the Vietnam War. I only knew what I saw on television and had no clue what was really going on over there. I remember the beginning of the anti-war sentiment in our country. I was one of the few in my high school class who believed in “America, love it or leave it.” My verbal battles with other classmates over the topic would get heated. It earned me the nickname Captain America and I wore it proudly. Little did I know that the America I loved and the real, behind-the-scenes government were two different things. That would come later in my life.
When they started the draft for the Vietnam War, it wasn’t something I was concerned about. I wouldn’t be 18 in time to be drafted. This conflict with poor, backward Vietnam wasn’t supposed to go on long. We would go in, mop them up and send the boys home as the movies showed. But it did drag on. We were fighting a people for their country in a war zone we did not understand nor belonged in. It’s one thing to fight for an ideal. The North Vietnamese were fighting for themselves, for their homes and land. This wasn’t Hollywood, and the forces behind the scenes were fighting a different War than what we were told. This was America vs the Soviet Union. Three million lives were lost, including 58,000 Americans, only to have President Nixon order a withdrawal just as the North Vietnamese were getting ready to quit. This wasn’t a Hollywood movie. This was jarringly real life.
A friend of my cousin Bobby got drafted and sent to Vietnam. His name was Monty. Monty was one of the cool guys. All the girls loved him. He was someone I admired and trusted. About a year or two after he was shipped off to Vietnam, I bumped into him at the park we gathered to play basketball every day until the sun went down. And then we would sit on the park benches until it was time to go home. Frank Gorman Park in Jackson Heights was blocks from my home, and I practically lived there in the summer. I had gotten to the park before everyone else and looked for a bench in the shade to wait when I saw Monty shuffling by. I almost didn’t recognize him. He was gaunt, and his clothes hung on him. The good looks were gone, and the face the girls loved was sunken and sad. I called out his name. He looked at me blankly until I reminded him that I was Bobby’s cousin. He hadn’t seen me in a while, and we both had changed a lot since then. It felt good when he remembered me.
Monty strolled over to my bench and sat with me. He asked if I had a cigarette, and I told him that I didn’t smoke. He said, “Good! Don’t start!!” And then he said something I didn’t expect. He said, “And don’t let them send you to Vietnam either!” When I asked him why he told me his story of being drafted and immediately being shipped off to Vietnam. By the tail end of the Vietnam war, we were sending our boys over there in droves as quickly as possible. Young men have always been cannon fodder in war, and this one was no different. He told me about the harsh conditions, the drugs that flowed to keep soldiers from losing their minds, and the unending fighting with an adversary they were ill-equipped to engage. I sat and listened to a story that I’ve now seen told by others as well. He told me that if it looked like I would get drafted into the Army to go and join the Marines because at least they will teach you how to fight. When I asked about how thin he was, he simply said that another thing he brought back from Vietnam was heroin addiction. This shocked me because when the needle was being passed among my cousin and his friends in the 1960’s Monty abstained. He never gave in to the peer pressure to shoot up. This turn of events has always saddened me because almost all of my cousin’s friends succumbed to the needle and are gone. Some overdosed, and some died the slow death of a junkie to have AIDS claim them in the 1980s. Shared needles led to shared addictions and death.
Monty must have been tired from telling his story or just needed to crash somewhere because he had fallen asleep right in the middle of our chat. I gently laid him down on the bench and took the jacket wrapped around his waist to cover him up. By that time, my friends were rolling into the park, and the basketball was bouncing. I ran off to join them, and full court basketball began. After the first game, I looked over to see how Monty was doing, but he was gone. I never saw Monty again. I have no idea if he turned his life around or not. I don’t remember his last name, or I would use social media to find out what happened to him. Needless to say, that my encounter with Monty began the crack in my view of the war and America. It would take decades later that the harsh reality of powerful men profiting off of the pain of war and sending young men to clean their messes would come to light. I’ve learned that not all have the dim view and bad experience that Monty had, but many did. Books have been written about it. My feelings about Vietnam culminated when the last draft was broadcast on television. We were sitting around the television as they broadcast the selection of birthdates for the next draft. The first birthday that came up was mine. Even though I knew that I was a year away from being draft-eligible it hit me in the gut. I looked over at my mother and she was pale. I broke the tension in the room but saying, “For once I am glad that I am NOT 18!” The draft ended not too long after that and the Vietnam was did as well. Unfortunately, my desire to be in the military did not.
