Robert Gelarden, Boothbay
As we watch the PBS documentary The Vietnam War, we are told stories of valor and tragedy. Let me tell you another war story that is not in the series, but it should be.
In November 1965, I got a draft noticed and reported to the induction center to be poked and prodded. Once they determined I was alive, I joined 50 others in a room where a fat Army sergeant barked at us.
We need three marines, he said. Who wants to volunteer? When his request was met with dead silence, he looked around the room and focused on a big guy.
“You look like a Viet Cong killer. You’re a marine. Then he focused on me (and my thick glasses) and said: You, sealed beams. And, when the black guy (he used another word) in the back wakes up, tell him he is a marine.
The black guy was named Larry. He was a loosey-goosey street kid. When he woke up, he was not amused.
The three of us were bundled into an airliner and flown to San Diego where we were plunged into the legendary USMC boot camp experience.
Boot camp transformed Larry into a proud marine. He was proud to be a marine rifleman, a warrior.
Of course, he was sent to Vietnam, Larry was given a choice. He could go out into the bush and get shot, or stay back in Da Nang. He picked the latter, and was assigned to a unit known as Graves Registration.
This meant Larry spent his Vietnam tour stuffing the remains of other Marines into body bags. When he came home, he was a heroin addict. A stone junkie.
At about the same time, I came home, got married, and was hired as a cub reporter for a major metropolitan daily newspaper.
One day, while hanging out in a criminal courtroom, I recognized a guy who was standing before the judge. It was Larry. I asked the judge to let me chat with him.
Larry said police pulled him over for a traffic offense. When he pulled out his driver’s license, a small packet of heroin fell out of his wallet and he was arrested.
He asked me for help.
After I explained Larry’s story to a friendly lawyer, he agreed to help.
The lawyer got Larry released from jail, and hooked him up with the VA, and got him into a rehab program. After a while, he seemed to get better and the lawyer got the prosecutor to drop the charges and set him free.
Then Larry called me again. He was looking for a job, a straight job.
I knew a kind man who happened to own a small chain of grocery stores. He agreed to hire him and teach him the business. As a Viet vet, the grocery store owner thought he had the potential to be a store manager.
A few weeks later, I got a call from the grocer. Larry was AWOL. No one could find him. He disappeared.
I guess it was about six months later when I came across a police report entitled Man found dead. It was Larry.
Police found him in an abandoned house. The coroner’s report said he had died from choking on his own vomit. He was a junkie and died a junkie’s death.When his nation called, Larry answered. Unlike others, he did not protest, he did not run away to Canada. He stepped up to the plate, put on the uniform, saluted the flag and marched off to war where he was assigned an awful task.
And, after spending some 13 months stuffing arms and legs into body bags, he became a junkie.
There were no lavish welcome home parades for Larry. No one said thanks for your service. He died alone.
If you go to Washington, D.C., you won’t find Larry’s name listed on the Vietnam memorial wall.
But, if it was up to me, you would.