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Vietnam Flashbacks

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Message Laura Wilkerson
On June 25th my uncle, Charles Carroll Sales, will have been dead 36 years. He died when his helicopter crashed in Bien Ho, South Vietnam after he had been drafted at the age of 19. If Charles had lived he would be 56 years old today, instead he is Panel 55W Line 038 along with 55,000 others on the Vietnam Wall.

I don't remember Charles at all except from a Polaroid already fading to white three years after he died, but I witnessed firsthand how his death devastated my grandmother who never had another happy Christmas after Charles died because in their last communication he promised her he would be home then. He was, in a casket in a cemetery off of 9th Street. I witnessed how the death of her baby brother threw my mother into a tailspin that contributed to the breakup of my parents' marriage and I remember my Uncle Terry being repeatedly arrested throughout my childhood for protesting the war that took his beloved big brother's life. Charles had no political ideology. He was just a working class kid doing what his Country told him to do. What I learned from this, from the models provided by Charles and Terry, was never blindly do what you are told to do. Ask questions and confront authority if the answers don't make sense.

After my parents? divorce my mother dated an bonafide American hero named Larry. Larry was awarded a Silver Star for bravery after holding off a nest of snipers who had killed all his comrades. Larry managed to single-handedly kill five Vietcong that night while huddled in his tank surrounded by the bodies of his dead buddies. Only Larry didn't kill these people once, he killed them again and again and again in his nightmares both nocturnal and not.

Sometimes we used to visit Larry on his weekend passes from the Veteran's Hospital's mental health unit in Louisville, staying at a Holiday Inn with a heart shaped pool. Larry was a strikingly handsome man but the thing I remember best about him were his horror haunted eyes that stayed sad even when he smiled. Larry's nightmares ended on Christmas Eve, 1991, when he hanged himself in his home to escape his torment. He was 40 years old. You can look at the Wall all day long and never find Larry's name but he was killed by Vietnam all the same.

I've been thinking of Larry and Charles a lot lately as my eldest son turned eighteen and registered for the draft. I think about how I don't want to spend every Christmas in mourning for a son stolen from me by an arrogant and ill-conceived war.

I think about not wanting to visit his name carved into some black gash of grief, his life ended before it barely begins. I think about how I never want to find my son hanging like a Christmas ornament to escape terrors to real to bear, inflicted by an enemy who wins even after they are dead. I think of all the soldiers who lost their lives, literally and figuratively, in that horrible, senseless war and how we owed it to them to make sure such wars never happen again, a debt we've failed so miserably to honor.

My son turned 18 and it was with fear that I watched him walk to the Post Office to send off his Selective Service registration card, but with hope too, as he stopped at the Courthouse on his way home and also registered to vote.

This op-ed was origianally printed in the Bloomington (IN) Herald Times and subsequently reprinted in Larry Incollingo's book, Soldier, Soldier.
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Laura Wilkerson lives in Indiana.
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Vietnam Flashbacks

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