Memorial Day has come a lot closer to me this year. I will shed some tears on Monday, a day we remember and honor those who died in service to our country. But what about those who die later as a result of their service? Like Neil.
I helped Neil get his book Brothers, All put together and published. He was writing individual essays about his service in Vietnam—the funny things, the foolery of young boys, the hard stuff, the loss, and the fighting. Then he was diagnosed with lung cancer. We didn’t know how much time we had.
This was a big deal for me. My dad was a WWII veteran, and so was my mother, but over the last fifteen years, getting to know Neil, who volunteered early in the Vietnam War and observing his patriotism with no regrets and a conviction that he would do it all again, changed me. At the time he served, I was going to senior prom and being elected class favorite and going to senior parties with my friends and boyfriend and starting college—innocent, immature, and safe. He and other boys like him were off on the other side of the world, instantly becoming men with that first indoctrination to war.
I can’t explain the feeling I had when I read Neil’s chapter about Agent Orange, a powerful chemical defoliant used by the US military to clear the jungles and expose the enemy. Neil didn’t mention the chemical’s name in the text, but I knew, and I also knew that he consumed the chemical in every way that one can receive a substance into the body—through the skin, the mouth (drinking), the eyes (open under water), and the lungs by inhaling. Agent Orange is known to cause lung cancer.
“The next morning we had our orders to push on twenty clicks to the east, where Intelligence said there was likely VC troop movement. I started out as point and noticed after a ways, the going was somewhat easier. The jungle was as dense as ever, but some of the leaves were lying in the dirt, the rest bent and drooping, like a slow motion death bow before us as we passed. I still slashed at it with my machete and crawled on top of the withered greens.
I didn’t pay that much attention to it until Preacher, behind me, said he saw it, too. “Even in the dry season, I’ve never seen the jungle fold up and quit, and it kind of looks that way, doesn’t it?”
Preacher was on point and passed the word back that there was a small creek ahead that would be good for canteen filling and baths. We secured the area and in turn went to the water four at a time. I was in the first group. We gathered all the canteens. None had names on them, but it didn’t matter. Drinking after each other was not a worry, considering the other things we endured. I put the wire screen in the mouth of the first canteen to keep out the big stuff. Then I held it under, sideways, with half the opening above the water and watched it suck in its fill. I capped the canteen and tossed it in the full pile.
After the last canteen was filled, I stripped and sat down in the knee-deep creek, careful to be within a few feet of my rifle on the bank. With a cupped hand, I scooped the water and sloshed it on my face several times, then lay back and put my head under. I opened my eyes and looked up at the sunlight that danced silver lines on the water. Quiet, it was totally quiet. Nice to have quiet. Then I splashed up, and the first thing I saw was the contrast of the orange Dial soap I held in my hand against the green growth that surrounded me. I rubbed the Dial on my body, as foamy as I could, then I washed hard all over.”
Thus was Neil’s exposure to the chemical that would take him down fifty years later. The enemy planted itself, lurked, and waited, then ambushed, was surgically removed and chemically attacked and burned, only to return again and again and again, on a mission and determined to win.
“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from. I figure this hole will be my grave.”
And it was.
Neil died January 31, 2017. That last day I sat with him and counted time between his breaths: One Mississippi Two Mississippi Three Mississippi Four Mississippi, as the morphine drip silently flowed and his beloveds and his writers group sat in wait. The experience of being immersed in the stories of this book and with this man who ultimately sacrificed all because of service to his country has taught me what it’s like to be a “brother” and what this special day means.
It’s not a holiday to start summer. It’s a day to remember those who don’t take breaths anymore because they did once, and once they carried a gun and crawled through jungles or across beaches and were fired upon, sometimes by a visible, sometimes not visible, enemy.
This year, remember a veteran. If you don’t have one to remember, think of Neil. His book lives on to help veterans; all proceeds go to veterans in Maury County, Tennessee.