It was 6:00 pm on a Thursday evening and I was sitting on the couch in front of the TV watching the news eating a barbecue sandwich I had picked up on the way home from work. That’s when the phone rang. I didn’t want to answer it but knew the repercussions of ignoring it. Yes, I knew who it was and what it was going to be about. It was my week to be on call for the Base Honor Guard. I knew then that any plans I had for the weekend had just dissolved. Another soldier was going to be buried with full military honors.
The year was 1972. The Vietnam War was dragging on and because of this the Base was often tasked with sending out the Honor Guard to ensure the customary military burial. The end result meant that I would miss yet another college football game. The last game of the year and to make matters worse it was the Alabama vs. Auburn rivalry to be played at Legion Field in Birmingham. I had even gone to school with and knew some of the players on both teams.
That Saturday morning had started out much the same as the dozen or so previous times. Seven under arms, one bugler, two flag folders, and some unfortunate “butter bar” lieutenant (LT) whose turn it was to do his duty until such time as he was relieved by the next young naïve officer.
After pulling the weapons, the eleven of us all attired in our dress blues loaded on the bus at 0630. The LT quickly had us fall in for inspection. He eyed us up and down, found nothing out of place, then had us fall out. We knew what was expected of us. We always dressed sharp. We would never dishonor the uniform we wore of the country we served. Many of us had been through this same routine several time and mostly together. This morning it was cold and rain was falling lightly from thick, low, gray clouds. It was miserable.
Some of the guys would polish their shoes on the long bus rides. This one was not going to be too long. Most of the time there wasn’t much talking on the drive out. Sometimes there wasn’t much on the way back either. The “detail” we were being sent on was not something any of us looked forward to. But, the military doesn’t draw straws, it doesn’t take surveys, and if you think someone was going to volunteer for the detail, think again. We didn’t volunteer, we had all be volunteered by our superiors who made it clear it was an honor and would reflect well on our performance reports.
We were headed for some little old country town up in the northwest corner of the Missouri boot heel. I don’t think the town was even on the map. We always showed due respect not just for the fallen GI but the family as well. After all, the soldier died while serving his country. No matter how you felt about the war, or the politics, you couldn’t disrespect the dead. I think we all knew too that it could just as easy be one of us lying there.
Looking around the bus, other than myself and the LT all were from the inner cities. The poor seemed to be the ones most often coming home in boxes. That fact hadn’t escaped anyone’s attention. The draft was in effect back then and none of us had any connections. We didn’t have the money for college and most of us were quite content with a High School education. We were content to go to work and start making a living. I think most of us on the team were happy to be serving in the Air Force especially given the alternative of being conscripted into the Army or Marines.
Judging from the direction we were heading this day the soldier was probably going to be some poor farm boy who thought the military was going to be his ticket off the farm, or, maybe he was truly convinced he was doing his patriotic duty. Most of the time it was both. I resigned myself to staring out the window watching the rain fall wishing I was back home cooling down the beer and warming up the TV. Maybe next season I thought.
More often than not we wouldn’t find out much about the person we were to honor. This time would be different. Yes, this time would be very, very different.
We didn’t have to be at the funeral home until 1000 hours. Guessing from the distance that meant we should pull into the town about 0900. We were always early. Being late, or blowing the ceremony could result in a congressional investigation and everyone of us knew what the consequences of that would mean. Yes, we were always early.
If we were not needed at the church or funeral home we would practice in the cemetery before the party arrived. This time we were requested by the family to go to the funeral home and serve as pall bearers. When this happened we would sit behind the immediate family members at attention, looking straight ahead, expressionless, until all the final words had been delivered. Many times we could feel the eyes of those in attendance staring at us in the back of the head. I suppose many thought we were fellow soldiers who also grieved over a fallen comrade and that maybe we shared a common bond with the dead one. While we were not callous that was usually not the case.
This was going to be an open casket ceremony so we too were expected to pass by to view and pay our last respects. When our turn came we unitedly stood up, pivoted to the right followed by a pivot to the left and we mechanically made our way to the pedestal where the coffin lay. After filing past the coffin we usually waited out in some hall or lobby until the director would tell us it was time for us to transport the coffin to the hearse.
Out in the hall one of the guys said, “did you see that guys head? It was all wrapped up! I wonder what in the hell happened to him?”
The LT quickly turned around and told everyone to “keep it down!”
Everyone had seen this. It was true. I think all of us were silently wondering about what may have happened. The poor guy laying there was all decked out in his dress uniform with a few medals and one lone stripe on his sleeve. He was about the same age as all of us I guessed. Just above his eyebrows there was a white plastic “cap” that ran completely around his head and back behind his ears all the way down the back of his neck. We all guessed that he must have been in one ugly battle or he must have taken shrapnel to the head or something.
We were all wrong.
