A man overboard! What matters it! the ship does not stop. The wind is blowing, that dark ship must keep on her destined course...
(The man) hurls cries of despair into the depths. What a specter is
that disappearing sail! It moves away; it grows dim; it diminishes.
He was there but just now, he was one of the crew, he went and came
upon the deck with the rest, he had his share of the air and of the
sunlight, he was a living man. Now, what has become of him?
- Victor Hugo from Les Miserables
Not long after he had been transferred from our company to Alpha Company, Lieutenant McCullough had been wounded. A bullet had pierced his spinal cord.
I waited outside the room, my uneasiness heightened by the Lieutenant's groans.
A few times before, I had come to visit wounded comrades in this hospital. Besides those I came to visit, there were others who lay wounded - our nation's best young men - tormented by the unspeakable. As I left the hospital on those occasions, after witnessing the awful suffering of those who know the cost of war, I felt that I had escaped hell.
I was allowed a few minutes with the Lieutenant. It was distressing to see this large man lying on his stomach - his blonde head facing to the side. I can't recall whether he had already undergone surgery - whether this room was the recovery room. I can't recall if he wore his fatigues or a hospital gown. What I remember best is that I was at a complete loss for any meaningful words.
"Sir," I said, "It's Sergeant Dier."
"Hi, Sergeant Dier," he answered.
What does one say to another who has not yet measured or fully realized the extent of a terrible wound? What kind of words is one able to bring to a man to lift him - even a fraction - from despair?
On two other occasions I had known men who, I was told, had lost their "will" to live. They had died when their prognoses were, in actuality, satisfactory. What does one say to lift someone from the depths? What does one say to a man who has just found out he is paralyzed from the waist down? What can be said?
What could I possibly say to the 23 year old Lieutenant who lay there?
"How are you, L.T.?"
"Not too good, Sergeant Dier."
That is all I recall of my last visit with Lt McCullough.
Not a day has gone by that I don't remember him.
Lt was a 2nd Lieutenant when he arrived in Vietnam. He had been in country 2 weeks when he arrived at LZ Stinson. No combat experience, he was as green as the new fatigues he was wearing. True, he was a graduate of West Point. But, what could the "higher ups" have been thinking when they made him our Commanding Officer?
Our infantry company had lost all of its officers. Some had been killed or wounded, others had gone home.
We left LZ Stinson with 2nd Lt McCullough as our CO. He was our only officer. He was not the only new guy. Many, if not most, of the guys in our company had not been "in country" very long.
After Lt McCullough established our first night laager, and after our defensive positions were dug, I asked him for the grid coordinates of the night ambushes. The mortar platoon had to know where any "friendlies" were positioned.
Lt McCullough gave me a blank stare.
I said, "Sir, if I don't know where our guys are, how can I fire our mortar?"
He didn't answer.
"Better forget about artillery or gunships too." I said.
We didn't know where our men were.
Soon I joined the others, who spoke in low voices. One hissed in disgust, "They give us a cherry for a CO."
I awoke late that night for my turn at guard. We left the mortar set up - useless - in the gunpit we had dug. We dug an extra position on the perimeter. Before I took up my position I decided to check the rest of the perimeter. Of the approximately 10 positions, half were fast asleep.
We were expendable, and we knew it. I didn't blame the L.T.
Thirty years too late Macnamara turned his ship around. Too late. His admission is like a punch in the gut.
What did Lt McCullough feel when Macnamara decided to ease his conscience?
I had the luxury of not coming home in a box. I had the luxury of not coming home on a stretcher. Unwounded, the first thing I did, after arriving home, was look for a job. By God's grace I had THAT luxury!
What of McCullough? What of the other heroes who endured grievous wounds? What of their families? What of the families who were FORCED TO BECOME heroes - the ones who have memories of flag draped coffins?
Me? What about me? What have I done to ease the pain or suffering of the families of my fallen comrades? What have I done to seek out Lt McCullough and all the others that I knew? Nothing.
Kind words of comfort and remembrance?
The mission is not over.
Copyright 1996 Thomas E. Dier
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