By Wilson T. Lavender
Wilson T. Lavender was in Vietnam from 1968 – 1969 with the U.S. Army. He retired after a long career as a builder, building houses and businesses, as well as restoring historic properties throughout Virginia.
I went to Vietnam to fight the war against communist aggression; I volunteered for the draft and wanted to save world and save Vietnam; but getting beaten down into the mud by the rain was not what I had in mind for my great adventure as a soldier. I have been soaked with rain, soaked with sweat, covered in mud, splattered with blood. I learned that an infantry solider learns to block out the pain and move on. War does not stop for the weather, and never stops for no man’s personal pain or anguish. Never before have I been so thirsty, hungry or tired enough to lie down and sleep in the mud and rain. Never before have I been so completely exhausted and filled with such despair that death seemed to be a better option than life and never have I been so tempted to give in and end the misery, but somehow I always managed to hang on. I went to war for the glory and I tried my best to get it, I volunteered for everything for the chance to achieve some of that glory, but it always eluded me, never could I find the glory I looked for, not until after the war on a rainy day on a visit to Washington DC
I went to the new WWII monument. It turned out to be a rainy day but I walked down to the monument in the rain; and I stood there on a rainy and grey Saturday looking at the pool, at the fountains, all the granite pillars and arches and thinking how grand this monument is, and I thought to myself, at last, here is the glory of war that I searched for when I was a young man. This is the monument to the soldiers and the war that saved the world; it was inspiring, even the pouring rain could not dampen the glory I felt standing there, I was proud to be standing there at this monument as an American and a soldier.
Then, I walked down to the Vietnam Memorial and I stood there in the rain and looked down at the black slabs of granite, buried beneath the ground, sort of like a V but not as sharp and certainly not like a V for victory sign, more of slash than a hole, with the face of the black slabs lined along a walkway with their backs into and beneath the earth, bold black slabs of granite, inscribed with the names of the dead in sequence by date of death. At the bottom of the slabs were letters, footballs, ribbons, bows, even teddy bears left by visitors to loved ones.
I walked in from the left center and I read a few of the notes, “We miss you…” We love you…and then at mid-point at the intercept of the angle of the slabs, they were above my head below the ground, and I looked for the dates 1968-1969 , looking for the names I knew, but before I could finish, I could feel the pain in my heart, I had to fight back the tears and move on. I could feel the rain and it took me back to Vietnam and standing in the rain; and to me this rain sheds the tears for the names on these black slabs for the cost of the “glory of war.” The rain can speak sorrow better than any words that I know. For me, this monument is not to the glory of war but more to the tragedy and sorrow of war and it is almost impossible not to feel overwhelmed just standing there.
Many of my combat buddies have medals, some silver stars, bronze stars, purple hearts, but just as many came home in coffins with no medals, their names are carved on those black granite slabs, where my name may have been or maybe should have been. I have no medals, I have no glory but I have no regrets, I came home with more wisdom than I had when I left. I can stand in the rain and I can feel the glory of war, and I stand in the rain and I can feel the sorrow of war, I know about the glory of war and I know what the glory of war costs. There are 58,000 names carved in that black granite wall, with silent stories not yet told.
Our time was not a popular time to be a soldier and go to war, or a popular time for a soldier to come home from war, I have lived to tell my story, but rarely have, most people never ask, and most do not want to know, so I speak little about the glory of war that I knew as a soldier, but I will speak about 30 April 1975. That was the day a helicopter lifted off the roof of the United States embassy in Saigon.
When I heard the news that day I was in Oaklyn, N.J. It was a pretty spring day, the sun shining; spring was in the air, and blossoms blooming. It should have been a good day to be happy and optimistic, but it was not a good day for me.
I watched people pass me by and I did not see anyone appear to show even the slightest bit of anxiety, and I thought to myself that maybe these people haven’t got the news yet about Vietnam. I was overcome with grief and felt I needed to do something, I was an infantry soldier, and my thoughts were with army buddies and what they thought of this news.
