When I was seven years old, my brother left home for Vietnam. Before he left, our mom made sure the requisite photo marking the occasion was taken. In the photo: a young girl who lacked the faintest clue what ‘going to Vietnam’ actually meant; our maternal grandmother, long gray hair in her requisite bun; my older sister, awkward as only junior-highers can be; and the soldier in dress uniform. There we were, squinting into the early summer sun, bracing against the inevitable North Dakota wind that loosed Grandma’s bun, tousled my sister’s already unruly hair, and disrespected my brother’s formal attire – his tunic flapped up in a lasting image of the hopeless disarray of that faraway ‘armed conflict.’
Other photographs chronicle the time. Farm cats, combines in wheat fields, school pictures of a gap-toothed second grader. Photos from across the world featured my smiling brother donned in fatigues – the clothing aptly naming the soldiers’ existence. Unlike the clean-shaven, buttoned up, all-American young man of that earlier picture, the soldier in those Vietnam snapshots boasted rolled up sleeves and open collars, a boots-on-the-ground bravado in the cigarette dangling either from half-smiling lips or from fingers all too used to gripping the hand guard of an M16. He always wore ‘round his neck a tarnished but serviceable chain bearing movie-ticket sized emblems of ‘name, rank and serial number.’ Eventually, photos of two soldiers were included in letters home – my brother, and a beautiful German Shepherd named Poncho. Dog tags identified the man. The dog saved that man’s life.
While my little girl eyes scanned the evening news for images of my soldier brother, my parents listened to Dan Rather’s reports and gleaned what little they might from Walter Cronkite’s assertions of ‘that’s the way it is,’ as he signed off each night. The war dragged on.
Photos trickled in. A thin, haggard brother’s eyes squinted in the sun. No pictures, though, of the tangled jungle. We didn’t see the deserted villages. We didn’t hear the crack of gunfire or the whir of helicopters flying low enough that shooters could hit running figures on the ground. We didn’t smell napalm, or the rotting flesh of soldiers the Viet Cong left behind.
Then, word that Poncho had died.
Word of a little R&R.
Word that my brother was coming home.
He came home to the farm for a visit, but took up residence in Wyoming. A black & white photo of the man he’d become made its way into the family collection. Gone, the clean-shaven and close-cropped soldier. In his place, a man with glassy eyes and a familiar smile – my brother, stoned out of his mind. Running from the pictures in his head.
Pictures of a raven-haired little girl walking down a dirt road. When she saw the American soldiers, she lifted up her little pink dress, revealing the explosives secured around her little body. Her life for theirs.
Pictures of bullets, sizzling through the air as my brother, with the forward-most position, ‘walked point’ with his Poncho.
Pictures of that dog, leaping up, taking a bullet meant for my brother.
Pictures of carrying that dog for miles, refusing to leave him behind.
Pictures of the fallen. Friends and “enemies.”
Pictures of North Dakota wheat fields and Christmas dinners and family gathered around the table while Walter Cronkite told us ‘the way it was’— protesters greeting soldiers on tarmacs with spit and raised fists – calling them ‘baby killers’ and hating them for the ‘service to their country’… Pictures of following orders and wrestling with the futility of a war they wouldn’t win, and an honorable discharge they struggled to believe in.
The rest of our family carried our own pictures.
Disagreements and fights. Broken dreams and hearts. Kids caught in the marital crossfire as his marriage crumbled and the attempt to take over the family farm disintegrated before his eyes. Unable to do it the way our dad wanted it done, and our dad unable to let him have his own way, our brother and son walked away. Visits home featured versions of the upheaval that had trailed him for years.
A drunken son and brother, seated at our parents’ dining room table – a full plate of Mom’s good food in front of him. A beer in one hand. A lit cigarette and a fork in the other. He’d come ‘late’ for a family meal and thus ate alone while the rest of us milled about – clearing dishes and storing leftovers and listening to our brother and son, talking to someone, but not any one of us. I sat and watched him for a moment. As a college girl, I was certain I knew what was ‘up,’ whatever that might mean, and figured I could impose my superior understandings upon my brother. I realized that only his body sat at Mom’s table. His mind was watching a war scene. I backed away from the table, wholly unable to reach him. Afraid of what he might do if I did.
At an ‘all school’ reunion about a decade later, I stood on the lawn in front of our parents’ house in town, talking to my other brother – the one who joined the Navy and got no closer to Vietnam than Okinawa. It was then that I learned that our Army brother took a second tour in ‘Nam so that his Navy brother wouldn’t have to go.
It was then that I learned about ‘walking point’ with a dog that saved our brother’s life, and the sorrow and horror of carrying that dog for seven miles back to base camp. No one left behind.
It was then I learned of our Vietnam Vet’s tortured imaginings. A late night trip into the kitchen. His long-time girlfriend noticed he was gone from their bed and heard something. She got up to find him. He was on his knees on their kitchen floor, slicing the linoleum to ribbons, digging for land mines.
An image so lonely and broken, to picture it breaks your heart.
I read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried when I was teaching high school seniors about ten years ago. Of the soldiers in Vietnam, he notes, “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”
O’Brien’s war story added details – filled in the blanks, gave me a photograph in words – helping me see that my brother, too, carries a burdensome, powerful weight – the aftermath of war. O’Brien’s narrator tells a version of my brother’s own story, saying, “I survived, but it’s not a happy ending.”
Veterans Day honors those who served in America’s armed forces, including those who came home from war. Remember that they’re carrying heavy burdens. If we can, let us help them shoulder the load.