I was standing at the end of the hall right next to an office where two well dressed civilians sat at a desk. The one behind the desk was leaning forward talking real low to the one on the other side. That’s when I found out what had really happened.
I heard the one seated behind the desk say, “It’s a God awful shame. I know his folks. They’re good people. Only the Dad knows the truth.”
“What’s that? The truth? What are you talking about?
“That young man lying in there wasn’t killed by the enemy, there wasn’t no battle, no fight.”
“Hey, Walcott, Sarge told me to give you this letter. From the smell of it I’d say its from your sweetheart,” Charlie said in a falsetto voice trying to get in a dig on his closest buddy.
Actually Walcott knew it was just envy. Most GI’s would give their eye teeth for a letter from home and especially if it was from a sweet, young thing as pretty as Joe Watlcott’s wife.
“Ok, just give me the letter and leave, you jackass,” Joe shot back.
“All right, all right, but I get to read it after you, right?”
“You’re dreaming Charlie, dreaming, now take your perverted ass out of here.”
Charlie had had his fun. No harm was meant. Besides in a few more weeks he’d have to find another new best friend to pick on. Before he opened the letter to read it, he thought to himself, just two more weeks, just two more weeks.
Private Walcott had been in Vietnam for 351 days. Now just 13 days and a “wake up” to go according to the short calendar he had taped inside his wall locker. It had been the worst year of his life. He had never imagined even war could be this horrible. He had endured the rocket attacks while he slept, narrowly missed getting himself blown up while on patrol by ghastly booby traps on two occasions, and worse yet, he had never lost anyone close to him in death. In the last year he had helplessly watched two within his platoon die in the most excruciating pain imaginable. One, his best friend Danny, died in his arms.
He had written Danny’s folks after the death. It was the hardest thing he had ever done. He didn’t know what to say or how to say it but knew that he had to say something. He had to try to comfort his friend’s family who must have had to painfully endure the loss of their son. Danny talked about his home in Pennsylvania which coincidentally was on a farm. They had much in common and Joe had revealed the similarities to Danny’s family. He also told them that Danny always talked about them and how one day he might just drive up there to visit them if it was ok. Danny’s dad had written him back saying that it would be great and that Danny had told them a lot about Joe. Danny wasn’t married. Joe talked often about how wonderful it was to be married to Janice. Danny too had been envious of the letters.
Those images were burned forever in his mind and Joe had tried to drown them out many times by drinking. Before coming into the Army he and his friends in high school would occasionally sneak a beer or two, the whole time thinking they were big shots. That seems so long ago now. Nowadays it was bourbon and it was consumed more frequently than it should.
“One more patrol, they never send you out the last week,” he thought to himself. “I will leave this hell hole behind and I ain’t never coming back, never. Two more weeks and my baby and me will be together again. We can finally get on with our lives. Maybe even start a family someday soon.”
The man behind the desk said to the other, “Joe Walcott, had gotten a letter from his wife Janice who was the pretty young lady sitting on the front row on the opposite side of the Walcott family. Joe and Janice had married right out of high school. But they weren’t like most young ones today – you know – they didn’t have to get married. She wasn’t pregnant. They had known each other ever since the third grade. They never got into any trouble with the law growing up – good kids. Not even married two years. A shame, just a damn shame.”
The other man nodded his head in agreement.
Joe took the letter and sat it up on the end, thumping the letter to one side and then ripped the paper across the opposite end to make the opening. He reached in, pulled out the letter, unfolded it and began to read.
I hope you are doing fine. I pray for your safe return every day. Joe, it is with tears and a breaking heart that I must tell you something and there is no other way to tell you than just to tell you. I have fallen in love with another man. I know this is the worst thing I could do to you, especially now while you are so far away but I can not lie anymore. Keeping this a secret from you is eating me up inside. When you come back home I will not be here. I know that you must have a thousand questions and can only guess what you must think of me. I never meant for this to happen and would never try to hurt you on purpose. I have filed for a divorce and will call you after you return home. I know what you must be thinking right now and you are right. I hate myself but I have made my choice and I think it is the best thing for me and honestly the best thing for you too. I am so sorry Joe. I really am.
Joe sat there with tears running down his angry, swelling red face. He couldn’t believe this was happening to him. Others had received letters like that too while doing their time in ‘Nam. He often thought about how foolish they were to have married some whore, someone so sleazy. He was so sure it would never happen to him he had never even entertained the thought … but now it had. He sat there on his bunk the rest of the day stunned one moment and violently angry the next.
Finally, Joe got up and left. But instead of going to the chow hall with Charlie as was the usual case he headed for the nearest bar off post alone. Staying there until late that night, he had become obliterated by the booze. If nothing else in the last year, he had learned to control his liquor and managed to wobble back to the barracks mumbling to himself the whole way. Almost back, he decided to make a detour. The mumbling grew louder and louder as he walked.
