where the writers are

VietnamI love listening to my dad’s girlfriend, Mimi, belt out “Rock around the Clock” in perfect pitch at the piano bar. She is always smiling and composed.

Yet, I realize that there was a time in her life when she sang with a less carefree attitude. During the Vietnam War, she was a young, South Vietnamese woman who needed a job to survive. She taught herself to sing and began working in night clubs that American soldiers frequented.

I often wonder if my mother’s husband, Jim, a helicopter door gunner, was ever in the audience. Jim spent 26 months and 13 days in South Vietnam protecting the “blood birds”—  a slang term that the military uses for med-evac choppers that pick up the wounded and the dead. Mimi and Jim have never met.

If they did, they certainly wouldn’t discuss Vietnam. I know this because they won’t talk about the war unless I ask them about it directly. I have excavated the stories carefully, gingerly for the last decade. Like an archaeologist, I try to piece together the remnants of the past.

Jim will recount the stories, always prefacing everything with “excuse the language, kid.” Then, he will suddenly stop, saying, “I just can’t talk about this any longer.”

In turn, Mimi will mention that there was never enough food, money or safety. Then, she shrugs off the problems that she faced, noting, “The soldiers had it worse in the fields.” As far as I can tell, everyone had it bad.

When Jim arrived in Vietnam in 1966, about 1,863 U.S. military personnel had been killed the previous year. When he left two years later, 16,592 men and women died that year alone. He was among the 51,392 Marines wounded during that entire war. As for the civilians, they still can’t determine if 486,000 died, or nearly 1 million perished.

Yet, numbers are cold. They don’t tell the real stories.

Veterans and civilians caught in war-torn lands fill in the details of what truly happened. For example, on one of the 255 missions that Jim flew, the crew stopped at a base. Jim watched a Vietnamese child approach a group of five men. The youngster asked for chocolate. Then, the child detonated an explosive that killed himself and four of the five men.

Another time, Jim was shot down in enemy territory. After a rough landing, he carried the wounded copilot back to base with the enemy firing 200 feet away. He said it was a day’s work. Just like the day he was hit by a mortar attack. He was tending to the Marine behind him who took 27 bullet and shrapnel holes. After three hours, Jim realized that he, too, was hit. Still, a few days later he was on duty again.

I apologized to him that he had to endure so much, see too much. I asked him how he got through it. Numbness, Jim Beam and cards, he said. Once in a while, they went to the city and hung out in night clubs.

My thoughts again turn to Mimi, the entertainer, who told me recently, “We survived because we had to.”

And they did.

Jim retired as a Gunnery Sergeant. He is now at peace, taking delight in the mundane— a late sunset, a granddaughter’s email, a purring cat. Mimi became a cardiac unit nurse who travels extensively.

Still, I know that the war will always be with them.

All I can do is honor their experiences, and realize that I will never completely understand their journeys.  

photo::flickr user expertinfantry::creative commons 3.0