This is for my Dragon on our first Veteran’s Day apart. It and Memorial Day were always spent alone together with his memories of times he seldom spoke of, and only then in a hushed voice. There will be a couple of his memories here so be forewarned. I’ve not been graphic per se but they are not happy memories. They are the memories of a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. And like any other warrior of any other branch of service, they are heartbreaking, but they are similar to the memories all soldiers share no matter where they are in the world. I wish Veteran’s Day was about more than sales.
My Dragon is a veteran. He is a Marine, Force Recon, who did three tours in Vietnam before he was 22. There were countless other times over his years where he was in the middle of combat no matter how you define it. He’s been in knife fights, gun fights, shot, stabbed, blown up, and had his parachute brought down by automatic gunfire making that last 60 – 100 feet fly by and the landing very hard. He was a prisoner for a while, tortured for what he might have known. I asked him if he was scared. He told me he was but mostly he allowed his anger to keep him sharp and focused. He said he hated the SOB that ran the camp he was held in. The details of how he escaped are his to relate and he’s not here. Suffice to say, Sherman was right. “War is Hell.” My Dragon escaped.
He is a hard man. His nickname, Dragon, wasn’t given lightly. He earned it. He is very intelligent and astute to the behavior clues people don’t realize they give off. Subtly is not in his vocabulary. He always said what he meant. “If it’s important to you, say what you mean. It’s your right to believe in it. Don’t let anyone take your voice.” He worked so hard to give me back my voice. I had previously only used it to protect my children. He wanted me to have it for myself as well. One aspect of my grief over his death is to keep trying to find my voice.
No one that I ever saw him interact with saw past the “good ole boy” mask he kept tightly in place. No one knew what he did when he went “out of town.” No one was aware of his nightmares. He was very good at hiding who he was. He didn’t want to face the “monster” accusation that I had seen a few times when someone found out. I found my voice those times. I protected him.
My Dragon was an assistant scoutmaster so he could be with his son as much as possible. His specialty was teaching marksmanship and safety of the shooting range, rock climbing, and survival skills. For the one week during the summer his troop went to scout camp, he always set up his tent at the very edge of their designated area. And he would tell himself to sleep light so he wouldn’t dream. He didn’t want to risk screaming in the night. He’d come back from that week exhausted and I always fed him, had him shower, and then put him to bed. I’d crawl in beside him and hold him and tell him how much I love him.
Memorial Day was always hard for him. During his years he’d lost a lot of mates, brothers all. Some died beside him. Some he carried on his back to an extraction point desperately trying to save them. The death of one young man haunted him all his life. The boy was 19 and had gotten a Dear John during my Dragon’s second tour in Vietnam. Very quietly, the boy self-destructed. My Dragon was vigilant in keeping an eye on him. He and the team tried talking to the boy. The girl had been ruthless in her letter and her name was added to the Wall of Shame, but there is little to do when someone’s heart is broken, and broken on the other side of the world in a jungle that feels Godforsaken. Their fire team was sent back out but the boy wasn’t right. My Dragon tried to have the boy stay behind under watch but only he and his “brothers” knew what was happening inside the boy. His injury was to the soul and bodies were needed ‘in country.’ It took him three days to find a way to die. “He was very cool about it, stepping away from the team. We didn’t really notice as I never allowed us to stand too close when we out just in case of booby traps.” My Dragon’s voice always broke here.
“He saw the mine before we did, a Bouncing Betty. I looked directly into his eyes. He had palmed her letter. All he did was shrug and take one step. Just one step. The concussion from that blast leveled us all. We were thrown back and I lay there with all this debris falling like snow, green leaves and dirt and all of it stained pink. I lay there and I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to be their leader. I wanted to go home and just be a twenty-year old. The kid was my responsibility and I watched him like a hawk. But he got away from me. He found a way to go. We just couldn’t stay so close together when we were out in case there were booby traps. If one went, we all went. He found a way. There was nothing left to send home to his parents. I hated that girl for a long time and wondered if she ever had any regrets.”
They wrote it up as killed in action. My Dragon said there were a lot of those in Vietnam; a lot right after mail call.
Veteran’s Day opened another closet door of memories. I remember our first Veteran’s Day together. He took me on a picnic. We had been dating not quite 3 months but we knew we were meant to be together. We weren’t young anymore and life had been unkind to the both of us. We had a bond that had been instantaneous and profound. On that first Veteran’s Day we sat in the park and he told me as much as he could about his career; his secret other life where he went all over the world with one thing in mind, do the job that had been asked of him. By the time I had met him, he was allowed to pick and choose the jobs he would do. He was getting on in years yet his experience in his field of expertise was very hard to train and could not be done quickly. It takes years to learn to improvise in the field and most of it came from simply going out to do the job. A lot of men never made it back.
