Fifty years ago, I was looking forward to a reunion, of sorts, meeting up with an old acquaintance who’d lived with his family for a short time in Alleman.
He was a couple of years older than I and, because of that, I didn’t really get to know him as a friend. He was already out of high school when I met him for the first time and that was only once or twice. His family didn’t move to Alleman, in a house almost directly across the street from us, until he’d moved away and joined the Army.
Still, I knew who he was from his visits home.
Fast forward a few years and I was stationed at Monteith Barracks in Furth, Germany, just outside of Nuremberg. In one of the regular letters from home, my mother wrote to me that this young man whom I’d known casually in Alleman had recently arrived in Nuremberg after a stint in Vietnam.
Vietnam was a war, no doubt about it. But, the powers in Washington, D.C. preferred to call it a “conflict.” Korea, too, just more than a decade earlier, was a “conflict.”
In the age of communication today, it’s easy for all of us to learn about the lasting effects men suffer after they’ve spent time in battle. We all accept PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) as one of the symptoms many veterans cope with on a daily basis. Of course, 50 years ago, it was called “shell shock.” In fact, we knew little about the malady and many of us, in fact, made light of the fact that some of our military superiors showed obvious signs of “shell shock.”
It wasn’t something we took seriously. But, it was.
After I learned that my acquaintance from Alleman had arrived in West Germany (remember, there was then a “West” and “East” Germany), I began making plans to connect with him. We had nothing in common, except the fact both our families called Alleman “home.”
I’m not going to name him because some members of his family, I’m sure, still live in Central Iowa and I don’t want to be the one to open any old wounds.
By the time I’d received the letter from home, however, he’d already been in the Nuremberg area for a couple of weeks. Still, in my job in the Public Information Office, it wasn’t difficult to track him down. I quickly wrote home to my mother that’d I’d found him and was going to give him a call in a couple of days.
And, I did. Army telephones, at least those in Germany in 1967, were tightly monitored. Often, a conversation would be interrupted by a voice that asked, “Are you working?” The standard answer was, simply, “working,” which kept the line operational and open. Those interruptions were, bluntly, a nuisance and most of us stayed off the phone unless absolutely necessary. (Of course, we’d found a “trick” that we could use to get an outside long-distance line and we’d use that line quite often, always wondering where the bill for those international calls was sent; we marveled, too, that we never got caught making the calls).
It was mid-week when I finally called my old Alleman acquaintance.
I rang the number for his Army unit. There were perhaps 10 U.S. military bases in and around Nuremberg at the time and I don’t remember exactly where he’d been shipped after his Vietnam tour of duty had ended.
I dialed and the company clerk answered “Specialist so-and-so, may I help you.”
Explaining who I was, where I was calling from and to whom I wanted to speak, I was answered by silence that lasted a brief moment. “Hello. Are you there?” I said impatiently into the phone.
“Yes, I’m here,” came the reply. “I’m just surprised that you’d call. Sergeant (no name here) was killed in a car accident two nights ago.”
He’d been in Germany for less than three weeks and he was now dead. He’d lived through hell in Vietnam for 14 months and survived, only to lose his life on a highway near Nuremberg, Germany a few weeks later.
Because I was able to do so, I did some digging into the incident. I learned that he’d arrived in Germany showing obvious signs of PTSD. His behavior was erratic, at best, and he’d turned to the bottle as a salve for the wounds of battle. He was drunk the night he was killed. The driver, another soldier in his unit, was also drunk.
Decades after the “conflict” in Vietnam ended, a Vietnam Memorial was erected in Washington, D.C. That memorial is inscribed with all the names of U.S. military personnel who lost their lives in that Southeast Asian war. A similar memorial stands on the grounds near the Iowa Capital in Des Moines. That memorial lists all Iowans who died in Vietnam.
You won’t find the name of that young man from Alleman on either memorial. His death isn’t counted in the tally of the war dead.
To me, though, his name ought to be there. He was a victim of the conflict in Vietnam just as certainly as if he’d been killed there by an enemy bullet.