On the first day of the first full week of Marine Corps boot camp training at Parris Island, S.C., I met my assigned bunk mate, a young man of about 17, whom I will call “Mike.”
On a certain morning, one of the tough drill instructors was growling about and seeking someone to harass mercilessly. As he went from recruit to recruit, he screamed the question, “Why do you want to be a Marine?!” Any answer given was ridiculed and the recruit ordered to execute a gazillion push-ups for giving whatever sorry answer he gave.
Then he came to the guy who occupied the top bunk over mine and shouted the question an inch from Mike’s face. Mike, ramrod straight at attention yelled back his answer, “I want to go to Vietnam, sir!”
“Oh, you want to go to Vietnam, do you, you little puke? And just why do you want to go to Vietnam?”
Mike shouted back, “To kill gooks, sir!” (I know it’s politically incorrect to use the term “gooks,” but that’s how the conversation went, minus, of course, the dozens of drill instructor swear words which I eliminated from this exchange).
“Oh, really? And why do you think you want to kill gooks, boy? What did they ever do to you?”
“Sir,” Mike shouted back, his voice slightly breaking, “The gooks killed this private’s older brother when he was sent to Vietnam. This private wishes to avenge his death, sir!”
The D. I.’s features softened as a tear rolled down Mike’s cheek while he remained at rigid attention. After what seemed an eternity, the 23-year-old sergeant, himself a combat veteran of Vietnam and the holder of the bronze star and the purple heart, quietly replied, “Maybe you’ll get your chance.”
Mike was a good recruit and went through his paces with an intensity. Many weeks later, we graduated from boot camp and went separate directions to whatever additional training the Marine Corps deemed necessary. I never saw him again but wondered about him through the years.
A few years ago, my wife and I took a two-week driving vacation, destination to be determined on the road, and ended up in Maine. On the way home to Georgia, we decided to stop for a couple of days in Washington, D. C. Eventually, I made my way to The Wall, otherwise known as The Vietnam Memorial. I was looking for the names of two of my high school classmates, one a Marine, the other a soldier, who had been killed in Vietnam.
After finding their names and doing that private thing that people do at the Wall, I began to look at the nearly 60,000 names inscribed in the black marble, overcome by the sheer immensity of the loss of life.
And then I saw it. I felt that someone had hit me it the chest. My throat grew tight and my eyes stung. There was Mike’s name. He had made it to Vietnam.
The records indicate that 40 sets of brothers died in the Vietnam War. So did three sets of fathers and sons. I didn’t know any of them but I did know Mike.
Now, after all these years, I knew what became of him. There may be other names on the Wall that I know but I haven’t looked yet — accidentally finding Mike was too painful.
I think I will someday, though — maybe this weekend when a replica of the Wall is on display in Newnan, Ga.
When I see the names of the men I know, I don’t see “names.” I see faces of young men, teens really, who were full of life, hope, and promise.
I hear them laugh, see them chase girls or footballs, and remember them enjoying life. And then, after all the decades, I still grieve for the life they never had and I grieve for those who loved and lost them.
With each new remembrance, I renew a silent vow to keep them ever alive in my memory and my heart. Sometimes, the tears still flow.
Semper Fi, Mike.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and is the mission pastor of Christ the King Fellowship in Champaign, IL. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]