Our second Veteran’s Day I vividly remember the story he told of a friend of his who “came back but didn’t.” My Dragon is not a tall man. He is all hard muscles and athleticism, a mesomorph body type. His shoulders and chest are big and his legs are tree trunks. His hands are big and very fast. He was perfect to be the team’s tunnel rat. In Vietnam, the North Vietnamese had an enormous tunneling system with deadly snakes tied up, dangling from the ceilings, or men waiting with knives to slash at the face of any American soldier. Yet it was in these tunnels where their planning meetings were so each one was investigated. It was my Dragon who was sent into the darkness with a pistol in one hand and his K-Bar in the other. And fortunately his eye-hand coordination was fast enough that the snakes he found never bit him and the VC he met didn’t either.
A fellow “rat” that he knew made it back home to Oklahoma where he was from. About ten years after their return, my Dragon had to visit this man’s town and he looked him up. They planned a meeting in town and when my Dragon saw him pull up, all he did was say, “Get in. I’m cooking at my place.”
My Dragon got in and off they went, out from town, very rural. The man had a small ranch home in the center of 20 acres. All he said to my Dragon was, “If you ever come for a visit, call this number (handing my Dragon a card) and don’t leave the road. Don’t walk across the fields.”
Inside the house was very simple and neat. But they weren’t “home” yet. The man lifted a rug and revealed a ladder that lead underground, under the house. My Dragon climbed down into the man’s real home. His home was clean and very homey, but it was all underground. My Dragon said before the visit was over his heart was racing to be let out. He kept flashing on the tunnels in Vietnam. His friend apologized that his home had an adverse affect on my Dragon but for him, as he said, “I only feel safe down here. I can’t live up there with the nice folks. I get scared. This is my tunnel. I built it so I know it’s safe. It’s the only place I can sleep. I’ve got five exits. It’s not so bad once you get the feel for it.” My Dragon told me he would not be able to get enough of a feel for a tunnel ever to make it his home. That was the difference between two old vets.
My Dragon didn’t see his friend again until the man’s sister called to ask if he would go with her to check on him. She hadn’t heard from her brother for over a week and she was scared to go alone. My Dragon went in the house first. The man’s sister had never known about the “real house under the fake one.” My Dragon had the man’s sister stay “up top” and he went down into the tunnels. The man had died in his sleep alone down there. It was harrowing for my Dragon to have to take care of calling 911, to be there to keep law enforcement from walking the fields to look for the other exits, to try to explain to men who hadn’t gone to Vietnam why the field was dangerous. They called in the bomb squads to find and blow the field later, much later, after the funeral, after the man’s sister had returned to her own home so she didn’t feel that her brother had gone crazy.
I was in the kitchen making supper the other evening and a commercial came on for something. I don’t know what the product was for but the tag line was this: “Not every hero is pure.” I cried. I had to stop what I was doing, put my head down on the counter and I cry. I cried for my Dragon and what I know he felt about himself. I cried for all the love and embraces and words I had given him to try to prove to him that I believe in his honor and integrity. He never liked what he was asked to do. It always weighed heavy on him. I never let a day go by that I didn’t tell him how much I love him. I had told him just moments before the sudden heart attack that took him from me.
That first Veteran’s Day he told me he wanted to spend his life with me but that eternity wasn’t ever going to happen. “You, my love, are going to Heaven, but I am most definitely going to Hell.” And that’s when he started telling me about his other life. That was my first day in total commitment to NEVER letting him think that he was a monster deserving of Hell ever again. I told him all the things I believed starting with how very much I love him, was in awe of him and what he had to endure in his mind, and how strong in spirit I knew he was. I told him that in hating what he did, there was forgiveness. I told that in his accepting work that he felt someone else might enjoy and make a sin of, there was honor. I told him that in his humbleness and fear before God, there was grace. And I told him that from then on, every day I would pray for him. All he could do was embrace me and then, typical of my Dragon, he asked, “So does that mean we’re engaged? Was that a yes?”
I love him more than anyone I have known or could ever know again. He is larger than life to me. A hero. Now that he has died, his stories have taken on the power of myth. He did so much for his country so quietly. There is a star for him somewhere, a gold one that doesn’t have a name beside it. The world was a bit safer because of him and now his stories are safe because he has died. I hint at the little he could tell me because I want everyone, fate, and the angels, and yes, God, to know that I think of my Dragon as a patriot, a hero, and the most perfect husband to me. He acted in all things with honor and humility and fear before what might happen to him after he died.
Few knew what he did. Few are left anymore. My Dragon was an old warrior. He is a veteran that no one can ever know the extent of his service. There are others out there like him and it’s Veteran’s Day and people should at least be aware that there are people who give up everything to maintain a balance in this crazy world of egos and religions and politics. At the very least, remember that there are some men of whom almost too much is asked.
I pray my Dragon is at peace and happy and sheepish at being welcomed into Heaven. I pray he is waiting for me, anxious to show me stuff, maybe a new ocean, a beautiful beach to walk with him, and a field of daisies so he can continue to give me “a daisy a day.” I want to be able to tease him and say, “I told you so.”
All I want is to be with him again, forever.