A few articles written by Mike Smith,
Talking to a Wall
Talking to some people is like talking to a wall: a shiny
black wall with names carved into it.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is a black
granite wall engraved with the names of each of the 58,245 U.S.
servicemen who were killed in Vietnam from October, 1957 to May,
1975. Each of the 140 granite slabs is polished to a mirror finish
so that, as visitors look into the engraved names, they will see the
reflection of themselves. The names of the dead are not organized by
rank or alphabet. They are listed in chronological order of their
Each time I have gone to The Wall. I have been struck by the
quiet reverence shown by virtually every visitor. Many people are
visibly shaken as they approach for the first time. Time does not
exist there. The collective soul of America, scarred, bloodied,
broken, bruised, is bared at The Wall. The raw nerves, the sinew,
the marrow of America stands exposed in the reflection of each of
us. Whether they want to or not, each visitor is forced to examine
himself, his life, his accomplishments, his soul. And each walks
An aging mother searches that vast sea of names, hoping to
find her lost son, yet also hoping that he is not there, that this
whole thing was just a mistake and her little boy will soon come
home. She scans the lines of names, hopefully, but frightened. Then,
there he is. A chill goes through every nerve, every muscle, every
fiber of her soul. She reaches out to her child and he reaches back
to her. The act of touching his name is involuntary, as pre-ordained
as the turning of the earth. So are the tears. At the base of his
panel she sometimes leaves a flower, sometimes a flag, sometimes a
letter to him. But always, always, she leaves a mother's tears.
A middle-aged man sits on a bench a hundred yards from The
Wall, studying it, staring through it. He is aware of the other
people standing in front of the long black memory, but that is not
what he sees. He is looking through the reflection of The Wall many
miles, many years, away. He is young again and with his buddies. So
many memories wash over him all at the same time that he can only
look at each one fleetingly before moving on to the next. Maybe a
smile about that stupid prank they pulled. The way they helped each
other through the tough times. The last time he saw his buddy.
He, too, will touch the name of each of his buddies, and
they will reach out of The Wall to touch him yet again. He, too,
will leave something at the base of The Wall; a beer, a medal, a
picture. Sometimes he will be able to leave a lifetime of guilt. But
always, always, a warrior's tears.
Another Mom searches The Wall for the name of a man she
never knew. Her children, now grown, look for their Grandfather. As
they each touch his name, the kids finally start to understand why
their Mom had to come here. They read the POW bracelets and wonder
about the medals and lighters and smokes and letters to buddies and
sons and fathers. They begin to understand about all those old guys
staring into The Wall with tears in their eyes. The old guys hope
the kids will never have to fully understand that there are always,
always, a daughter's tears.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial lists the names of the dead,
but war memorials are not built for the dead. They are built for the
living. It is appropriate that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a
wall : black, stark, simple yet complex, painful yet cathartic; a
wall that forces us to stop and reflect. what we see in The Wall is
ourselves. Whether we see survivor's guilt, or a broken heart, or
pride, we are looking at the best of America. When we talk to the
memory of a son, or a Dad, or a buddy, we are speaking absolute
truth. When we reach out to touch The Wall, The Wall reaches out and
touches us. when we look deep into The Wall we are looking at heroes
who have given everything. We are looking at the soul of America.
Just as we each leave something at The Wall, The Wall leaves
something with each of us. At the base of The Wall we each leave a
little bit of guilt. The Wall leaves us with a reflection of
ourselves, and always, always, a nation's tears.
Deduke aka Mike Smith
Bob Gaffigan should be 53 years old, but he isn't. He should
have married his High School sweetheart and raised a family in
Silver Springs, Maryland, but he didn't. He should be nearing the
conclusion of a successful career and looking forward to retirement,
but he isn't.
On October 26, 1970, Bob Gaffigan became forever nineteen.
On the 38th day of his tour in-country he joined the men on the
Wall. His sons and daughters were never born. His parents never got
to welcome him home for Christmas dinner. His brothers never got to
share with him a welcome home beer and ask all the questions that
brothers ask. His girlfriend never got to send that next letter to
tell him how much she misses him, and to be careful. He never got to
buy a legal drink.