Joe was raging inside and decided to stop by the armory and draw his weapon. Before he got there though he realized that he was too drunk to expect anyone in their right mind to issue him a loaded weapon, so he turned and headed back to the barracks. Not five minutes had passed from getting back to his room until he finished undressing and fell into his bunk. Out cold. The liquor had done its job.
The next morning at 0630 his buddy Charlie came looking for him. After shaking him around a little Joe finally opened his eyes unaware of what was going on.
“Get the hell up Joe! Sarge is going to be in your ass if you ain’t out there in 20 minutes.!”
The first thing Joe thought of was the letter then the previous night began to catch up with him.
“You bitch, how could you do this to me? All I ever did was love you and send you my paycheck. Well I hope the hell you had a good time bitch! Well…. There’s more money from where that came from.”
Joe hurried and got dressed and out the door he went. After falling into formation Joe found out that his platoon was going out on patrol that day. He then realized that this was his “last walk in the jungle” and if all went well it would finally be his last. As the men fell out they were issued their weapons. Joe slung his M-16 over his right shoulder. Slowly and cautiously the guys straggled out.
The platoon was only going to be out for a couple of hours unless they engaged the enemy.Just a few miles around the perimeter and then back. It could have been the longest walk of his life. All he could think about was Janice. He tried to convince himself that if he could just get home he could talk, or beat, some sense into her. His head was throbbing from the night before and the letter being fresh in his mind was only increasing the pain every time his boot hit the ground.
After a few hours the platoon returned. Joe had made it. He was going to make it home at last. Getting back to base everyone in the barracks was waiting and celebrated by dumping water over Joe’s head and calling him “one lucky SOB.” Yes, Joe was a lucky SOB all right. Lucky to survive the war maybe but not lucky in all things.
All the GIs were happy to see someone leave, anytime that is they could leave alive. Yeah, they would miss their buddy but so happy that he would survive his tour and make it back to “the world,” all hoping they would be as fortunate. After the little celebration ended everyone started walking over to the armory to turn in their weapons and ammo. Everyone that is but Joe.
From the moment he was shook awake that morning all he had on his mind was Janice. The betrayal had invaded his mind and he couldn’t let it go and knew that he never would. Joe made his way back to the barracks past all of his buddies. No one paid much attention that he still had his weapon. He didn’t encounter anyone as he made his way down the long narrow hall to his room. When he entered he made his way over to the bunk and sat down.
He laid the weapon on the bed beside him and put his face in his hands and cried. He tried to fight it. He had been fighting for the last year doing everything he could to stay live and for what?
Slowly and methodically with tears running down the broken man’s face, he raised the M-16 by grabbing the stock and positioning the barrel just behind the right ear. Then placing his right thumb on the trigger he pushed it back. There was the signature sound and then Joe was dead.
“That’s what Gerald, his Dad, told me. He’s the only one that knows the truth. That is except Janice. Oh, Gerald made damn sure that Janice was told every last detail. Damn sure.”
“She had a lot of nerve showing up here today,” said the man on the opposite side of the desk.
“Well, if you think that’s a lot of nerve…….”
“What, there’s more?”
“Yeah, there’s more. She’s trying to collect the life insurance too.”
I stood there listening. No one else heard a word of the story except me. I just stood there frozen for a minute or two. I thought to myself, “Oh my God, this poor guy is over there fighting for his life and she’s the one that ends it. She might as well have pulled the trigger.”
Then I heard the LT say, “Ok guys it’s time. Let’s go.”
So we all headed back into the now empty room and lifted the coffin off the pedestal slowly walking out a side door and down to the back of the hearse. We then slide the coffin in.
We went over and boarded the bus to go out to the cemetery. All the way out it’s all that went through my mind as I played it back. I thought to myself, “this man deserved better, he deserved so much more than this.”
At the grave site the family and friends started walking towards the tents that had been set up parallel to the final resting place. While they were gathering around a preacher took his place at the end of the long hole. We slowly walked over to the back of the hearse and gently slid the coffin out. Grabbing it securely in our hands we walked it over to its resting place. Once we had positioned the coffin, we went back to the bus to retrieve the rifles as the preacher started his comforting words.
As the seven of us lined up with rifles in our hands I muttered lowly, “Ok guys let’s do this one right.” After the three rounds were fired the two flag folders snapped to attention and proudly and crisply removed the flag that had been draped over the coffin. Folding the flag to where the three stars showed, one bowed down holding the flag in flattened palms and then presented it to Joe’s mother. With tears flowing down her face she accepted it and thanked the young sergeant. I was relieved to see that Janice Walcott had not gone to the grave site.
Joe Walcott was buried some 44 years ago. Why I remember this so clearly I do not know. Maybe because since then wars continue and so does the dying and not necessarily at the hand of the enemy, but sometimes as a result of the letter.