An anniversary is nothing more than a ritualized memory. Dates are rather arbitrary. Moments are real. What happens in a moment changes every other moment that follows. Dates, and anniversaries, are unconcerned with change, they trap sentiment in an icy moment of time. This article is about one such icy moment.
I am writing this the evening of August 3rd, 2017. My brother Roger was born on August 4, 1948. He and I were supposedly of the same generation. We were both born during the post WWII baby boom. I was born in 1957. He died on November 9, 2014. He began his slow march to death in 1968 in Vietnam when he was hit by a mortar explosion that just happened to also be his birthday.
I have been searching records for evidence of his time in Vietnam. I want to write two fairly in-depth articles for the 50th anniversary of the TET offensive, in 2018, of major battles in which he fought, Hue, and Khe Sanh. It isn’t that easy to find him in web records. I have searched in associated data files through ancestry.com, nara.gov – the national archives, but I am now searching through Texas Tech University’s Vietnam Center and Archive. I need to get his service number so I can get files from the V.A.
I remember much from when he was in Vietnam. I was a little kid, but an adult processing switch flipped on in my brain when I realized he was going to Vietnam.
I remember answering the phone when he called Mom before shipping out (flying out actually) for Vietnam. He left from Camp Pendleton, CA.
He send me a doll while on R & R in Saigon that was supposed to look Vietnamese. It creeped me out.
I remember being summoned down to the principal’s office with no reason given when I was in fifth grade in 1967/68 when I was 10 years old. I was never taken out of school without knowing about it first. The administrative secretary told my parents they were on their way to pick me up. I could only think of one reason they would do this. They had gotten bad news about Roger from the Marine Corps. Turns out I was wrong. They had retrieved the wrong girl from class. Whoever issued the summons had thought the principal said, “Get the Hill girl.” Turns out it was another girl in my class with a very similar last name. They had said, “Get the Hile girl.”
For 10 minutes I thought my brother was dead. I knew that my parents would tell me at night and not pull me out of school if he was just wounded because we had already been there. We’ had been through that before when he was shot in the leg in the Battle of Hue. In the book I am currently reading by Rick Eilert he describes his mother receiving notification. “The Marine Corps sent someone out right after you were wounded. I opened the door and saw a man in dress blues. I thought you were dead. I know now that a chaplain would have been with him had you been killed, but the shock nearly gave me a stroke. He showed me a casualty work sheet. It contained all the basic information we got in those telegrams. By the time he left I felt sorry for him. What a terrible job, telling families their sons are dead or seriously wounded. – For Self and Country: For the Wounded in Vietnam the Journey Home Took More Courage Than Going into Battle by Rick Eilert.
Hue was the battle when we saw him in a clip on the 6 o’clock evening news. Dad spotted him. It wasn’t easy as he had grown a moustache and did not look like the just out of High School kid we had last seen. Dad turned to Mom and said, “Tell him to keep his helmet on.” Mom went white when the letter from him came that said, “Don’t be surprised if you see me on the news. There are news crews and cameras everywhere. You might not recognize me though as I have a moustache.” Eventually he also confirmed that he did not like wearing his helmet. He never liked seat belts either. He had been corrupted by constant danger.
When Roger was shot in Hue, in February I think, he was basically sewn up, given a couple of days to heal, and sent back in to combat.
Just before I entered 6th grade, in August, we received notice that Roger had been seriously wounded in Khe Sahn and was in Japan for surgery. He had had some surgery in Vietnam then evac-ed to Japan for further surgery. After a couple more surgeries and a few days in intensive care he was transferred back stateside to Great Lakes Naval Hospital. He was there for many months. Eventually he was stationed at Quantico, Virginia where he received an early discharge. There are not many things for a Zombie Unit survivor to do in the Marines.
I was told that we could not go see him at Great Lakes. I now question whether this was because visitors were not allowed, my brother asked us not to come, or my parents did not want to drive in Chicago. I was lead to believe he was not allowed to have visitors.
It was about several months later, in early 1969, that he was finally allowed a visit home. I can still see him standing in the kitchen of the farmhouse in which we grew up. He was skeletal and fragile-looking. It frightened me. I remember going to him and hugging him. This was not something we ever did in my family. It almost felt like I was hugging a ghost. This was not the brother who tormented me and tried to get me to stop pestering him and his friends.
He had caught part of a near-by explosion, probably mortar fire, up and under his flak jacket as he lifted a buddy into a Med-evac Chopper. His entire mid-section was cut to shreds piercing his gut, organs, muscles, and connective tissue. No one lived from this type of wound in the Vietnam War, not unless you were hit when you were halfway inside a Med-evac Chopper already. Without the immediate attention that chopper crew was able to give him, he would not have lived.
