by Jim Tolbert
I went with him down to the graveyard, it was a
nasty place, and looked more like a garbage dump than a cemetery. Many of
the stones had fallen over because the rats had tunneled into each grave.
Not a single place existed without at least one large hole where they went
in to eat the corpses. A foul putrid odor hung in the air, and even the
strong breeze from the South China Sea didn’t carry it away.
There were other people there, all Vietnamese, and they were burning
incense, paper money, and hand written prayers. Each one grieving a loss,
and praying to the ancestors. It must have seemed strange to see Americans
in this graveyard; after all, the American green machine had put most of
these people here. The mourners stared at us a lot, and nobody smiled,
something unusual for a Vietnamese. We just stood there in silence.
Finally, Billy spoke, as he stared down at the little cement marker which
covered the fresh mound. “I’m still here because of him”, he said. “I wish
I could have done more”. Then he looked at me and said, “Jim, I just can’t
shake the guilt of being on this side of the dirt”. “The little
son-of-a-bitch died for me, he didn’t have to do that”.
The year was 1968, the war machine was still dealing with the Chinese New
Year, and I was with SFC Billy (Stick) Evans at a Cemetery south of Danang.
Evans was recovering from wounds received on a SOG operation and
recuperating at House 22. He was saying goodbye to a South Vietnamese
soldier who had saved his life on that operation.
Two fast movers came in low over Highway one, heading west toward the
mountains. Standing there, and watching Stick, I felt uncomfortable. It
was a somber moment, and I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. When the
silence finally became deafening, I said, “Greater love hath no man than
this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, Stick just looked at
me, and started to cry.
I’ve thought a lot about that day since then, and the love soldiers have
for each other when they’ve walked the Valley together. I’ve also thought
a lot about the guilt we feel when we lose someone. Over time, love may
wane, but guilt stays with us forever.