Maine Voices: Gold Star families know ‘the pain that can’t forget’

January 8, 1969 seemed like just another night. My platoon was dug in just outside An Dien, the only remaining active village in Vietnam’s Iron Triangle.

We were positioned there to ensure the safety of the citizens of An Dien. We had two Vietnamese interpreters assigned to our mechanized infantry platoon of the 1st Infantry Division. We surrounded the village with concertina wire three rolls high. We sent mechanized squads on a security mission every morning. We talked and met villagers every day. As part of Vietnam’s pacification program, “information” units came regularly from headquarters and did all the prescribed pacification protocols – films or gifts for the villagers.

We had been in An Dien long enough to be fully entrenched, with preset firing ranges from our foxhole positions. We had surrounded ourselves with barbed wire and flares. We had no idea anything was wrong. But just before midnight on January 8, we were suddenly attacked. All hell broke loose. Rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and AK-47 fire, along with our own M-60 machine gun and M-16 rifle fire in return, filled the air with smoke, light and crackling without end. Much later, I would recognize the determination of the Viet Cong and NVA fighters who crossed a nearby river with small individual orange inner tubes to join us. Some were shot and died trying to make their way through our barbed wire. One was left dead tangled in the wire, another was found the following morning in a ditch a few yards away. Others left their weapons, inner tubes and blood as they retreated.

Some of our people were injured and evacuated in the dark when the shooting ended. One man, an M-60 machine gunner from a small town in Illinois, died of his injuries. It was then January 9, 1969. He had been hit in the head by an RPG that had broken through a perimeter wall made of ammunition boxes filled with sand. Michael had just turned 23. He was typically nice from the Midwest.

I wrote a letter to his parents when Michael died, then years later, older and wiser, I tracked down Michael’s family and spoke on the phone with his father and sister in the ‘Illinois and his widow. Michael’s sister told me that his father wanted to know more. His father wanted to try to understand what had happened. But, she says, Michael’s mother never got over his death. His mother died a few years after January 1969, “of a broken heart”, said Michael’s sister.

When I spoke with Michael’s widow, she told me about the day he left for Vietnam.

She said he was in a closet gathering his things, and her voice inside the closet said, “If anything happens to me, I want you to get married again.”

She replied that she could never do that, but she told me that after her death, her words freed her to go on living.

It looks like Michael died yesterday, but it’s been over 53 years. Every Memorial Day since then has deepened my understanding that the loss of every Gold Star family still feels like yesterday.

I remember it, and I know Michael’s family remembers it. I think it’s important for the rest of us to remember what these families have had to take on and continue to take on, year after year, no matter how many years pass.

— Special for the Press Herald


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