Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day : Grief and The Vietnam Wall. "Thank You For Your Service"

"Thank you for your service," the book store clerk said to me after asking if I'd been to Vietnam when she rang up a book about "The Wall" for me.  I am still sometimes embarrassed when people thank me for serving.  I felt more like it was my duty.  I got a full scholarship to West Point, an incredible education, and a lifelong sense of commitment to this nation and its people.  I owed you my service and I felt good about serving.

"My brother's name is on the wall," she added.  The family doctor in me knew that she wanted to say more.  "What happened to him?"  "He was killed in 1965 in a big battle with a lot of helicopters and artillery, but his unit was surrounded. " "Was that the battle in the Ia Drang Valley, the one made into a film with Mel Gibson?" She nodded.  "That was called a victory, but with devastating losses, only pulled out by using jets and napalm," I added. I thought of the song, "Mansions of the Lord", sung by the West Point Glee Club at the end of the movie and again by 160 of us in the West Point Glee Club Alumni Concert in 2007. Memories bounced around my brain as she and I discussed her brother and Vietnam.

I remembered serving on funeral details in Tennessee when I was a second lieutenant stationed at Fort Campbell, KY.  We related to the next of kin, played taps, folded the flag for the spouse or next of kin and traveled back to Ft. Campbell.  Most of the funerals were for older veterans, but two of them were for young men killed in Vietnam.  Those ceremonies were heavy with grief and tears.  Mothers were shaking, fathers and brothers felt empty.  At the cemetery, it was heavier until the playing of "Taps" and the presentation of the flag to the relatives.  They held the flag tightly, like it replaced one of the painful memories.  People pulled together at the church or family home for the gathering, always with food, after the funeral service.  Survivors turned off part of the grief with ritual, support and prayer.

Soon after Ft. Campbell, I was a student in the Army's Rotary Wing Aviator school in Mineral Wells, Texas when my roommate (trailer- mate, actually), Jack Gerke and I were informed that one of our company-mates (E-4) at West Point had died in Vietnam.  "Would we be pallbearers?"  We were off to Bunkie, Louisiana to meet the family of Lieutenant Denny Layton Johnson and represent our West Point class at his funeral.  Jack and I both already were headed to Vietnam as soon as flight school was over.  It was a very sad experience to hear about Denny getting killed in an ambush a couple months after his arrival in the non-declared war zone.  It was heartening, though, to hear the childhood and high school stories from his parents and brother.  His relatives were wonderful people.  Gracious, thankful Christians full of grief, but kind enough to welcome us and share.

I reflected later on my "inadequate" grief for Denny years later while looking at his name on the Vietnam Wall, realizing how my West Point training had me focused on mission accomplishment in a way that dropped grief skills way down the priority list.  Actually I don't think grief made the list.  One couldn't be looking back in combat.  It was all forward until it was over.  The Wall doesn't let grief hide, though.  It confronts you with your denial and death's reality in a humble way.  Each time I go to see the Vietnam Memorial, I realize more.  It is a patient teacher.  What a life Denny Johnson missed.  He didn't see his kids play little league baseball or graduate from high school.  He didn't even have a chance to get married. Every year, I feel more meaning to his loss. I now have grandchildren, a continuous message of love and a reminder of what others missed.

Twenty names on the Vietnam Wall are members of West Point's class of 1968, including Denny Layton Johnson.  "No task too great for '68" is our class motto.  Every year, class members gather at the wall for a ceremony honoring those who have died, especially those who were lost as a result of the Vietnam War.  West Point loses graduates in every war.  West Pointers study war, but we love peace.  We don't want anyone to die in war. We don't want anyone to experience death in combat or the loss of a loved one in combat.  We were trained to keep moving to accomplish our mission.  The Wall now silently tells us of another mission.  Stop and grieve.  Appreciate and honor the fallen comrade.  Appreciate yourself, too.
" Thank you for your service."


  1. jonas, thank you for your article. it says a lot. have a happy and restful memorial day. take care my friend. weeks

  2. thoughtful message ... thanks!

  3. Pat,
    Thanks for your blogs, and for this one in particular. I remember rooming with both you and Jack at the Academy. I remember spending time with Denny, marveling at his energy. In my mind his “baby face” made him the youngest member of our L-2/E-4 family. He was like our baby brother. In many ways, he ¬was our baby brother. The news that he was killed in Vietnam was received with shock and disbelief. Your thoughts about grief and The Wall are right on. I remember my first visit to The Wall, and searching out his name and the others of fallen classmates and friends. That visit was filled with all kinds of emotions.

    At the Academy I had looked forward to going through Ranger and Airborne Schools before heading off to Vietnam. We were all going to do that. It was our duty. It was what all our training and preparation were about. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan…

    As I approached The Wall for the first time, it was with a sense of shame…survivor’s guilt. All my youthful dreams of a military career were dashed because of an injury just before graduation. Major John Feagin (USMA 1955) was the orthopedic surgeon at West Point who treated my injury. When he told there would be no Ranger and Airborne Schools, he suggested that I consider medical school. I told him I came to West Point to serve my country. He looked me in the eye and patiently told me that there are many ways to serve.

    A waiver enabled me to get into Armor branch, but it didn’t open the door for flight training. More back trouble in Germany resulted in a profile and reassignment to MSC.
    As one of the few member of our class that did not serve in Vietnam, I sometimes feel a painful disconnect when we get together for reunions. That will never go away, nor will the sense of grief over those fallen brothers. The Wall visits help bring some closure to the loss of those good young men who truly gave the final measure. Yet they only serve to re-emphasize that feeling of disconnect.

    I have been able to deal with some of these emotions by remembering that we were prepared for “lives of service”. That those hallowed words of “Duty, Honor, Country” have to do with every aspect of our lives. I’ve always been a slow learner, as you and Jack and all my other roommates from the Academy know, so it has taken me a long time to embrace the truth in Major Feagin’s words. There are many ways to serve.

    I am so grateful for God’s patience and for His gently guiding me into medicine. You and I are privileged to be used as instruments of His Grace in the lives of others. Thanks again for your blogs, for your service in Vietnam, for your friendship.

    Your aging roommate, Alan

  4. Thank you for serving our country, Dr. S. The more I learn about you, the more amazed I am. My husband also fought in the Gulf War -- it's unbelievable how much you sacrifice and how you place your lives on the line for your country and people. And how the effects of it really change you forever. We love you and are very grateful to you. Thank you.

  5. Pat, I often feel guily for never having served when so many of my buddies did. Reading your thoughts and thinking back to a few friends that didn't come home brought tears to my old eyes and I am grateful for those emotions today. God's plan for us is often different than our own but His are always the right ones. I appreciate the wisdom shared through Dr. S. May God continue to bless you and those serving today. Dave

  6. Dr. Jonas

    I'm thankful I have gotten to know you just a little bit though Twitter. You have increased my knowledge regarding the Vietnam War. As a young child, I remember praying every night for the safe arrival of my two young uncles who were serving our country.

    It's easy to forget to pay attention and listen. I was struck again by your act of kindness. "The family doctor in me knew that she wanted to say more."

    Thank you for your service to our country and for sharing the joys and challenges of being a Physician during a time when our country is faced with the tremendous challenges within our care system.

    Lisa AKA Practical Wisdom

  7. Thank you, Lisa for praying for your uncles and your comments. apj