Most of you guys already know the circumstances of his
death, so there is no sense in going over that again. Bob was my A-
gunner, and he was a damn fine Marine. Bob was only with us for one
fire fight, but he accounted for himself well. It was the darkest
night I remember. We had just saddled up and moved out toward a
treeline to our bush sites. It was so dark that I couldn't see the
barrel of my gun. I had to listen for the footsteps of the guy in
front of me to tell where I was going. I know Bob was scared
shitless because my asshole was puckered up pretty tight. I could
tell we were getting close to the treeline because I could smell it
and feel the difference in humidity. The VC opened up from our left
front. I dropped and pulled the trigger. God, how I loved to pull
that trigger. Before I could empty my assault pouch, Bob was there
on my left. I reminded him to hook up a belt of ammo, but he was
already ahead of me. I don't know if he fired his M-16 or not, but I
do know that he had belts of ammo hooked up. I was very proud of
him: his first firefight and he did his job before being told.
So Bob is more than a name on panel 06W, line 23. He is more
than forever nineteen. He is forever a Marine, and a damn fine
Marine. On this 34th anniversary, give him a thought, join me in a
toast, and remember that someday we will be the FNG's and Bob will
be the old salt.
I have a confession to make to my wife. I have a mistress.
35 years is a long time to spend with a mistress, but that is how long we've been together. And, as long as I'm telling the truth, she hasn't treated me very well. In fact, she is the cause of a lot of sleepless nights. She makes me depressed and angry. She makes me feel isolated and numb and guilty. She is the one who makes me feel like I don't fit in, that I'm not normal, that I'm unlovable and unworthy. She is the reason that I drink too much and hide in my bunker.
But let's be fair. She also gave me the best times of my life. She showed me what it means to be so close to someone that I would defend their safety at any cost. She was with me when I became a man. She taught me to share my last cigarette, my last can of beans, my thoughts, and my dreams; all of those things that are so hard for me to share with you, my wife. She taught me to recognize the flavor of what it is like to be alive, and the sound of that roaring silence after a fight. She gave me a thousand things that only she could give me; things that I can never give to you, my wife. And I am happy that I can't give them to you.
And yet, even though you've known about her all this time, you have tried to help me get over her, knowing full well that I can't forget her. When we are around other guys who know her, you become an outsider. You stand in the background while the guys who've known my mistress drink and laugh and talk smack about the good times we had with her. We share pictures of her, sing songs about her, and wish we were young again so we could do it all over. She is the best of times, the worst of times.
Through all of this, you have been there for me. You listen to my stories about her, hoping to learn more about her. You leave me alone when I'm in my bunker, even though you want to slap me out of it. You do things for me that my mistress won't let me do. You can tell when she is on my mind and you love me anyway. If all of that seems unfair, consider this: I got medals for being with my mistress. You got custody of an old, balding, fat, stove-up Marine with a warped sense of humor who needs constant care and feeding. Some of the guys who have been with my mistress are called heroes, but you are the real hero in all of this.
Thank you for putting up with me... and my mistress.
The Last Watch
Awake. Don't breathe. Listen. Feel. Don't move. Is he there? Dark. Stars. Good, no clouds, no wind. Listen. There it is. Breathe. It's just two mosquitoes. 0355. No sweat, just time for watch. The radio squawks a low whisper.
"Money 1 Alpha, Money. Radio check sit-rep."
"Money, Money 1 Alpha. Lima Charley break all secure."
"Roger, break. Money 1 Bravo, Money. Radio check sit rep."
"Money, Money 1 Bravo. Gotcha Lima Charley break all-l-l-l-l-l- s'cure."
"Roger, break. Money 2 Alpha, Money....."
Like a cat he stops three feet away. "You awake?"
"Time for watch."
With his poncho liner wrapped around his shoulders, bush cover tipped to the front of his head to keep the moon out of his eyes, and his M-16 in his right hand, he crouches low to creep back to the watch position. I can see him lean against the grave mound with my machine gun partially hidden by the low scrubby grass. The antenna on the radio looks like a blade of elephant grass growing lonesome on the side of the grave. I can't see the Hell-boxes to the two Claymore mines, but I know exactly where they are: right in front of the radio handset. I slip my .45 back into the holster, wrap my poncho liner around me, tip my bush cover foreward, and creep up to him.
"Anything going on?"
"Grunts made contact about a half hour ago."
