There are two pictures of Tom Hill in my photo album. In one, he is standing next to a hooch at the Americal Division Combat Center. Like the rest of the new guys, his fatigues had not yet been faded by the Vietnam sun. Thin, with sleeves rolled up, his boots still possessing their original lustre; he was holding something in his hand. Perhaps it was a letter he was going to mail home.
Tom Hill was typical of friends one makes in the military. Like passengers in a timeless boat - forced by circumstances to share smokes, stories and thoughts of home - we discovered that we were alot alike.
After the orientation classes and work details were finished each day, Hill and I walked the short distance up the beach to a little EM club. It being January, the weather was bad and the surf was noisy and rough. Bits of blowing sand stung our eyes and faces as we walked along, our feet not making a sound as we shuffled through the sand.
At the club, a reel to reel tape recorder playing B.B. King stood by itself on a small stage.
Hill and I ate steaks (good ones, too) and talked and drank - never mentioning the ordeal that lay ahead.
My last night at the combat center, I had guard duty on the beach. I stood in a tower with mist blowing in from the South China Sea. I imagined what it would be like. Combat. I thought of all that was going on at that moment, and all that had gone on before. I thought of those who didn't make it home. 350 days, more or less, and I would be leaving this place. I remembered the first time I had ever prayed. It was after AIT.
A ship was anchored off shore. It was almost a cheerful sight - all lit up like a birthday cake - bright lights shining through the mist.
I said good-bye to Hill the next day. I doubt that I ever thought of him - even once - during the next months.
Just recently I have heard Vietnam veterans discussing the stars in the heavens. After many years these men still know the pain of war. These were men who had been too busy being soldiers. There wasn't time to ponder the mysteries of life. Men bent on surviving. Is it any wonder that they couldn't recall ever seeing stars above Vietnam?
I remember stars one night, several months into my tour, as I sat on the beach drinking beer and passing joints with my friends. We could have been "back in the world" except that we laughed the type of laugh that belongs only to those who know the futility of war.
A gentle breeze blew. It was a fragrant breeze. How could this land be so torn by war?
I looked out to sea at the twinkling lights of the Vietnamese fishing boats. It was difficult to discern the lights of the distant boats from the thousand stars that lit the dark horizon. Waves that played on the curvature of the earth, made the boat lanterns blink frequently. I tried to imagine being out there with the fishermen. What an experience it would have been to see them cast their nets in the tradition of their ancestors. Determination was passed down through each generation.
The other picture of Tom Hill was taken at the Chu Lai airfield. Doesn't it make sense that if two people arrived in country together, they would be leaving together? I was overjoyed to see him. We were going home! We posed together.
Many years later, I still study the pictures of Tom Hill. The first depicted a man as green as grass. The second picture is of my friend in camouflage. Handsome and tanned, wearing wire rimmed glasses - the recipient of the Silver Star.
We were going home. We had made it. It was beyond comprehension.
There was more to it, though. There was more to it than I realized at that particular time.
As each year passes, I understand better that there is something that I will never be able to reconcile within my soul. Tom Hill knows - even though he and I never mentioned it. Those who can't recall the stars, or the song birds, or the brief moments of peace and reflection in Vietnam, they know it also.
To fallen comrades.
Copyright © 1996 Tom Dier All Rights Reserved