I’m here because the shrapnel that would have pierced my dad’s heart struck the 20-round magazine of his M16 instead.
It wasn’t his first or last near-death experience as a Marine in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, but none of the others resonated like that chunk of steel meant to kill him.
After the “holy crap” moment wore off, he didn’t think too deeply about his luck; mostly he just hoped one day would pass mercifully into the next so he could complete his 13-month tour and go home.
But 51 years later, it’s never far from his mind. Neither are the friends he lost, the countless acts of bravery he witnessed and the men he served with in the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, nicknamed “The Walking Dead” during the Vietnam War for having the highest casualty rate in the Marine Corps.
I’m thankful Dad, South Whidbey resident and high school assistant football coach Jim Thompson, can talk about these things. Not all combat veterans can. But his stories over the years only told me so much. I still wish I could spend one day in his shoes in Vietnam, just so we could see eye-to-eye and grow closer as father and son.
But I can’t. So I read.
There was a time when you couldn’t find me without one of my dad’s books about Vietnam. I was fascinated — no, more like obsessed — with stories about places like Khe Sanh, Con Thien and the A Shau Valley, mostly because my dad’s boots traced those shell-cratered hills, grassy lowlands and mountainous jungles.
I hoped that the books would help me understand what he went through. The more I read, the more I realized that for every funny story he told me and my brothers over the years, there was a far more terrible experience he kept to himself.
Eventually my “research” became a talking point for us. It wasn’t long before some of those repressed memories emerged, which was as insightful for me as it was therapeutic for him.
“It’s gratifying having your son come up and say, ‘This is what I read, what do you think about that?’” he said. “It’s just helped me to be able to talk to somebody about it, because I haven’t been able to with very many people.”
My dad doesn’t hold back his emotions. Once, he read me a passage from a book about the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh with tears streaming down his cheeks, his head shaking in awe and wonder about the courage of his fellow Marines, many of whom were still teenagers. I gave him a big hug and told him I was proud of him.
Another time, I was the one shedding tears. When my older brother Chandler, a Marine officer, got married two years ago, I embraced Dad after the ceremony — and I let it all out. In between choked sobs, I told Dad I was happy beyond words that he’d survived the war and lived long enough to see one of his sons get married. So many others never could.
My dad didn’t leave the war unscathed — physically or metaphorically.
Sometimes, he’s not as forthcoming. Some of my questions, no matter how many different ways I phrase them, are met with short, vague answers. Unsure whether I’m digging up old wounds, or too desperately trying to live vicariously through him, I shelve the topic, like one of our books, for another day.
Vietnam history was a talking point, but Dad and I have always been close. He was my wrestling coach at South Whidbey High School. I felt like a lucky son when we got to spend up to 18 hours together at tournaments, which were almost every weekend from December to February. He taught me discipline, how to believe in myself and the true meaning of hard work.
My dad wrestled for the University of Wisconsin-Superior until he dropped out of school and joined the Marines in 1966. He didn’t plan on being in the infantry, even though his dad — who saw combat as a Marine in World War II — warned him that’s exactly what would happen.
Sure enough, he was sent to South Vietnam two years later. He served as rifleman and radioman with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, and received three Purple Hearts, a Combat Action Award and two Presidential Unit Citations. He was honorably discharged as a corporal in 1969.
Over the years, Dad replayed his Vietnam memories in his mind before falling asleep. Time has faded many of those memories, but some still feel as though they happened yesterday.
He had just joined Charlie Company, wide-eyed and full of questions, when he nudged his bunkermate and asked about the sudden rumbling he felt in the ground at Khe Sanh.
“That’s arc light,” the Marine replied, nonchalantly. My dad nodded like he understood. A few seconds later, he nudged the Marine again and asked, “What’s arc light?”
The Marine looked at him sideways. “It’s a B-52, man,” he said. “Those are bombs dropping.”
Earlier this year, Dad and I attended the dedication ceremony of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park in Tukwila, where a restored B-52 is a centerpiece. He took pictures of it and shared them with a friend he stays in touch with from Charlie Company. Dad credits the B-52 with helping him survive Vietnam.
Then there’s June 18, 1968, in the mountains west of Dong Ha. The first mortar shell that fell from the sky that day killed his two best friends, Calvin Golden and Bobby Lane; both were 21.
My dad is a brilliant storyteller, and he was quick to talk about the times he and the other men in Charlie Company spent weeks “out in the bush” with little food, water or sleep. But I only heard fragments growing up. It wasn’t until we started talking more about Vietnam that I pieced things together.
June 18 was a somber day for him over the years until the 50th anniversary of his buddies’ deaths. On that day, Anita Smith, founder of Quilts for Veterans on South Whidbey, presented Dad with a red, white and blue quilt.
He wrapped it around himself and smiled, then shed a few tears. He was awed by the timing of it all, but comforted by the realization that some of the hurt over losing his friends was replaced with joy.
“It’s kind of a weird symbolic thing,” he said. “At one time in my life, it was the worst day of my life. It’s come to be not so bad. I accept that quilt for my friends, I really do, because they’re not here to accept it.”
I let Smith know about the significance of June 18. A few months later, when KCPQ-TV in Seattle called asking her for story ideas, Dad and his quilt popped into her head. He was featured in the TV station’s series on veterans in November.