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May 21, 2014

Outside the Box: When it comes to U.S. war veterans, ‘nobody outranks anybody in death’

Writer’s note: I am a journalist in academia, a woman who has traveled among many cultures. I live outside the box and I like it — and I want to share my perspective with you every Thursday.

When I was in graduate school in Ohio, I was working on a documentary project on military families and I decided to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day.

As the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, I had visited the wall a few times since its inauguration in 1982. I loved that Maya Lin, who designed the memorial, envisioned the black granite structure as a wound in the earth.

On this visit, I carried a family photo, a classic square Kodak print with the pastel colors and white border. Sitting with our backs straight (shoulders back, my dad would say), four Hatch siblings flashed our shiny grin-grimace smiles for the camera for a photo destined for a Christmas card that would find our father in Vietnam.

As I approached the back of the wall, I broke into deep sobs. Ambushed. I dropped to my knees.

An Army officer’s kid, I was raised to shake off slights, scrapes and wounds. I didn’t shed tears. I looked at the photo, then at the wall, then at all the people making the pilgrimage to the black granite memorial etched with the names of the more than 58,000 who had served and died in the Vietnam War. I sat on the grass and sobbed.

My father came home, twice. So many men and women didn’t.

While I was a Snedden Chair at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the photojournalism students and I had embarked on a project documenting the lives of the Fort Wainwright soldiers as they trained and their families as they prepared for an upcoming deployment. Lt. Col. Brian Payne invited a student photojournalist and me to join the soldiers of the First Battalion Fifth Infantry Regiment downrange.

For Christmas 2011, JR Ancheta and I were embedded with the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team “Arctic Wolves” in southern Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

Days after Christmas, we joined Charlie Company on an air assault mission. It was their first since their previous air assault when Pfc. Brett C. Wood, 19, was killed walking on patrol when he hit an improvised explosive device. Every soldier in third platoon wore a black metal K.I.A. bracelet in honor and memory of Wood.

Allegheny College 2005 graduate Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor was on patrol with Wood that day.

“No chance,” Taylor said. “He died instantly.

“I was the first one there. I’m not glad it was me but I’m glad it wasn’t anyone else. I take comfort maybe even. Sgt. O’Neal and I were the only ones to bear the burden.”

The soldiers followed protocol, swinging a hand-held metal detector, a Vallon, to sweep for and clear the area of other possible explosive devices.

“Sgt. O’Neal made the decision,” Taylor said, recalling his leader’s words that day. “’Taylor, you’re holding your s--- together. I need you right now.’”

The two men then gathered the remains of their fallen fellow soldier.

“The memories aren’t something I enjoy, but I wouldn’t have wanted it to be anyone else,” Taylor said. “I’m happy I was able to protect those guys from that.”

On Memorial Day 2012, “Arctic Wolves” soldiers, family members, JR and I attended the service for the 21 soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

The dead: Spc. Bradley L. Melton; Pfc. Cheizray Pressley; Pfc. Lamarol J. Tucker; Sgt. Jeffrey C. S. Sherer; PV2 Ryan J. Larson; First Sgt. Kenneth B. Elwell; Pfc. Tyler M. Springmann; Pfc. Douglas L. Cordo; Pfc. Brandon S. Mullins; Spc. Douglas J. Green; Spc. Christopher J. Marquis; Pfc. Brett E. Wood; Sgt. Rodolfo Rodrigues Jr.; Sgt. Timothy D. Sayne; Spc. Ryan J. Cook; PV2 Danny Chen; Spc. Calvin M. Pereda; Spc. Johnathan “Bryant” McCain; Spc. James R. Burnett Jr.; Pfc. Matthew C. Collin; Pfc. Dustin P. Napier.

My friend and fellow journalist Larry James is a veteran journalist and a veteran. We met in Cairo, covered conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. We once crossed paths in the middle of Liberia: I was on my way out; Larry was on his way in to cover the civil war.

James was a 22-year-old first lieutenant when he arrived in Vietnam. As an infantry platoon leader, he joined the men of Charlie Company, Fourth Battalion, Ninth Infantry Regiment (Manchu) in May 1968. The unit had suffered grievous losses in the previous five months, including an ambush on March 2, 1968, in which 49 soldiers were killed.

Decades later, James wrote a book about the soldiers, the ambush and the events surrounding it. He opens “Unfortunate Sons: A True Story of Young Men and War” with a quote by Desiderius Erasmus, a 15th century Dutch humanist: “War is delightful to those who have no experience of it.”

James wrote the book to remember the young men and to record their history and service since the story remained unknown outside of the small group of Manchu. In the acknowledgements, James wrote he intended the book as “an overdue tribute to a group of young Americans who did what was asked of them and paid with their lives.”

The dead: Jose Luis Alvarez-Tapia; Gerald Lawrence Avery; Charles Edward Bonds; Harlan Ray Brandts; Jerry Walker Byers; William Brace Cawley Jr.; Gary Virgil Frazier; Michael Dennis Frost; Raymond Leroy Gallagher; Cal Duain Johnson; Lawrence Johnson; Jack Joseph Jordan Jr.; Lee Roy Lanier; Charlie Frank Lee; James Rufus Mathis; Robert Junior McGee; Charles Edward Melott; Leonard David Moore; Thomas Lee Mork; Barry Lee Moyer; James Francis O’Laughlin; Kenneth Lindle Oldham; William Rassano; Jose Angel Reyes; Roy Donald Page; Ronald Landon Salvani; Willard Skaggs Jr.; Michael Ross Rivers; Aristides Sosa; Clifford Geoffrey Stockton; Ronald Allen Slane; Warren Lee Tall; John Michael Thompson; Danny George Swazick; Walker C. Velvet Jr.; Larry Huston Walden; Carrel Jean Titsworth; Paul Edward West; Darrell Eugene Wheeler; Gary Winston Watkins; Joseph Jerome Williams; Virgil Lawrence Williams; Larry Allen Widener; Danny Stephen Young; Willard Frank Young; Kenneth Wayne Winget.

I asked James if he intentionally listed the soldiers’ names without their ranks.

“Yes, I did,” James said. “Nobody outranks anybody in death.”

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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