We spent a lot of time in the jungles, up in the mountains, in the rice paddies of Vietnam; we shared the worst that life has to offer. When that helicopter pulled off that roof, all of the sacrifices seemed to be for nothing. So sad to watch the desperate Vietnamese people, pushing and clawing at each other in total despair fighting to get out of Vietnam and being beaten back and left behind, it was a disgrace.
On that day I never knew what any of my army buddies thought, none of us kept in touch. Most of us went over one at a time and came home one at a time; we were considered the lucky ones to come home alive, but we came home alone and we struggled alone. Some of us were treated as traitors and worse, and some of us were not lucky enough to make it thru the struggle of dealing with the grief and guilt of coming home alive. On that day, 30 April 1975, I especially thought about my platoon leader, Lt. Mark White, he was a good leader, a brave and fearless man, if there ever was one, it was him. I wondered where he was, what he was doing, what was his thoughts about the United States leaving Vietnam. I thought if I was only able to call him or anyone to share my grief with, I really needed to talk to someone that day but there was no one. Most people were tired of Vietnam and were relieved it was over; me, I had to block it out and move on like a good soldier, block it out and keep moving.
I always thought Mark White would have been a very successful man, I thought he would have come home to praise and parades in his small home town near Scranton Pennsylvania… I found out some 30 years later, that his life was not what I imagined it to be when he came home.
I only knew him as soldier as good or better than anyone I ever knew. I admired the man and the soldier I once knew, and I named my firstborn son after him.
I was told that when the last helicopter pulled off that roof in Saigon. Mark White walked out the back door of his house and carried a shotgun with him; he walked out into his backyard, put the shotgun to his head, pulled the trigger and blew his head off. It was almost 30 years later when I was told what happened to him. I was shocked when I heard that, it was very difficult for me to accept it as true. The army buddy that told me said that is what he heard and when I asked him to confirm where he heard it and where he was buried he said he would try to find out. So a few weeks later I received a copy of a letter written to an army buddy and he sent it to me with some information about Lt Mark White, his life, his suicide and where he was buried.
The information was in a letter from his son, who never knew his father. He was but a year old when his father committed suicide that day and he never knew him. His father was a troubled man and tried to commit suicide before and was talked out of it. He said his father became abusive to both his wife and his mother and neither could live with him. His brother tried to help him to see life in a better way, but it didn’t help, no one could help him. His son said he joined the army himself, was a ranger in the 82nd airborne to help better understand his father. He believed that his father’s “self-destruction” was due to the inhumanity of the war and the “human beneath his own inhumanity.” He was buried in a cemetery in Newton Ramsey near Scranton Pa. I went up there and found the cemetery. He is buried next to his father, mother and brother. Mark White was just 19 years old and a few months younger than I, his father was a minster at the church next to the cemetery where they were buried. His father died in December of 1968 and Mark White was in Vietnam in January of 1969. I never knew about Mark White’s age or about his father and never heard it mentioned by him or anyone. He was a first Lieutenant who was younger than most everyone in our platoon; no one knew or ever suspected he was younger than 25 or that he was the son of a preacher. I am glad I went and I pass no judgment on the man or the soldier I knew. I have a better understanding of the conflict that may have festered in the man, I think more than few have had experiences with the same conflicts, I know I have been there.
I know when the last helicopter left Vietnam and I really felt betrayed by the government and the people that sent us there to save the world and stop communist aggression. On that day my thoughts were on my army buddies and Mark White, we did not save the world, we did not save Vietnam, but I am proud to say, we did our duty and we fought for the lost cause of a lost war, in the war against communist aggression. We lost, but not as soldiers, but as a nation that just did not have the will to win a war against an enemy who were willing to win at any cost. We had all the weapons but they had all the will, they won the glory, we have the shame as a nation for not understanding why the will to win can be stronger than weapons of war.
Veterans of any age from any branch are invited to participate in free, college-level creative writing classes led by Christine Black and Spencer White. For more information, contact Christine at (434) 825-3794 or [email protected]; or Spencer at (540) 421-8243 or [email protected].
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