As the C-140’s rear landing ramp lowered down to the steel flight-line deck, the NCOIC (Non-commissioned Officer In-charge) hollered out to stay near the Da Nang Air Terminal. In my mind, I really didn’t want to get lost in an area that I had never been before, especially in a war torn country. I suppose it didn’t occur to me at the time; that I would be on a military base, which was in fact secured.

We had departed from Okinawa, an island just off the coast of Japan. That was where we had been processed for about a month before being allowed into a war zone. It was also where we had been given a series of inoculations to protect us from the various diseases found in the Orient of Vietnam.

I was also given a cyanide tablet just in case I were ever captured.

We had formed a line outside of a very long building used during WWII. It had an entrance and an exit, which was at the far end of this building. The line, of course, was very elongated and measured simply by the men exiting at the other end. Some men were falling down to the ground and this somewhat alarmed me. Not in a scary fashion, but I wondered what in the heck they were getting to make them do this.

I entered the building leaving behind me still a very long line. The scuttlebutt talk while waiting outside quickly hushed into silence as we watched the almost assembly line way that each man was getting one shot after another. I was behind a Chinese Marine and another who had come from Tennessee. One by one, we received these shots until we came to the end of the line; just after getting the booster shot that had befallen many of the Marines lying outside on the ground.

The last thing we got was a cyanide tablet. Although it amounted to only one tablet, the Chinese Marine was handed two. He questioned why? The Marine who handed these tablets to the Chinese man said, “With you being Chinese, if you ever get captured, you better be damn dead shortly after you’re taken.” Although it struck me funny, it really wasn’t a laughing matter.

Unfortunately, the Viet Cong hated the Chinese people. Regardless, I was sort of wishing that I now should have two, because I came to hate the Viet Cong for the deaths of my friends. I maintained or stayed tight-lipped about it.

I placed the tablet into my military jacket. As it softened the already unorthodox thoughts about what I would be facing upon arrival in Chu Lai, which was where I would be stationed. I also felt that nothing out of the ordinary would shock or scare me. Something that I had gotten used to believing without really ever knowing. It was just part of my training as a Marine, but for personal reasons, I wanted to die in Vietnam. I was never afraid. This is yet another story in my life.

As we walked hurriedly from the plane, the heat waves of Da Nang sweltered up from the flight deck becoming visible to the naked eye. We continued on and were somewhat corralled into the terminal of a small confined space or area that resembled the Mainland Air Terminals. Some found seats while others, like me, just stood around looking stupid. After a short while though, boredom set in with an unbearable over-exuberant impatience, which was not at all a comfortable feeling. Too many unknowns!

Adjacent to where I stood, a slightly opened door showed through rays of daylight with a dark cloud of smoke in the background swiftly rising into the hot humid air. Normally, I keep pretty preoccupied with a quiet mindfulness to my surroundings. Although true, while being observant with things that weren’t very common, this smoke compelled me to investigate and to look further into what was actually burning. It was an incredible dark bellowing cloud roaring upward with great intensity.

I suppose I was doing what came naturally when one’s curiosity gets the best of them. Maybe pushing the limitations somewhat by ignoring a direct order though. In my military bearing approach, I stepped through the door and walked hurriedly in a bee line towards it.

Many things crossed my mind as to what was causing this smoke, but I was not prepared for anything other than wet wood burning or possibly tar. It seemed like eternity to reach this area, but in all actuality just minutes. As I got closer, I could tell that military utilities were piled high on the ground. It was these clothes that were making the erratic airways of smoky accumulation. Why so black, I thought? Come to find out, it was caused by diesel fuel being poured around the perimeter of these clothes for faster burning.

As I stepped even closer, I noticed blood and body matter. It spread across the clothing smeared in its abundance to a disarray of many afterthoughts. Thinking briefly to what happened to the men who wore these clothes. The sounds of mortars, rockets and bullets filled my head, as I watched these men fall to the ground in an imagery of mirage visions that the heat from the fire had caused.

When my mind caught up with the reality to what I was seeing, I immediately dropped to my knees. Then, falling forward with my hands flat on the ground as my head fell upon the back of them. I thought, “My God what have I come to?” I burst into tears with no one to comfort my burdensome heart for what I was feeling for the families of these men. I then said, “God how can I go on from here, after seeing all of this? What am I supposed to do?”

I immediately felt cold in the heat of the Vietnam summer. Alone, but encumbered by spiritual disembodied souls of all of the men who perished. My mind rushed back to my high school friends, Terry and Arliegh, who had just died a few months earlier. It was why I volunteered for combat duty.

I suppose it’s an obligation that seemingly is unadaptable by the young men and women of today’s generations, ones that wasn’t endowed with the pride that I and many of the Vietnam vets were embraced with so many years ago. Now a days, there just isn’t any understanding due to the lack of leadership in their world. We had John F. Kennedy and his immortal words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Maybe simply by being without parental guidance to morals, values, beliefs and principles that we fortunately grew up with in the 50s and 60s had. The revolution of indifference grew rapid and decisively without warning. In many ways without acceptance of the majority of people who irrationally made decisions for them. Meaning, political advisories or people that they admired.

When I stood up, I wiped away my tears. Then, I made one final gesture towards those empty, tattered and torn clothes. I firmly stood silently still and saluted. Quietly, I uttered the words, “God be with you my comrades.” I turned and made a slow walk back to the terminal. I stood outside of that same door for approximately a half hour to regain my composure. After all, I was a Marine and emotions had to be confined to the reality of every moment of time, which I held strong to my conviction and obedience to the Corps to be steadfast.

