Memorial Day

May 30th, 2011

By Tom Carter

Memorial DayMemorial Day, once called Decoration Day, is an observance that began spontaneously after the Civil War. People visited the graves of those killed in the war and left flowers in their memory. In the years that followed, it slowly became a national day of observance in honor of the fallen in all wars.

For me it’s more a personal matter, as I suspect it is for most combat veterans. The Vietnam war was by far the most important factor in my life during my early and mid-twenties. I first went there at 22 as an attack helicopter pilot who didn’t even need to shave every day. I came home, spent the next few years getting ready to go back, then went again. I came home that time in an upper body cast and with a bullet wound, the result of being shot down in a Cobra attack helicopter and crashing into mountainous jungle.

But the thing is, I lived. Many others, the friends of my youth and my brothers in a very real sense, didn’t get back at all. I’ll tell you about just one of them, even though there were so many it hurts to count.

Early one morning at our rudimentary base in the remote central highlands of Vietnam, we were all preparing to leave on a large scale combat assault mission. It involved virtually all of our aircraft and crews. We suddenly received an emergency mission order. A small Special Forces camp south of our base was under intense attack, and they desperately needed to medevac their wounded out of the camp and get ammunition supplies in. A team of attack helicopters was required to escort and defend the medevac and re-supply aircraft. My aircraft was supposed to go as the wingship of the team, but we were a few minutes less ready to take off than one of the other crews. So they went in our place.

The tactical situation at the camp was a mess. Enemy troops surrounded it, and some of them were firing heavy machineguns from fighting holes. As we learned later, the gunners were chained to their guns to limit their discretion in deciding whether to fight or not. As the medevac and resupply aircraft landed in the camp under heavy fire, our team of two attack helicopters flew low and fast around the camp perimeter, laying down suppressive fire with rockets, machine guns, and a rapid-fire grenade launcher. As they made a low turn over the dirt airstrip outside the camp perimeter, heavy fire literally tore apart the wingship. It crashed in flames, incinerating the bodies of the crew.

It was supposed to be my aircraft and crew. We would have flown the mission the same way tactically, and the same thing would have happened. But we were alive, and they were dead. One of them was my best friend. We were in flight school together, although he was one class ahead of me and delighted in abusing me with his senior status. In Vietnam during the long hours of boredom between missions, we played chess or cards, plinked around on guitars, and spent endless hours in literary discussions. He was a smart guy, difficult to get the best of. And he died in my place. I’ll never be able to adequately describe my feelings a few days later, after we had forced the enemy to withdraw and I stood amid the charred wreckage of that aircraft. What were his last few seconds like?

Faces of lost friends are in my memory virtually every day, and never will enough time pass for them to leave me. I had a special responsibility for some of them the second time I was there, as a more senior officer with combat experience. I was supposed to teach them, keep them safe, get them home alive. During the last days of preparation to deploy our unit, a few of their family members, wives and parents, even asked me to take care of them “over there.” I promised them I would. I wasn’t always able to do it.

They were better men than I, these fallen heroes. It heartens me that my fellow citizens remember them and honor their sacrifices.

(This article was previously published on May 24, 2009 and May 31, 2010.)

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