"No, they all skied. Might come through the treeline in front of the Alpha."
"See ya'n the morning."
Hell boxes right there. Box of ammo linked to the gun. Four more boxes off to the left. I press my left eye into the Starlight scope. The world of soft shadows becomes one of eerie green broken by grave mounds and scrub brush. I search dilligently, lingering on each leaf, double taking on a banana tree. Nothing. Let's see. Alabama should be on watch for the Alpha. We got along, me and Alabama. Two country boys a long way from home. Should be late afternoon at home. She should be getting back from class. Hope Alabama's watching that treeline. Green again.
"Money 1 Alpha, Money..."
It was Alabama, all right. Another half-hour. I was lucky tonight. Had last watch. Got to sleep till 0400.
Right there! Behind the brush at the bend in the trail! Don't breathe. Listen. Watch. Feel. Here he comes. He's got to move again. Gun is off safe. Show yourself, you son-of-a-bitch. My right hand tenses on the Hell box, anticipating the three rapid crunches that are coming. A dog trots nonchalantly toward me and skids to a stop ten feet in front. Sniff. Snort and bolt away. My sigh of relief is almost audible. One last check before we saddle up.
I wake up Kenny and Salt before going to the other position to get Ken and Gil and Lurch. I really hate to put three Boots in a bunker by themselves, but everybody has to learn sometime. At least Boots are scared enough that you don't have to kick them twice to get them up. Hmph. Bunker? A grave mound. Can you say Irony? At least it's something to hide behind.
Five minutes later we saddle up. First, the flak jacket. Make sure the coffee pot is tied on the pack good so it won't rattle. Bed roll: left side, strap on the right side of my neck. Frag bag on the opposite side. Demolitions bag on the left, Claymore on the right. Machine gun on my right shoulder, right wrist draped over the barrel. Wonder how I walked before I grew into this gun? Bounce. Good, no rattles. Check the creases in my bush cover.
"OK. Let's move out. Gil, call Money and tell them we're leaving for Delta Hotel."
"Money, Money 1 Bravo..."
Slow and careful. Still too dark to see. Couldn't see Charley if he was there. But then, he couldn't see us, either. Glad the Boots have been here long enough to keep it spread out. Have to remind Lurch today to keep his bloop away from my gun. Charley would love to get us both together. Damn. Wonder how much all this stuff weighs. Too damn much. Glad I'm not eating for a while. Smells like somebody is cooking shit for breakfast. Well, there is plenty of it around here to cook. Maybe ought to try it. Can't be worse than Ham and Motherfuckers. Damn sweat. Damn shit. Damn dark. Damn Charley. Damn Vietnam. Damn being quiet. Damn being hungry. Damn being scared. Just Damn. Make sure there's no Gooks in the hootch, Kenny. That's it.
We storm the two hootches on line. Gil, Kenny, and Lurch take one hootch, while Ken, Salt, and I take the other. One man moves around the outside of it while the other two check out inside. "OK" comes from inside each hootch and we all settle in. Feels better every time I take all that shit off. I say so. They all agree.
Kenny and Lurch crawl under a poncho liner on Papa-san's rack while Gil settles in to stand watch. Ken and Salt crawl into our Papa-san's rack while I watch our hootch. Mama-san builds a fire from bamboo twigs and makes a pot of rice for her family. The pot is blackened by breakfasts and suppers for generations of this family. Mama-san doesn't measure the rice or the water. She just knows how to make a perfect pot of rice. She was taught by her mother, who was taught by her mother, who was taught by... who knows how many? She will teach her daughters, who will teach their daughters, who will..., well, I hope they will. All they have to do is stay alive long enough. I wonder if we used her Grandmother's grave mound for an ambush position? Did Grandma die of old age? I doubt it.
When Mama-san gets done with the fire, I break out our coffee pot and make a pot of Joe. Our coffee pot is an enamel tea-kettle that my Grandma sent me. Later today, after the coffee is gone, someone will use it to mix three or four C-rations for a communal meal for our hootch. After that, if I don't have a Day Patrol, I think I'll got over to the well and take a douche.
"Want to go take a douche?"
Jonsey is from Concordia, Kansas, half a state away from where I was born. We even have a common friend, Terry Householter. Jonsey grew up with him and I competed against him in high school track. Size 16 shoes. Damn.