In the summer of 1975, I remember a few of my friends being on the kick to join the Navy. While being in the Navy wasn’t a dream of mine, I went with them to speak to the recruiter anyway. I explained to him my desire to be a Marine, and he said he could give my application over to his friend who was a recruiter for the Marines with his recommendation if I wanted. I didn’t know if he meant that or not or would try to convince me to sign with him. But I said yes, and we began the interview. It wasn’t long into the interview that it was revealed that I was nearsighted, my glasses gave that way, suffered from hearing loss and severe allergies. He said that my physical condition and interview with him and his recommendation would probably get me into the service, but I would be stuck behind a desk or in a warehouse somewhere due to my health issues.
Knowing what I know now, I shouldn’t have let that bother me, but at that point, I wanted more than that. Sitting behind a desk or in a warehouse wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted action and to fight. He told me to sleep on it, discuss it with my parents and then come back. Even though I was of the age to choose for myself, he wanted to make sure my family agreed. I’ve always wondered if that was him or the Lord inspiring him to say that. That night I told my mother what I had done and found out quickly that she disagreed. She vehemently disagreed. Being the good Italian boy, upsetting my mother was not something I would or could do. When I told my friends that I wasn’t signing up, they didn’t either. It turned out that no one’s family took the news well. Had we gone together, we may have defied our families, but once I said no, the entire plan fell apart.
Life took over after that. The opportunity and desire to be in the military faded away. Looking back now I realize that I would have done well in the military and the camaraderie I see among the military was something I would have enjoyed. I am envious of it when I see it. However, the Lord had a different plan for my life, and going off to even for just a few years in the military would have short-circuited those plans. Having friends and associates who did make the military a career, I have lived it vicariously through them. So, every Memorial Day, I think of what might have been and of those who did serve that didn’t make it home. I think of the many soldiers like Monty who did come back but died a slow death from their experience. I think of the number of broken men and women who came back from the Middle East never to be the same again. In a way, they did lose their life on the battlefield even though their hearts kept beating. I’ve looked into the eyes of young twentysomething men who left a part of the heart and soul in the dust and sand of Iraq or Afghanistan or the jungles of Vietnam. But for the grace of God, that could have been me.
I also think of the politicians and hidden figures who create monsters and then send Americans to kill or capture them. These men create the Noriega’s, Hussein’s and Bin Laden’s of the world and then send Americans to clean up their mess. When you do the research and find out the truth, your eyes cannot help but to be opened. War is about profit and power. Their profit and their power. I think of them on Memorial Day and pray that when they stand before Almighty God, He shows them every life lost or ruined by their evil actions. I pray that He holds them accountable for their actions because I know that this world never will.
We should hold no malice or anger toward those who did what they thought was right for America by serving in the Armed Forces. Politics and patriotism can be mutually exclusive if we allow it. Many did so without knowing the truth. Under different circumstances, I would have been one of them. They did what was right, and many would do it again. I will not revile or attack them for being used and abused. I will see their service and sacrifice and honor them. No, there is no need to pile on to their pain or the pain of their families. We should take better care of the ones that made it back, and unfortunately, we do not. I’ve heard a number say that they wished that they had died on the battlefield. I honor the ones today who gave their all and fly my American flag proudly for them and for the America that we can be. I wish that I could tell them “Thank You” like I do when I see veterans in airports or supermarkets. I wish I could acknowledge them as I do the Viet Nam veterans when I cross their paths. So, I do that today and every day that they come to mind. You should too.
Richard J Grund