Holidays ain’t what they used to be when you were a kid. Particularly, if you ended up in the military and spent some of your formative years in a war zone like the Vietnam War.
I could not celebrate Thanksgiving Day this year. It was the 50th anniversary of a comrade of mine named Victor Lee Ellinger, a first lieutenant who was shot and killed by an enemy sniper just three days before the holiday. (See Cost of War.)
I’ll never forget the anguish I felt and the inability to properly mourn him. The holiday lost all of its meaning years later when I looked back and recalled the events of his death. There were three junior officers in our company. Victor was by far the best and I’ll never forget how the other lieutenant and I ate our Thanksgiving dinner in a rear encampment away from the “bush” just three days after the shooting. It seemed there was little if anything be thankful for that day in 1970.
Christmas was also bad that year. I had been relieved of my command right before the holiday. As an officer, I had ordered mortar rounds to be fired upon a river bank where I was leading my platoon and suspected the enemy was waiting to ambush us. The rounds fell a long way off the target and I kept ordering the sergeant shooting the armament several clicks away to “step down” to get the mortar rounds closer to the VietCong.
After three or four attempts the last round struck us and five of my platoon members — called “grunts” — were wounded and eventually medevac’d out. An investigation was conducted about the so-called “friendly fire” episode and I was held responsible for the mishap and relieved of my duties.
I’ll never forget lying on the cot in a tent in a rear base camp and feeling lower then dirt that Christmas morning. Yes, lower than dirt. At least dirt could provide something useful such as transforming food to grow from soil. Me? I felt I wasn’t good enough for anything that holy day of days.
I was given a new command and made good (See Mutiny). And was given the honor of a 21-gun salatue by my platton upon leaving Vietnam some six months later.
Let’s not forget my birthday which is celebrated today. My 21st birthday was a most forgettable one. I was stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana, as a training officer in boot camp. We had an IG inspection the next day and I remember inspecting the barracks the night of one’s most celebrated days and feeling so very alone in the army.
You see, I was a commissioned officer. I could not fraternize with the troops or the drill sergeants. I hardly ever visited the officers club and never hung out with any other lieutenants. I was alone that day and since then I have never wanted to mark my birthday as anything special.
So, bear with some of the veterans you know during these days of festivities and joyful outpourings. Some of us have been marked by trauma and experience events a little differently and all we need is a single person to try to understand that . . . Thanks for bearing witness this holiday period.