We both are wearing tiger shorts and sandals. I grab my green towel and strap on my .45 on the way out the door. The well is about 150 yards from the hootch. It has concrete walls and is about eight feet deep. There is a #10 tin can with a string on the lip of the well, and we take turns drawing a can of water to pour over our heads while rubbing off some of the dirt and sweat.
We don't use soap very often. When the grunts come through our ville we can smell the soap and laundry detergent and mess hall chow. It would be nice to have soap and clean clothes and mess hall chow, but it's not worth it. If we can smell it, so can Charley. The grunts do way too much humping and make way too much noise. They also have officers. The biggest wheel in a CAP is a sergeant. But the grunts say they wouldn't want to be us either. There are a dozen of us standing out here in a rice paddy with our dick in our hand. Besides that, they don't think we are very bright. When they come through, they are saddled up with flak jackets, helmets strapped on, weapons at port arms, extra magazines stuffed wherever they will fit. We are standing by the road in tiger shorts and sandals, carrying an M-16 or a .45, playing with the kids, watching the parade go by. I guess it boils down to where you grow up.
The cool water feels good as we dump can after can over our heads. "Here comes Co Lin." Jonsey has the hots for Co Lin so bad he can't stand it. And who can blame him? She is beautiful. Long black hair, clear complexion, white teeth, pretty smile. And I think she may have a thing for him, too, although her family forbids her to do anything about it except hold what conversation can be done under mama-san's watchful eye.
Co Lin isn't smiling as she approaches us. She isn't even walking directly towards us, but at an angle to pass us. As she goes by, she mutters under her breath, "VC, him watch you."
Acting nonchalant is not a big part of Marine Corps training, but fighting off panic is. With a quick glance at each other, we know what has to be done. We drop our towels over our weapons and, as we pick them up, jack a round into the chamber. With blood pounding in our ears, we ease back down the trail to the hootches, to safety. Jonsey takes Vic and Andy up the trail past the well. I take Gil and Lurch around the back side of the ville.
Nothing. Charley must have eased down the treeline and disappeared. Oh, well. He'll be back. At least we didn't blow it for Co Lin. If Jonsey and I had charged the treeline back at the well, Charley would have known that Co Lin had warned us. That would undoubtedly lead to a late night visit to her family home for some re-education.
But education from Charley has nothing to do with how to cook rice.
The Power of CAP
As CAP Marines, a lot of us have the impression that we did not contribute as much to the Marine Corps legacy as did other Marines. Were the Marines at Bellaeu Wood, or Iwo Jima, or the Frozen Chosin, or Baghdad more worthy as warriors than those of us who were able to run around the ville in Tiger shorts? While the grunts were humping around the Arizona, going into unknown territory, we stayed within a few clicks of our ville where we knew every ditch and dike. While the grunts were wishing they hadn't thrown away that can of ham and motherfuckers, we could stop at mama-san's for a bowl of noodles. Were the grunts better Marines than us?
Obviously the answer is no, just as we were not better Marines than Wing Wipers or supply clerks. Those of us in the early CAPs had different experiences than those of us there at the end. There were brave Marines in all CAPs, from beginning to end. L/cpl Miguel Keith, CAP 1-3-2, was awarded the Medal Of Honor for his actions on 8 May, 1970. Other Medals Of Honor were awarded before that and after that, as were Purple Hearts and Firewatch ribbons. But why are we as much Marines as Chesty Puller or General Hagee? Here's why.
When guns are quiet, combat power becomes dormant. The purpose of a warrior is to make bad guys go away. Whether we send them to Hell, or back home to China, or to hide in a hole in the middle of nowhere, victory comes when the bad guys go away. The times when we could play with the kids were purchased in the days before. Our reputation as Marines was earned by our actions. Combat power was demonstrated as ably by CAPs as by grunts, just as the fight for Hue City yielded the same result as the fight at Guadalcanal.
