Ain’t Released Me Yet
Memoirs of a REMF
Copyright© 2016 by Robert B. Martin, IV
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission from the copyright owner, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal. I have attempted to recreate events, locales, and conversations from my memories of them.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”...........Maya Angelou
Carol Ann and I took our son and daughter to Washington, DC during spring break in 1986. I very much wanted to visit the Wall (Vietnam Veterans Memorial), as it had become known, although I wasn’t sure how I would respond to seeing it and was experiencing some anxiety as a result.
We almost had to force our son to go with us. He was seventeen years old and it was “not cool” to spend spring break with your parents. We were “screwing” him out of going to the beach or some other place where he would have more fun with his friends.
It was a very warm spring day and the cherry trees were in bloom. I vividly remember walking along the shady curved walk to the Wall. I was extremely nervous and becoming more anxious about how I might react to seeing the Wall but I felt compelled to go and see it. I really had no choice. It was as if the Wall was a giant magnet and I was a piece of iron. I was being drawn to the Wall and it seemed the closer I got to the Wall the faster my heart beat and the faster I walked. Carol Ann was almost jogging as she held my hand and did her best to keep up with me.
For the previous 16 years I had managed to keep all of my feelings and emotions regarding my Vietnam experience bottled up in my “little black box,” which I kept hidden deep inside of me. This was NOT the time to allow those feelings to escape. I did not wish for my family to witness what I was afraid might happen. I dared not cry, ESPECIALLY in front of my family.
When we reached the Wall I stood as silent and as still as a statue. Only my head and eyes moved as I slowly scanned the entire 493-feet of the Wall. Prior to seeing the Wall, I had been extremely critical of the fact that it was “below ground” and wasn’t as “grand” a monument as most of the other war monuments and memorials in Washington. This was not my opinion alone. Many Vietnam Veterans felt the same at that time.
Once I saw it, that long, dark, somber line of marble tablets etched with thousands of names along its length, I realized that it was going to make a much greater impact upon me that I had anticipated. Over 54,000 names at that time (over 58,000 as of December 2015). The number only changes on Memorial Day if the Department of Veterans Affairs receives additional information. Of those tens of thousands of military personnel, I later learned that 61% were 21 years of age or younger. Almost 18,000 of the men were married. Draftees accounted for only a little over 30% of the names. National Guardsmen numbered only 101. That should tell you why practically all draft-eligible males wanted to join the National Guard.
Almost 10% of my generation served in Vietnam. Out of over 8.7 million military personnel on active duty worldwide during the Vietnam War (August 5, 1964 – March 28, 1973), 2.6 million of them served within the borders of South Vietnam. Of these 2.6 million, between 1 million and 1.6 million either fought in combat, provided close combat support, or were at least regularly exposed to enemy attack (Source: U.S. Government – VA Web Site).
The magnitude of such numbers is difficult to appreciate until you can see and touch all of those names in one location. That’s when it hit me. All of these people died in Vietnam and I came home without a scratch or so much as a stubbed toe. The enormity of it was almost too painful to bear. I began hurting so badly inside. I felt ashamed, like I had not done my duty, that I had “gotten out of something,” or “lucked out.” I had a feeling that I "owed" them; what, I don't know.
It was very quiet at the Wall, as if no one else was there. As far as I was concerned I WAS the only person there. It was just me and the Wall. If people spoke at all it was in whispers, like in a church.
I stood and stared for a few more minutes and even though I had promised myself not to cry, tears were running down my cheeks as my mind bogged down in processing all of this information.
Once the initial shock began to wear off I decided to look for the name of the only person I knew who had died in Vietnam. I found that name on panel 08W, line 38. His name was 1LT James Robert Kalsu. Bob Kalsu was killed in action at Fire Support Base (FSB) Ripcord in the A Shau Valley on the 21st of July 1970. We weren’t friends, we had never actually met. Yet, we were brothers. We were in the same artillery battalion but in different batteries (what the artillery calls company-sized units). He was a very popular and well-liked officer. The Buffalo Bills of the NFL had drafted him in 1968 but he chose to enlist in the Army because he saw it as his duty to first serve his country. I touched his name with my fingertips and, while touching those engraved letters, I couldn’t help but feel the heavy pressure of “survivor’s guilt.”
To be continued in Chapter 3, The Shock....