I have never been able to reconcile some facts. I started to try to piece together the events my brother experienced in the Summer of ’68 after my mother’s passing in 2007, but my relationship with my brother was confusing and more distant than I would have liked. It turns out that his paranoia about my Mom’s estate, and its gross mishandling, was due to illness and dementia that would kill him within a few short years. Roger was injured in Khe Sanh in August yet the Battle of Khe Sanh ended at the end of June, a month before he was blown up. He told me he was involved in retrieving bodies at that time because “Someone had to do it.”
I now realize he had been dying ever since he was in Vietnam. His body and mind had been poisoned. It was a slow-acting poison. It was a long death.
- Agent Orange killed him.
- Metallosis killed him.
- PTSD killed him.
- Diabetes killed him.
- Steven Johnson’s Syndrome killed him.
- Lack of a loving support system killed him.
So, the U.S. government that sprayed Agent Orange killed him, the suppliers and fabricators (Soviets) of the pot metal in the inoperable bullet and shrapnel he carried for decades killed him. The VA killed him by not treating him until disease from his injuries set in later in life presented in such a way that they could not be ignored. Our family killed him by not giving him the kind of support he needed. His ex-wives killed him by putting themselves and their needs and addictions before his needs. The local commuity killed him by decades of legal harassment for his use of cannabis to treat his PTSD. And a fortunate son from the upper caste killed him.
I began writing this article when the current talk of Russia reached fever pitch. I have never forgiven the Soviet Union for Vietnam. I cannot tolerate those who would support the corrupt remnants of the vile U.S.S.R. I suspect most people do not even know that by the late 1960s more than three-quarters of the military and technical equipment received by North Vietnam was coming from Moscow. Nor do most people remember the insanity of mid-century America conservative hawkishness that killed so many young men in Vietnam. I know about conservative propaganda and manipulation; my mother-in-law, Wilda Polt, ghost wrote Mama Went to War a piece of pro-war propaganda for Gina Manion, one of the Manion Family that brought neo-conservatism to America. I learned about hawkish privilege in Democratic families as well when I listened to stories Roger told about being under Robb’s command. Chuck Robb married LBJ’s daughter. Those who escape service, accountability, and familiarity with a day’s work at a low wage disgust me.
Captain Charles Robb saw four months of action in Vietnam in 1968. My brother served under him during that time. Even 45 years after his Vietnam service, my brother’s eyes would flame with hatred whenever he said or heard Robb’s name. There is no telling what really happened there, but my brother’s hatred was real. This is all I can find for the description of Robb’s time in Vietnam; it is from a Washington Post article by Carol Morello from October 10, 2000. [Bold emphasis mine.]
Robb was assigned to India Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. Its base in Quang Nam province teemed with Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army regulars who fired rockets into DaNang 20 miles to the northeast.
The unwanted attention he attracted, plus a routine change in battle tactics, led some of his fellow Marines to believe that Robb was being protected. Before and during Tet, the company had participated in some grueling operations. When Robb arrived, the company was assigned to ambushes, road sweeps for land mines, and “search and clear” operations looking for Viet Cong sympathizers.
“The unit was a lot more active before Capt. Robb got there,” says Don Gilette of Roanoke, Robb’s radioman. “While he was there, they put us out of harm’s way.”
But Robb was seeking approval for more combat assignments.
He asked 1st Lt. Larry Wilson, who drafted the battalion’s battle plans, for permission to go into an area with so many snipers and booby traps that the GIs called it Dodge City. Wilson wanted to keep the company in reserve. But Robb appealed through the chain of command until approval was granted.
Wilson, now a retired FBI agent, says he had placed India in reserve not to make it easier on Robb, but to give his men a break.
“His company had been up front before,” he says. “It was someone else’s turn. It had absolutely nothing to do with him being the president’s son-in-law. In fact, I think he was prone to be more aggressive because he was trying to prove himself.”
But his days in the field were numbered. Two erroneous reports reached headquarters that Robb had been wounded or captured. After four months in combat, he was ordered to a supply logistics post at division headquarters.
So, Roger, Happy Birthday Dear Brother. You would be turning 69 today. I just turned 60. I am sad that I cannot make a chocolate upside down birthday cake for you. I am happy you are no longer in pain. I am still angry that I am alone and that you and my other brothers all abandoned me in this life. I am telling your story as best I can. It has been 49 years since you were blown up on your damn birthday. I am trying to emphasize what most impacted me and what you allowed me to see that tormented you. I miss you.