The power of CAPs, however, was demonstrated when the guns were silent. I can still see the looks on the faces of our kids when we taught them to make fly-swatters. All we did was to stick a piece of C-Rat cardboard into a piece of split bamboo, but when we did, we could see the light bulbs come on in their heads. It was like we had invented the wheel. Pretty soon, each kid had made his own fly-swatter with his own improvements. I can honestly say that, on that day, we made their lives better. It is almost incomprehensible to consider the effects of building a school, or saving the life of a village chief, or of describing life in America. When Papa-san planted his rice, he knew we would be there to make sure he could reap what he had sown. The seeds we planted were in a generation of kids who had known only war and death and repression. Those seeds grow slower than rice, but they are nevertheless growing.
A lot of effort has gone into killing those seeds, both by the North Vietnamese and by the Americans who denigrate our service. Every word out of Jane Fonda's mouth killed a seed. Every march by a warrior wanna-be carrying a Viet Cong flag killed a seed. Every murder in a Vietnamese re-education camp killed a seed. Every creep claiming to be a SEAL killed a seed. Every bullshit story about American atrocities killed a seed. But they can't kill all the seeds. We planted too many. Our Vietnamese kids, at least those who survived, have told their stories to their kids. They have grown up to see new hotels and medical clinics. They remember what Doc taught them about soap and hookworms. They remember the Marines who tried to make their lives better. They remember how to make fly-swatters.
It doesn't matter that every CAP Marine was not awarded the Silver Star. What matters is that we all planted seeds.
For 34 years, my Dragon kicked my ass. My Dragon was huge. He
smelled like death, he breathed fire, and last week I faced him. Oh,
he had me in the early stages of the fight, but I came back.
I went to the CAP Marines reunion in Washington. Meeting up with a
buddy from boot camp, we picked up the conversation where we left it
in 1969. If Dale hadn't gotten so damn old, I would have expected
the DI to come storming into the squad bay for some quality time.
It was good to put faces on the names I've seen on the web site. By
the second day, everyone looked and acted like I should have
expected them to.
Being in D.C. for the first time- hell, being around more than 2
Marines for the first time in a long time- we visited the memorials.
When I walked up to the Iwo memorial, I could feel the brotherhood
welcoming me back. 228 years of Marine tradition smacked me up side
the head and reminded me of what made me a Marine. As she looked
into the faces in the Iwo memorial, my wife said to me, "Their
families must be very proud of them". Just before I choked up
completely, I managed to say to her, "We are".
That is when it hit me that I am still a Marine. No matter where I
go, my brothers will be there. Somebody has my 6. And I have theirs.
That is when I knew my Dragon's ass was as good as kicked.
The first time we went to the Wall was in daylight. We were in a big
group with wives and even a few kids. Several of the guys had
prepped me for the wall, and had given me some pointers about the
Dragon's weaknesses, but it was still my Dragon, my fight; it was up
to me to face him.
As we neared the Wall, I could smell him and feel the heat from the
fire he breathed. When I got to the center, I made my stand. That
fucking Dragon was everywhere. He stood 10 feet tall and went as far
as I could see in either direction.
The Dragon drew first blood. As I stood there facing him, he cut me
deep. I thought he was just going to stomp me into the mud. Then, at
the last minute, Gunny put his arm around my shoulder. Mike was on
my other side. 36 hours earlier I had never laid eyes on either of
them, and now they were on my flanks. There was no way I could have
let them down. They had my back and gave me the stuff to fight back.
Since Gunny's always know what to do, he asked the volunteer to make
a rubbing for me. I gave her the name and location of my A-gunner.
As she was on a ladder making a rubbing at the top of a panel, I
stared at the panel in front of me, and there it was. My name jumped
out of the granite and punched me harder than my DI ever could.
Admittedly, I have a very common name and it can be found just about
anyplace. But it was right there. The only name I could see. I have
known all along that I should have been on the Wall, and there was
the proof. The Dragon had taken his best shot and I was still
standing. True, I was still standing because Gunny was holding me
up, but aren't we all? Ira Hayes and Doc Bradley are still standing
because we are holding them up. We are still standing because Ira
Hayes and Doc Bradley are holding us up. But we are standing.
I went back to the Wall the next day and killed that son of a bitch
dead. I found way too many names and made rubbings of them,
The next time I went back was late at night. It was a very different
place. No firey breath, no smell, just soft lights on a perfect
night. I talked with all the guys on the Wall and apologized for
being on this side while they are on that side. They told me not to
worry about it, it don't mean nothin'. The night closed around us and
it was quiet.
Fuck you, Dragon.