In the days, weeks, months and for years that followed, I never said a word to anyone. In retrospect though, an emptiness followed me all the way home when my tour of duty was over. It stayed firmly in my mind and I wondered still who all of those men were. Throughout my whole life, and still today, I wonder. Though, I never wondered how they died or even why they died. None of that ever mattered, but their sacrifice had grown inside of me like a blood-brother pricking a finger with a friend. It’s there forever and nothing would ever change it.

Not even when I arrived back home, being spat upon rather than what I thought was a hero’s welcome back. Thus, having people, men and women alike, pull and tear at my clothes, being torn and tattered; like what I saw on the ground in Da Nang.

Shocking yes, but these people were not on my mind, as much as were the men and women who gave of their lives for everything that has ever mattered. Including, for all these people who recklessly saw fit to demonstrate and demoralize themselves with erratic behavior to something that they could never possibly understand.

The “face of truth” revealed itself to me that night and I was able to smile for the very first time since my entrance into Vietnam.

As humbly as I could, I walked with grace and dignity through the crowd. For a moment though, in a quick glimpse to those blurry moments, I thought that I saw the faces of all those men who had worn those clothes. Not in the crowd, but standing alongside of all of us coming back home. Our protectors and the abiding spirits that they became.

That one particular memory has encased every minute of every day of my life. As I look back upon this period of time, I continue to smile through all my tears in losing the “heart of humanity in the era of the Vietnam Conflict.”

Years ago, I couldn’t talk about this story. Although I have always been a believer that speaking to someone about what ails one can be healing, I have only shared it with only a few people, mostly my therapist at the VA. I was neither healed or did I benefit by telling anyone.

Now, I am 72 years old and maybe it’s time to try and heal the pain and sorrow of my heart-felt burdensome spirit. I have lost my wife of 32 years due to ovarian cancer. Also, my children from not being able to rectify my problematic (post-traumatic stress disorder) issues to what happened those many years ago. Many of my friends who could never understand the quiet and unresolved nature by me keeping to myself. That simply exasperated their true feelings and gave forth reasons to not find love (for me) in the manner that I would understand. Especially, for the person I really am or what I was during the Vietnam era. It’s probably why my last two marriages ended in divorce as well.

Many years I have sheltered my soul to protect the innocence to what others may not have come to realize in this world of confusion. Neither my mother, brother and sisters or any of my relatives knew the hurt that I was suffering from. I was swallowed up by society until it became a political forum to treat Vietnam vets without the dignity that they deserve.

Where did all of the compassion go in our America towards all things that matter? Why does anyone have to prove their worth or value to establish reasons to exist; such as the Black Lives Matter movement tried to accomplish? If all lives don’t matter though, then I cannot support any organization on that principle.

The PTSD that overcame me was in direct correlation to how I was treated. The scars were real and the memories that were burnt so heavily within, grew to the enormity of a demented soul. Many people suffer these anxieties. I have never been alone.

As those clothes once lay burning on foreign soil, I have been constantly reminded about what all that represented to each and every one of us. No matter what color we are, what creed or religion we worshiped, those clothes encompassed all that I am sure of. But there they lay to burn with only me knelt beside them, honoring and praying that God be with them.

I did this with patriotism of my American heritage, as a Marine and a man of faith. I did this because I do love. No matter what people think of me, the beholders of those clothes knew that God led me to them that faithful day. I personally believe that they watched over me every day thereafter in ‘Nam and got me back home safely. Including, upon my arrival and through the upheaval crowd at the airport.

It’s a testimonial that no one would have ever believed, unless they themselves were right there along aside of me. Or, at any of the many critical and death-defying moments that almost took my life during the conflict.

Yes, I should have died in Vietnam. The truth is, I did. I have never been the same and I doubt that I will ever see the light shining through any door ever again. Only dark, dismal clouds distorting the calm of my being. Without my wife and the love of my life, why would I ever want to? Without my children, there is no greater cause or loss to grieve. How does one ever get past the reality of a life’s struggles when there are no loves to cherish? It’s somewhat impossible, because it’s like falling into a hole with no way out. Except maybe, by taking the cyanide tablet that I once placed deep inside of my military jacket. My wife Geri though, crushed that tablet and flushed it down the drain. It was her way of showing me through that door and to take what I have left (of my life) to do something positive with it.

Thus, this letter comes to acknowledge a story that has been laid away for decades.

To touch another’s life is the most meaningful thing one can do. To love and to cherish is the way of the heart; that the soul and spirit can shine upon. It’s the way of humanitarian forgiveness.

So, I hold no grudges against the people who spat and tore at my clothes. Nor do I, against the North Vietnam’s warriors, the Cong, who may have killed the very men who wore those clothes. The world created evil in the might of all those who are evil, but this was I’m sure, preordained to happen just as it happened. Man chooses his own destiny just as I have done through all my heartbreaks and sorrows of loss.

In essence though, I suppose I am following the pathway laid out for me by God. At least, I know that I am on the right track and in the right land. It’s just that the goodness of people have gotten lost within the realm of greed, the absence of God in their lives and maybe they have taken their own cyanide tablet of hate. Who knows! But, my love for each and every person still exists.

Rick Bolen, a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps from 1966-1970, served in Vietnam from 1968-1969.

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